PALM SUNDAY OF THE PASSION OF THE LORD- April 2, 2023
Gospel at the Procession:Matthew 21: 1-11
Isaiah 50: 4-7; Psalm 22; Philippians 2: 6-11; Matthew 26:14 – 27:66
by Jude Siciliano, OP
Today’s gospel, Matthew’s Passion Narrative, is long. As a preacher I will let it speak for itself and have silence after it is proclaimed. But the preacher might like to say a few words before, or after the gospel, that begins the procession (Mt. 21: 1-11). The commentator Reginald Fuller calls it the "curtain raiser." First, I will. provide some reflection on that reading. As a second part, I will give a reflection on Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem for our readers who might want to prepare for the Palm Sunday liturgy prior to the celebration.
The entrance into Jerusalem had two parts: Jesus’ direction to his disciples (vv. 1-5) and his entry into the city from the east (vv.6-11). A pilgrim would come to Jerusalem on foot. But Jesus enters mounted as a messianic king and the people seeing that get excited. But he doesn’t come as a conquering military power, like Pontius Pilate. Pilate entered on a war horse from the opposite direction, the west, with an imperial cavalry and soldiers to maintain order during the sometimes-troubling high holy days. Jesus, instead, is surrounded by peasants proclaiming the kingdom of God, a challenge to the power of the Roman empire.
Jesus had predicted his passion and death (20: 17-29). But that’s in the background. Now there is celebration because "the Son of David," the messiah, has arrived. Matthew describes the whole city as "shaken" upon Jesus’ arrival. The Greek word he uses describes an earthquake; the shaking of the earth. It is also associated with "the day of the Lord" (Joel 2: 10-11).
Jesus is not an ordinary hero entering a cheering city. His arrival is earth shattering; it shakes the very ground people stand on. His entrance into our lives challenges our assumptions. Is what we hold sacred and secure, really so? Is it of God, or a false security imposed by our society which will not hold up in time of need?
At this Eucharist we welcome Jesus who comes to us in his word. It is a word that can question the ground on which we stand; the very securities we have relied on . So, we open our hearts to his coming, and invite him, "Speak Lord, your servant is listening."
Part II Additional Notes
In Jesus’ time, going to Jerusalem was an important and joyful event. Devout Jews went to the city to observe important feasts and rituals. Jerusalem had great symbolic power for believers, for the Temple was in Jerusalem and it was in and around the Temple that important ceremonies were performed. But the Romans were there too and so the city was a place of convergence, not only of religious power and authority, but also of social, military and economic forces. For many reasons, Jerusalem was the center of the Jewish world. So, Jesus goes to the place where religious and secular powers are concentrated and he goes there at an important festival time, the feast of Passover.
Jesus and his disciples knew how dangerous this fateful journey would be. Neither the religious nor the military powers in the city could ignore Jesus’ presence. His theological position, about God’s compassion for sinners and inclusion of outcasts, was too upsetting to the status quo the religious leadership was trying to maintain. There were many diverse opinions and movements in Jewish tradition, but Jesus’ teachings about God’s reign had gone too far for most of the religious establishment. And in going to a seat of Roman power, Jesus was confronting the world’s might in all its oppressive and cruel manifestations. Once Jesus enters Jerusalem the powers in charge move quickly, he is promptly captured, sentenced and nailed to the cross.
Why go up to Jerusalem at all? Why not "lay low" and stay our of trouble? Or, continue preaching – but from a safe distance. By his entering Jerusalem Jesus challenges our accommodation to all kinds of power – our "modern Jerusalems," – our misplaced respect for: powerful government; religious status; middle class values; physical and intellectual achievement; economic success, etc. We could just fall back on our baptism, say our prayers and hope for our resurrection. But Jesus entered Jerusalem and he challenges each of us to confront our contemporary Jerusalems. Where do we bow to power; who and what rule our lives? What concessions have we made and how do we evade the challenges our belief in the gospel require us to face?
Jesus confronts all that Jerusalem represents and he seems to lose to the reigning power. He submits, doesn’t fight, hide or try to outwit the powers. He chooses to be there, in Jerusalem, exposed to all the forces against him. It looked like Jesus was a loser; God seemed to have gambled and lost. But Jesus’ submission really was a confrontation with evil: he did not run away, his suffering was God’s way of working through him. Through Jesus’ loss, we are all winners.
Each of us believers must join Jesus and go "up to Jerusalem." Like Jesus, our personal Jerusalem may be a place where we seem to be losers: where our faith values are disregarded or trashed; where we face daily encounters with forces that oppose our best efforts; where political structures defeat the disenfranchised; where the world of high tech and privileged education broaden the gap between the haves and the have-nots. We are called to be present to our own experience of Jerusalem and there we are invited to take up the cross and risk what previously we have cherished and clung to. But first, before we straighten our shoulders and prepare for the struggle we must let Jesus go ahead of us. We follow him into the city this week; watch how he surrenders to God’s ways and identify with his loss. But, through his death and resurrection we also experience new life.
Why are we waving our palms today? Not because everything goes well in our world; not because there is no suffering – not while there is an ongoing blitzkrieg in Ukraine, civil strife, the pandemic, terrorism, drugs and on and on! We are not waving our palms in ecstatic religious display with our eyes closed to reality. No, there is too much suffering in the world for that; the good, the poor and the vulnerable are not spared suffering. Jesus reminds us of that today. Rather, God has entered our "holy city" – the places of defeats and pain and transformed them. God has personally confronted evil, walked the same path we have. But not in the triumphal way we might have instead, God has contradicted our usual ways of dealing with evil and chosen instead the cross – as Paul says, a way that our world judges as foolishness and a scandal.
Because Jesus chose to enter the Holy City, every place we suffer can become a holy city for us, a place God chooses to visit and share with us – most especially those places where, like Jesus, we choose to confront religious hypocrisy and worldly powers.
We know what the excited crowds at the entrance to the city don’t know. At this point they smell triumph in the air, they expect a victorious Jesus to sweep into power and they with him. In Jerusalem their plans would collapse, their hopes would be dashed. We know what they didn’t and couldn’t know at this stage of their journey with Jesus: that early on the morning of the third day, the first day of the week, while it was still dark, God would show God’s power and raise Jesus from the tomb. The powers of death would be overcome. Triumph would come from catastrophe; life from death; hope from despair and despite all appearances to the contrary – then and now – evil would be defeated.
Now, no matter how powerful the forces against good are, we do have reason to hope. That is why we are waving our palms in the air. That is why, with Jesus and the rest of his disciples, we are entering Jerusalem today.
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