Texts: Matthew 21:1-11, Isaiah 50:4-9
“You are a peculiar people.” We know each other well enough by now that I can say that, right? This is actually how the King James Version of the Bible translates a line from the letter of 1 Peter written to a group of early Christians. It comes at a place where Peter is offering different phrases to tell these folks just what kind of people they are for choosing to follow the Jesus way of life. “You are a royal priesthood, you are a holy nation, you are a peculiar people.” Peculiar isn’t a word we use much anymore, so it hasn’t made it into the more recent English translations, but it still has a nice ring to it. Peculiar can mean that one is distinctive and belongs to only one master, such that we are peculiar in belonging only to God. But peculiar can also simply mean strange, odd, not fitting in to the ordinary pattern of things. Most of us already knew this about ourselves – that when you get right down to it, we’re all pretty strange. But Peter is speaking this to a collective personality, the church, the Jesus-followers. He’s saying You, as a group, are a peculiar people, so get used to marching to the beat of a different drummer. You have this odd devotion to this rabbi from Nazareth who believed so much in the utter vitality of life that he gave his own away in order to open our eyes. Who does that kind of thing? You’re peculiar, and that’s a good thing.
It may feel a little peculiar today going on a parade around the block. But if everybody’s doing it, at least it makes us a little less peculiar. It’s a small way of participating in the kind of public event that is the focus of this Palm Sunday. And it’s kind of an experiment to see if we can pull it off. As with every experiment, feel free to form your own hypothesis about what the outcomes may be and then give it a go and see what happens.
As those who place ourselves among this peculiar community, today and this week is one of those times when we become downright weird. As everything in the world goes on as normal, school or spring break, and business and eating and drinking and running errands, we direct our attention to reliving this ancient drama of the last days of Jesus life, Holy Week. Suffering and death and the persistent human tendency to crucify those who are innocent are not attractive subjects for contemplation. It’s easier to insulate ourselves from suffering than to voluntarily face it head on. But here we begin this strange journey into that very place. We remember the road that Jesus walked through the darkness and the way that his light of self-giving love, in the words of John, continues to shine in the darkness “and the darkness has not overcome it.”
And it is indeed strange, how a week of struggle, confrontation, betrayal, abandonment, unjust trial, torture, and execution, begins…with a victory parade. If we weren’t so accustomed to Palm Sunday being the opening event of this week we might be a little more jarred by the disconnect between what goes on here and what goes on the rest of the week. Jesus seems to know what he’s getting himself into – that in going to Jerusalem he’s walking right into the lion’s den, making himself extremely vulnerable to the powers that consider him a threat – provoking them further. He had been talking about it for weeks, trying to prep his disciples about what to expect: “See, we are going to Jerusalem and the Human One will be handed over…to the Gentiles (the Romans) and condemned to death.” (Matthew 20:18:19) He had said something to this effect on three different occasions. He doesn’t appear to have any illusions about the fact that this is going to cost him his life. With all this in mind he might as well have organized a funeral procession for himself as he entered the city. He’s as good as dead, another of the countless people of his day deemed criminals of the state and executed on the common instrument of capital punishment, the Roman cross. He’s going to lose, and it’s not going to be pretty.
So if this is to be his fate, then what more logical way to get things started than to have a parade in which he and all he stands for is hailed as the one who rides victorious! Maybe Jesus has a dark and overdeveloped tendency for the ironic. Maybe, this teacher, who taught in parables, is communicating something. Something intended to alter the way we perceive the world regarding what is actually in the process of being defeated, and that which is standing triumphant: New perceptions in familiar places. These stones of Lent that have become a path, a road. Where is it leading?
Clues within and between the lines of the text seem to indicate that this so-called Triumphal Entry was an intentional, even well-planned occasion of communication, an enacted parable, a piece of street theater. In organizing for the event, Jesus sends two unnamed disciples on an errand to go to the next village and find the donkey colt that will be tied there. The way he describes how they will find the colt and what they are to say if anyone asks what they are doing might indicate that the Jesus sympathizers of this village have already been clued in to what is going to happen and have a colt ready to go for when the time is right. Jesus knew he couldn’t simply walk on foot into Jerusalem and convey the same kind of message he was aiming for. The donkey was an important prop in the drama.
Although this feels like a one of a kind event to us this many years after the fact, its meaning and power was in its very familiarity. It was common at the time for Roman military leaders to have triumphal processions in which they compelled their prisoners of war to march with them through the crowded streets of Rome. Alexander the Great also had similar kinds of processions into conquered cities. It was standard procedure that when people heard that these Saviors, as they were called, were nearing the city, that crowds would go out to greet them and cheer them along the road. Hail, our Savior Alexander. Titus, our Savior. It is quite possible that the very same day Jesus was riding into Jerusalem from one direction, the Roman governor Pilate and his entourage of security personnel would have been processing in from the other direction. It was his regular practice to come down to Jerusalem from his palace in Caesarea during the times of the Jewish feasts, to keep the peace as the population of the city swelled with pilgrims coming to the temple. Passover was, after all, a celebration of Hebrew slaves’ escape from Egypt, Jewish liberation from empire . Pilate’s processional right down Broadway would have been a clear public act of communication about who had the true power and authority and who deserved the people’s reverence and allegiance. You can have your little cultural festival, but don’t try anything tricky. I wonder how Jesus’ small off-Broadway drama of peasants claiming their reverence and allegiance to a different kind of power would have registered with those authorities. An act so marginal that it barely registered on the political Richter scale? A silly spoof? Some scholars have suggested that it was this “triumphal entry”, and not the clearing of the temple that soon followed, that got Jesus in trouble with Rome.
There was also a tradition within the Jewish scriptures that spoke of a king who would rule with humility and bring peace to the nations. Matthew is so anxious to demonstrate that this is that key moment in history that he makes a rather humorous and awkward move in how he tells the story. The prophet Zechariah had said “Lo, your king comes to you triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” In the typical style of Hebrew poetry, Zechariah makes his statements in couplets, offering one line and then following that up with a second line to reinforce the meaning of the first. “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim….and the war-horse from Jerusalem” “His dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” He comes “humble and riding on a donkey…a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Two ways of saying the same thing. All the other gospel writers are aware of this and have Jesus riding on a single colt on this occasion. But Matthew wants so dearly for us to see that Jesus is the bringer of peace to the world that he follows Zechariah to the letter, having the disciples go fetch Jesus a donkey and a colt, the foal of a donkey, and having Jesus riding both of them simultaneously as he makes his way into the city. In Matthew 21:7, “(The disciples) brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and (Jesus) sat on them.”
Sorry, can’t resist including this pic:
Not quite sure how that worked out for him, but let us be assured that this is not just an ordinary procession, but an acting out and fulfilling of these deeply embedded hopes and longings of the people and the prophet. Jesus comes into Jerusalem riding on a couplet of Hebrew poetry. The King of peace is on the road, on his way into the city. So the stage is set.
But let’s not kid ourselves. Jesus is no king. Not in any real sense of the word. He’s more like an un-king. A photographic negative of kingship. His cabinet members and closest advisors catch fish for a living. He has no weapons and no enforcement mechanism for people to follow him.
He has words. He has gestures of love. He can do a bit of healing here and there. He has the ability to pear into a person’s soul and tell them the truth about themselves. You’ve got to be joking. This is no way to run a kingdom.
There’s an old spiritual that says “Ride on King Jesus, no one can hinder thee.” Jesus does dismount his royal donkey and colt, but keeps on riding. He rides right into the temple and quite literally turns things upside down. He keeps riding through the conflict of the debates throughout the week. He keeps riding through the last meal he eats with his disciples where he makes his most peculiar announcement that his impending death at the hands of Rome can be seen not so much as a defeat as a feast, a great banquet that will give sustenance to a new community coming into existence. What’s he talking about? He keeps riding through the fervent prayers that made him sweat blood in the garden, one last chance to get on an exit ramp, let the conflict blow over, and do this whole thing some other way. He keeps riding through the betrayal, the arrest, the rigged trial that takes place after hours, the torture of the beatings, the carrying of his own cross, and the final gasps of crucifixion.
Of course Pilate is overseeing the whole ordeal, but it’s nothing personal. It never is. He’s just doing his job. Keeping the peace. Peace is good, right?
So why is it that we honor Jesus and not Pilate, given how things turned out? Given how things still are. The last time I checked the forces of Pilate are still running the show. Ask anyone. Look around. Open your eyes.
All of this royal language of king and lord and ruler and savior that we see throughout the New Testament spoken about Jesus is these early believers’ attempts to put into words a strange conviction, this peculiar belief that the powers that appear to be kings and lords and rulers aren’t as strong or ultimate as they appear. Somehow Jesus rode right into their palace, stepped onto their turf, took the worst they could give him, and won by losing. He opened our eyes to something we were blind to before: the depth of our own violence that keeps creating victims in order to keep the peace – that’s hard to see sometimes, but look at Jesus on the cross and there it is: and the depth and vitality of life and love that death can never defeat and creates peace of a different order.
Folk singer Leonard Cohen and everyone who has ever covered his song would have us remember that “love is not a victory march, but it’s a cold, and it’s a broken hallelujah.” Perhaps, the New Testament is saying, it is both. The cold and broken hallelujah of Jesus’ life was also a victory march.
How strange of us to believe this. That on this road that includes pain and brokenness and darkness, we are pulled forward by something greater. That the powers of violence that appear to be victorious have actually been defeated. And most peculiar, that we have been entrusted to be a part of that “something greater.” That by touching that bottomless reservoir of Christ’s love that has already conquered, we actually become Christ’s love within the world. That even though we are cold and broken, there is also another power at work within us. It will never demand that we obey it, or force us to fall in line, because it doesn’t work like that, but it is always there ready to be obeyed, ready to be feasted on. It would have us believe that we are a part of this odd, festive, mournful, joyful, broken, victory march through history. And that’s exactly what you are.