Luke 19:28-40 and 23:1-25
While once originally for the celebration of Palms only, today has become Palm and Passion Sunday in the liturgy. The whole church used to travel through Holy Week as a group, to take time and mark the events of the final week of Jesus’ life. But the reality now is that fewer than half of us will be here on Friday night to honor the death of Christ. So, today we look at the story of the Palms, and we also visit the story of the Passion. It is important to remember that Jesus didn’t just go through Palm Sunday straight into Easter; rather there was much suffering and finally death along the way.
The readings for today are so vast and varied that we would never have time to look at them all. In an attempt to narrow our focus, I have chosen the traditional Palm Sunday reading as well as a section of the trial of Jesus. Here I found the most sermon fodder, for here I found scenes of political chaos that seem to be echoed throughout our country today.
We will begin with Palm Sunday. All of the gospels tell some version of this story of Jesus entering into the city of Jerusalem for the Passover feast. Jesus enters humbly, riding on a colt, but the scene is shrouded in political themes. Scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan famously point out that while Jesus was entering through the back gate, Pilate the Roman governor was entering through the front. As Pilate marched into the city with a show of the Roman Empire’s power and force, Jesus humbly came in the back door with a parade of his own. In fact, rather than being a spur of the moment event, some scholars claim that Jesus’ entry was a planned political demonstration. The fact that he knows where the colt is, and that colt itself is ready to ride, are both signs that this demonstration had been planned and prepared beforehand.
While Jesus’ entrance is humble, the things that are said about him most certainly are not. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord” is strong political language when one lives in an Empire where Caesar is king. This is treason, this is sedition, and these are not things to be said lightly. The Pharisees gathered there know this to be the truth and they urge Jesus to order folks to be quiet. This is dangerous language which could lead to violence against the whole nation. Jesus though declares that this moment, this confrontation, is inevitable. “If they were silent, then the stones would shout out instead.”
Jesus enters the city, and there is open conflict in the temple. Jesus teaches all who will listen, preparing his followers for conflict that will appear to be the end of the world. He celebrates the Passover with his friends and institutes a ritual that we will come to call the Lord’s Supper. He heads to the garden to pray and it is then that the leaders of his own religion come to arrest him.
Here we pick up our second reading, the trial before Pilate. Again, politics takes center stage. The religious rulers bring Jesus to the Roman authorities and claim that he is doing things to subvert the Roman Empire. In the gospel of Luke, Pilate is hesitant to take action. Even after consulting with Herod, Pilate is slow to act. The whole thing seems to be a bit of a confusing mess, and Jesus refuses to participate. Jesus remains quiet throughout the proceedings. Just as one could not stop the shouts of the Palm Processional, his crucifixion cannot be stopped. The events of Holy Week are inevitable.
It is so easy for us to simply condemn the people that conspire to kill Jesus. The story is much easier to read that way. I think it is perhaps better for us to let this text challenge us a bit more than that. It is important to remember that the religious authorities thought that they were doing the right thing. The scene is ripe for violence. The Romans have cracked down on the Jews before, and the things that Jesus and his followers are saying are a threat to the Empire.
It is not so strange that the Pharisees panicked upon seeing that Palm Sunday processional. That is the type of thing that could result in a riot of violence. In the gospel of John, Caiaphas the high-priest says that it is better to have one person die for all the people. While that quote is not present in Luke’s gospel, I think the theme is. It is better to have a little bit of violence, so that we can avoid a tremendous amount later on. While we may not agree, we can certainly understand their position.
Politically everyone is trying to do what they think is best for their people. Pilate seeks to do what is best for Rome, and the religious authorities seek to do what is best for the Jewish people. Everyone believes that they are right, and no one is listening to other sides of the opinion. We see that everywhere in our political discourse today. Everyone believes deeply that they are right, and no one seems willing to listen to anyone else.
When I was reading the passage about the crowds yelling “Crucify him!”, I kept seeing the photos of the political rallies; especially those that have grown violent and contentious. Photographs of folks yelling with big angry mouths, looked a lot like I imagine this crowd in the Biblical text. It is easy to see that negative energy, and that political turmoil, reflected in our own time. That deep anger and that physical, visceral response to one political position or another, to one political candidate or another, is a very real force right now in our world. That is why current political gatherings are becoming scenes of violence.
Again, it is easy to condemn those who are not like us, but the more I thought about it the more I saw myself among the crowd. True confessions time . . . I’m not going to name names but there is one particular candidate in this political race that I am not a fan of. I find his behavior so very offensive that I have discovered that I really don’t like him. I know that I don’t understand his supporters. I think I want to understand, but I also think that I know why he is wrong. The more I delved into my own dislike, the more I realized that while I have sympathy for many who would support him, I have no sympathy for him. In fact, my visceral physical response to thinking about him, or listening to him, or seeing pictures of him is no different than the angry responses of folks in some of his crowds. I am just as angry and I am just as unwilling to listen. I have to admit that when pushed far enough, I am just as capable of shouting “crucify him!” as anyone else.
These are sobering thoughts as we approach Holy Week. It is much easier for us to align ourselves with the innocence of Christ, than it is to find our own face in the angry mob. The story of Holy Week is one where we all find ourselves capable of anger, capable of violence, and capable of hate. The story of Holy Week is one where we all find ourselves guilty.
So where do we find a word of hope? You and I know that this isn’t the end of the story of Jesus. We will gather here next Sunday to celebrate his glorious resurrection. We will gather here next Sunday to claim and witness to the hope of new life and new birth. That is what happens next in the Biblical narrative. But what happens next in our own world? What happens next in our current narrative of political chaos?
Not surprisingly, I turn to the Scriptures. After Jesus was raised, the political chaos between the Roman Empire and the Jewish people remained. It did not solve the problem to have one man to die for the people, it only exacerbated the unrest. In the time of Paul’s writing, he felt things were at their worst. Paul saw the sufferings of the world, but amidst that suffering he also saw new life. In his letter to the church in Rome Paul writes:
“All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it’s not only around us; it’s within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. . . .The longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.”
In the chaos surrounding him Paul saw birth pangs; he saw the suffering that leads to new life. What if we looked at the chaos surrounding us in a similar fashion? Though it is frightening, though it is painful, though it may appear at times to be the end of the world, perhaps this is simply the struggle for new birth. This is the struggle for a new and glorious creation.
Jesus made it clear that the Palm Sunday Processional could not be stopped, “even the stones would cry out.” So too, his unjust trial and his painful death could not be stopped. As believers, we know that this is not the end of the story. Resurrection itself cannot be stopped, the birth of new life cannot be stopped, the time of new beginnings and change is on the horizon and it cannot be stopped. “Even the stones would cry out.”
As we move into this Holy Week together, let us find ourselves in the story. Where have we succumbed to the anger of the mob? Where have we encouraged and allowed a small amount of violence, for what we deem to be the greater good? Where have we been stubborn and head strong, refusing to listen to the opinions of those who differ from ourselves? May God be with us this week, as we travel to Jerusalem and to the cross. Amen.