Monday, 14 April 2014

Palm Sunday

Yesterday was Palm Sunday.

The question that surely was being asked that first Palm Sunday was the question: who is this?  Matthew, for his part, has a very clear answer.  That’s why he got so over-excited that he offers the ridiculous picture of Jesus riding two different animals.  There’s a lot of truth, of course, in Matthew’s perspective.  I don’t want to suggest that Matthew wasn’t right.  He was - but the question always has – it always has had and it always will have – huge hidden depths of vital meaning. 

When the crowds on this day, so many years ago, shouted ‘Hosanna!’ to Jesus, they were certainly expecting great things politically, and perhaps militarily, from his arrival on the scene.  They were buying in to the notion that empire can and will offer a good solution.  They knew Rome wasn’t delivering, not for them, but they sought an alternative on the same model.  The people were looking for someone who would lead them into the establishment of a new empire, one that would put them on the top of the pile.

If Jesus had been arriving in the conventional way to do the conventional thing, there are two things that, almost certainly, would have happened – and, because that wasn’t so, they didn’t.  I am convinced that both are significant.  In the first place, he would have received some words of welcome from local dignitaries.  That is what happens when somebody special is on tour.  They are given the appropriate local welcome.  (We have seen that reported this past week as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have been visiting New Zealand.) 

Nobody came out to greet Jesus in that kind of way.  Instead we are told that the whole city was stirred – and, instead of a word of welcome, there was a confrontational question: who is this?  But actually that is spot on – because that is exactly the question we have to answer when we encounter Jesus.  Who do we think that Jesus is?  How are we going to respond to him?  What are we going to say about him?  We are told that the answer came from the crowds – this is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.  Presumably those particular crowds were what we might describe as the Galilee lot.  They were the ones who, I guess, had been cheering him in.  They were the ones who knew who he was, who had seen his preaching and teaching and healing, who were looking for something pretty big. 

One commentator, Leith Fisher, notes that this story is essentially a story of two distinct crowds.  “The crowd which greets Jesus enthusiastically, laying cloaks and spreading festal palm branches before him, is composed of the pilgrim peasants who have journeyed in gathering numbers from the suspect region of Galilee.  The Jerusalem crowd, with metropolitan world weariness, is interested but far from convinced by the man at the centre of this disturbance.”  And we note the uncertainty behind the question of this second crowd: who is he?

The second thing that, almost certainly, would have happened in the context of the times is that someone entering the city like this would have gone to the place of worship to offer a sacrifice.  Such would be a recognition of God’s part in things.  That, of course, doesn’t fit well with our context and culture which tends to take a very secular view of such things.  However, things were very different in Jesus’ time.  Jesus does go to the temple, but he doesn’t go there to worship or offer a sacrifice.  Instead, he causes mayhem.  We have that recorded in the incident that we sometimes call the cleansing of the temple.  Jesus disrupts the temple’s trading arm and challenges the people to a proper view of God’s house as a house of prayer.  I wonder – what are the things that we are doing that God wants to disrupt?  And are we ready to be disrupted?

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