Sermon: Our Only King

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
‘Palm’ Sunday, 2nd of April, 2023

Matthew 21:1-17

‘Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’

Here we are at Palm Sunday. Jesus enters Jerusalem to choruses of praise and a crowd going wild. Rather than entering as most pilgrims do, on foot, Jesus enters riding a donkey. The people cut down branches and place them before him, spreading their cloaks on the road, as the people of Israel have traditionally acclaimed their kings. They greet him as the Son of David and the one who comes in the name of the Lord. They shout ‘Hosanna’, a special offering of respect to the one who saves. The people welcome Jesus with euphoria as a prophet and king.

But what sort of king will Jesus be? In the district of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked his disciples, ‘who do you say that I am?’ and Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ It was at that point that Jesus told Simon that he was ‘Peter’, the rock, the one on whom the church would be built, but he also ‘sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah’ and ‘began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised’. (Matthew 16:13-23) His disciples could have no excuse for mistakenly expecting that Jesus would be a king like David, a warrior. Now the ‘very large crowd’ is also shown what sort of Messiah Jesus is, if they have eyes to see it.

Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem is an acted parable, a carefully stage-managed act of political street theatre. Jesus is drawing on a prophecy from the Book of Zechariah of the king’s triumph over the nations. (Zechariah 9:9-10) The beginning of today’s gospel reading is taken up with the mechanics of organising Jesus’ entrance: Jesus sending two disciples to the village ahead of him to find a donkey and a colt, to untie them and bring them to him, and to answer any questions by saying ‘The Lord needs them.’ The disciples do as Jesus tells them, and with the donkey and the colt Jesus is ready to fulfil the prophecy of Zechariah. But he fulfils the prophecy in his own way. Zechariah had prophesied that the king of Jerusalem would enter the city ‘humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ And this is what Jesus does. But Zechariah also said that the king would enter ‘triumphant and victorious’, having ‘cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem’. In his telling of Jesus’ entrance into the city Matthew deliberately edits Zechariah’s prophecy to emphasise the sort of king that Jesus is, gentle and peaceful. Jesus enters the city as its ruler, to acclamation. But he enters it humbly – not as a warrior.

Drawing of Jesus on a donkey surrounded by women and children waving palm branches.

From The Easter Story by Antonia Jackson and Giuliano Ferri.

It is not only Jewish expectations of the Messiah that Jesus is subverting here. His entrance, his acted parable, is also a parody of a Roman imperial procession, with its war chariots and blaring trumpets, its great generals and accompanying slaves. Here we see the true king showing an alternate vision to the Pax Romana, a different way of exercising power, with humility and gentleness. As the crowds respond to this vision it is no wonder the powers that be, both Jewish and Roman, are threatened.

Jesus is going to die on the cross as ‘king of the Jews’. The excitement of Palm Sunday makes his royal status public. The Son of David, the one who comes in the name of the Lord, is entering the City of David. The crowds describe him as ‘the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee,’ which, given the homage offered to prophets like Moses, doesn’t diminish his royal status – it merely acknowledges that Jesus’ reputation has preceded him. Joy and jubilation greet Jesus the king. But the only throne he will find in royal David’s City will be the cross. The city that welcomes him today will refuse to accept Jesus as king. The crowds will turn: from crying out ‘Hosanna’ they will call out ‘Let him be crucified’.

Even at this triumphant entrance, there are hints that all will not be well; Matthew tells us that ‘the whole city was in turmoil’ and the word he uses means shaken, as by an earthquake. This is the same reaction that the city had to the news of the birth of the king of the Jews that the magi brought so many years ago. Then, the news that shook the city led to the death of all the baby boys under two and the flight of Joseph and his family from Herod. Then, the baby king of the Jews escaped death. Now, the news that stirs the city will lead to the death of the king. And yet Jesus still enters Jerusalem, making his claim upon it, willingly going towards his death.

On the same day that Jesus enters Jerusalem, Matthew has him cleansing the Temple. He drives out those buying and selling birds and animals for the sacrifice, and those changing money from Roman coins into coins suitable for donation. What these people were doing was necessary for worship at the Temple to occur; without animals and doves there could be no sacrifice, and without the money-changers coins bearing the Emperor’s head would profane the Temple treasury. These activities would also have been sources of revenue for the Jerusalem community; the money received from those who visited the city during festivals would have been an important part of the local economy. Jesus, as always, shows little respect for sensible economic practices. ‘“My house shall be called a house of prayer”; but you are making it a den of robbers,’ he tells them. Being humble does not mean accepting injustice; even the gentle can act to overturn the status quo if the status quo harms the little ones.

Next, Jesus heals the blind and the lame, who were probably not supposed to be in the Temple in the first place. When King David first came to Jerusalem, marching against it as a conqueror, its inhabitants told him, ‘You will not come in here, even the blind and the lame will turn you back’. David then took the stronghold and made it the city of David, saying ‘Whoever wishes to strike down the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft to attack the lame and the blind, those whom David hates.’ Therefore, says the author of the Second Book of Samuel, ‘it is said, “The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.”’ (2 Samuel 5:6-8) Yet here they are, and Jesus, the Son of David, rather than showing them hate, shows them love and heals them. This does not please the chief priests and the scribes.

Finally, the children cry out in the temple, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David,’ again to the anger of the chief priests and the scribes. Like the blind and the lame, the children are invading a space in which they are not supposed to be. Certainly, they are not meant to be disturbing what is happening in the Temple with their raucous shouting. But it may be only the children, those who have not yet become ‘sensible’, those who are still young enough to be passionate and willing to take risks, those who are not so set in their ways as to automatically support the status quo, who are able to see Jesus’ actions in the Temple as the king coming into his own. Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies, God has prepared praise.

This is the Messiah. This is our one true king. He enters Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, rather than in a war chariot; he overturns the market rather than receiving gifts from the wealthy; he heals the oppressed rather than being praised by the powerful. He will be crowned with thorns, not precious stones; he will be consecrated on a cross, not a throne. If Jesus is our king, whose authority we acknowledge then we, as the citizens of his kingdom, must also be gentle and humble of heart.

This week I read an article by a secular ethicist, Leslie Cannold, about what she called ‘the nightmare of the super-citizen’. She was writing about Donald Trump and the discussions in the USA about whether he should be indicted in one of the current criminal investigations into his behaviour. Political pundits are shocked at the prospect, which would be the first criminal indictment of a President. But as Cannold writes, ‘If your chronically dishonest uncle was finally indicted for his decades-long habit of fiddling the books, would you find it extraordinary? Would you be shocked or filled with any emotion other than relief that a crooked man was finally getting what the rule of law promised?’ She says that the reason the prospect of Trump being indicted is so shocking to us is because of the human propensity to feeling awe: ‘veneration, reverence, devotion and the “inclination to subordinate one’s own interests and goals in deference to those of the powerful leader”’. Cannold thinks that such awe is a danger to democracy.

We Christians should be inoculated against such awe. We venerate and revere only God. Our ‘powerful leader’ is Jesus, who is gentle and humble in heart, and whose yoke is easy, and burden light. (Matthew 11:28-30) But we are human beings, and so we are just as prone to revering people for the wrong things – wealth, heritage, title, fame – as Trump supporters. It is for this reason that Jesus sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah until after his death had revealed exactly what sort of king he is, one who rules through suffering and self-sacrifice, the one who commands our allegiance through gentleness and humility.

Today we are part of the crowd that shouts ‘Hosanna’, and we acclaim Jesus as our king. On Good Friday we will be in the crowd that seeks to crucify him, the crowd that turns instead to the authority of Rome and the Temple hierarchy. Today we rejoice; on Good Friday we will mourn and acknowledge all the ways we turn from God. We can only reach Easter Sunday’s celebration of justice and peace over hatred and violence by walking with Jesus step by step on his journey to the cross, recognising our own temptation to participate in the physical, social, and economic violence that human beings inflict on each other.

As we follow Jesus to his death, let us do our best to imitate the blind and the lame, and the children crying out, the outsiders who see who Jesus is, rather than joining with those selling and buying in the temple, the moneychangers, and the chief priests and the scribes. Let us live as citizens of God’s kingdom, acknowledging Christ alone as the ruler of our lives. Amen.

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