It’s not about the donkey!

April 17, 2011

Sermon for Palm Sunday    Psalm 118, 1, 2 & 19-29; Matthew 21,1-11.

I don’t know if any of you are planning to be in London on Friday week to watch the Royal Wedding. I only did it once, for the wedding of Princess Alexandra in 1963! Somewhere at home I have a set of black & white photos  that I took, which are the only memories I really have of the occasion, apart from seeing many of the Royal Family as they swept past my corner of Horse Guards Parade in their big shiny cars.

It’s not something I’ve ever done since. It was a great feeling at the time, but as I’ve got older I’ve got less keen on being present in large crowds on such public events. It’s too easy to get lost in that sort of crowd: not lost in the physical sense, but lost in the sense of losing control of emotions, and sometimes of common sense. And nowadays these occasions are almost always a magnet for groups bent on highjacking them for their own purposes, or causing damage to people and property, as we have seen from numerous protest demonstrations in recent years.

I’ve enjoyed sometimes being present in large groups of Christians for services – there is something about singing hymns, and receiving communion in a really large crowd that lifts the spirits and makes you feel closer to heaven. That’s the sort of atmosphere I imagine on that first Palm Sunday.

But what, I wonder, was it really like?

Although the story of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem on a donkey is told in all four Gospels, what actually lies behind the story remains a puzzle. When you hear the story read after hearing Psalm 118, as we did this morning, it’s very obvious that the psalm has had an influence on the way it’s been recorded. That is even clearer when you hear the citation from Zechariah 9, which Matthew has included in his version. Matthew is so keen to make every detail of Jesus’s entry fit the prophecy that he has Jesus riding on a she-donkey and her foal at the same time!  (A physical impossibility, and a totally unrealistic scenario to anyone who’s ever tried to lead a donkey with a foal; it’s hard enough to get them to go in in a straight line, let alone ride them!)

As so often happens, the account has been written with hindsight, from the point of the post-Resurrection community, who believed that Jesus was the promised Messiah, and searched the Hebrew Scriptures for passages to support this understanding. In Matthew and John the citations are explicit, but they are there just under the surface in the other Gospels too. The Evangelists see the entry into Jerusalem on a donkey as Jesus’s way of proclaiming himself as the Messiah foretold by the prophet Zechariah, a humble Messiah with a message of peace,  who would nevertheless free his people from oppression by foreign powers. They portray him as being recognised and welcomed by large enthusiastic crowds, acclaimed as ‘the Son of David’ (a royal title) and causing an upset in the entire city.

But there are problems with accepting the Gospel accounts as a record of what might actually have happened. Scholars tell us that, at this period, the Zechariah passage was not seen as a Messianic prophecy; it only became so when Christians used it to support their belief that Jesus was the Messiah, though not one who behaved in a way many of his contemporaries expected. If there had been that understanding of what entry on a donkey meant, and the whole city had been in the uproar that Matthew describes, then Jesus would have been arrested by the Romans that same day.

The great pilgrim festivals were times of extreme tension in Roman occupied Jerusalem, especially during the Procuratorship of Pontius Pilate. The Jewish authorities knew they had to crush any nationalistic demonstrations, or they risked a backlash which would destroy the fragile  balance of power they had negotiated with the Roman authorities. Jewish writers of the time recount a number of incidents whenPontius Pilate reacted with severity to popular demonstrations, resulting in deaths and executions. The Jewish leaders would be quite prepared to sacrifice one prophet from the provinces to prevent any such incident during a major religious celebration.

So if we try to reconstruct what happened, when and why, on the basis of the Gospel accounts and biblical scholarship, what might we arrive at? If we’d been there what might we have seen? What might have been in Jesus’s mind when he entered Jerusalem?

Biblical scholars agree that Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah. So his entry on a donkey wouldn’t have had that in mind. There is always the possibility that, although pilgrims usually entered the Holy City on foot, he used a donkey because he was tired, or unwell, or someone provided him with one. But Jesus (like the Old Testament prophets) sometimes did things as an acted parable, to make a point. His entry on a donkey, surrounded by the ordinary people from Galilee that he lived among and associated with, might well have been done to point the contrast between a procession of the Kingdom of God which he proclaimed, and one of the Roman Empire. God’s Kingdom was one where the poor were blessed and the meek would inherit, the sort of people who used donkeys as to carry goods and themselves; the Roman Empire was maintained by force and celebrated by triumphal processions of horses and chariots, weapons and captives and the booty of war.

All the Gospel writers place the entry into Jerusalem in the week before the Passover Festival. But many scholars think they may be telescoping together an number of events from different visits to Jerusalem in their account of Holy Week (just like the writers of today’s docudramas do for dramatic effect). The descriptions of Palm Sunday don’t fit very well with what happened at Passover; but they do fit very well with the rituals of the autumn festival of Tabernacles. On that festival the pilgrims approached Jerusalem waving branches of palm, myrtle and willow. Psalm 118 was recited during the approach to the Temple and while pilgrims circled the horned altar. Like Passover, it was a celebration which commemorated the liberation of the Hebrew people from Egypt; in the psalm the pilgrims are blessed as those ‘who come in the name of the Lord’ and they in turn shout ‘hosanna’, which means ‘God save us’.

Rather than disturbing the whole city, this incident may well have been of significance only to those who  accompanied Jesus. He and his disciples might well have been part of a large group from Galilee, who would have been excited at the prospect of introducing ‘their’ prophet to the big city, a noisy and exuberant  group.  But as long as it did not pose a challenge to the religious authorities, or a threat to the Romans, no-one else would have taken much notice.

What did alarm the Temple authorities and eventually bring Jesus to the notice of the Romans was what the Synoptic Gospel writers say he did next, which was to go into the Temple and overthrow the tables of the money-changers.  He couldn’t have cleared them all out, as the Gospels claim. The trading area of the Temple covered many square feet, and no one person or group of people could have destroyed them all. It is likely that Jesus was again making a symbolic protest, as the Old Testament prophets did, against the misunderstanding of the covenant faith represented by Temple worship, which placed the main emphasis on sacrifice and celebration, not on justice and righteousness.

But what he did, and what he said about the coming destruction of the Temple, and its replacement by a ‘spiritual’ temple, were a direct challenge to the political, religious and economic elites of Jewish society. In acting in this way Jesus did the wrong thing, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin were perfectly willing to sacrifice one person to save themselves and the Jewish people from a Roman clampdown. We can only speculate whether Jesus  knew that his action would end with his arrest and death; but anyone with any sensitivity to the political realities of the time would have been naïve to expect any other outcome.

When we look back on something, we often see things in quite a different way from the way we did originally. When we look at the film of Charles and Diana’s wedding, we can’t feel the same optimism as we did at the time. We know how it all turned out. When we look back at the first Palm Sunday, we can never recapture the joyous anticipation of the Galilean’s entry into Jerusalem, whenever it took place; we know the story of the rest of Holy Week, as our Palm Sunday hymns testify; we know it ends badly. Our joy will always be tinged with  dread.

But we also know about the resurrection, and so we look at the scene through the eyes of the Evangelists, and we too hear the people’s shouts as greeting Jesus as God’s Messiah. ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’ means something quite different to us now from what it meant to those who shouted it on the way down from the Mount of Olives.

That’s one reason why I’m not too keen on Palm Sunday processions. Acting out the story, pretending that 21st century English people can  feel like first century Jews just doesn’t work, and sometimes can be a means of avoiding the hard work that is necessary to tease out the many layers of meaning behind the story that the evangelists tell. Too often people come and take part in the joyful festivities on Palm Sunday and Easter Day, but avoid the hard realities in between.

And so often people get hung up on the donkey, especially trying to find a real donkey, as if having a real donkey somehow makes the whole experience more real.

It’s not about the donkey! It’s about the person who rode the donkey and what he was trying to tell us, in his life and in his teaching, about the nature of God, and what it meant to be committed to the Kingdom of God. It’s about how we live, how we serve, how we cope with political and economic reality in all its potential for evil, and how we can accept suffering and come through it to experience resurrection. It’s about looking back after the events and seeing new significance and new meaning in something that didn’t seem to be anything unusual at the time.

Palm Sunday is about starting Holy Week and the journey to the cross with Jesus – but always with God’s assurance that it leads not to death, but to life.

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