Rejoice in the Lord Always!
The time is drawing near when great numbers of Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, will enter Holy Week. Not long afterward, our Orthodox brothers and sisters will celebrate this hallowed season. Holy Week begins with what looks like, from hindsight at least, a mistaken moment of triumph, and then continues through a week in which, according to some Gospel accounts, Jesus did some teaching and stirred up some trouble (the cleansing of the Temple), which led in turn to his arrest and horrific execution, before being vindicated on Eastern morning in the Resurrection. We move from the entrance through the gates of righteousness, through the cross and the tomb, to sharing in God’s glory.
There is a tendency to move too quickly from the triumphal entry to resurrection, as if they are a seamless garment. But such is not the case. It’s possible that the events described in the Gospel readings for Palm Sunday represent an aborted attempt to claim power, or maybe it’s the first signal that the way of Jesus differs from that of Caesar.
As we reflect on the texts for Palm Sunday, it should be noted that the lectionary offers us a choice – Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday. There are reasons for observing both, but in deference to Good Friday, I have normally chosen to engage with the story of the Palms (even if Luke doesn’t have any palms).
As I noted earlier, Palm Sunday presents the preacher with certain difficulties. What do we make of Jesus’ triumphal entry, even if Luke’s version is quieter and less triumphant than the versions in Mark and Matthew? What do we make of the claims that the Gospel writers seem to be making in portraying what appears to be the triumphal entry of Israel’s messiah into the city of Jerusalem?
The Palm Sunday lection offers us two texts, one from the Hebrew Bible – Psalm 118 – and one from the Gospels – Luke 19. There may be fewer texts, but these two texts are tied closely together.
The 118th Psalm begins with a powerful declaration of thanksgiving to Yahweh, whose steadfast love endures forever. This is the promise of the Covenant that God makes with Israel – the love God will endure. It’s not conditional, and therefore it serves as the foundation of God’s relationship with the people of Israel. With this initial declaration of God’s love for Israel, a statement that is reaffirmed at the end of our reading, we can move down to the 19th verse of the Psalm.
Psalm 118 was one of several Psalms that were read as part of the Passover celebration, so it’s an appropriate reading for Holy Week, which is linked so closely to Passover. As we move to verse 19, we find ourselves standing at the Gate of Righteousness, which the Psalmist seeks to enter through, so as to give thanks to the Lord. It is a request to enter the Temple, to stand before God and offer words of thanksgiving. But, those who enter this gate are the righteous, those who acknowledge that their lives and their futures depend on the steadfast love of God. It’s not that those who enter have earned this right through their own worthiness – but instead, enjoy the blessings of God who leads the way to salvation. Therefore, with God as our savior, we can give thanks. Yes, since this is the day the Lord has made, we can “rejoice and be glad in it.”
The Psalm gives us a couple of hints that will get lifted up in the Gospel reading. There is a reference to a stone that is rejected and then becomes the chief cornerstone. In the Gospel Jesus speaks of stones bearing witness. And of course, there is the explicit use of this statement in 1 Peter 2. In 1 Peter reference is made to Psalm 118:22, along with other passages that describe Jesus as the “living stone, who becomes the cornerstone or capstone of the spiritual house, composed of those who believe in Jesus. Some will be incorporated into this house, while others will stumble over this stone – the choice, according to 1 Peter, is ours (1 Peter 2:1-8). For the Psalmist, the stone that is rejected is reclaimed and becomes the cornerstone. Perhaps this Psalm reflects the moment after the exile ends and the people return home to find the wasteland that was once the Temple. The stone has been rejected, but now reclaimed. What is perhaps in the Psalm a more concrete stone becomes in the story of Jesus a spiritual stone. Upon this stone a new future is built. We can come and rejoice because God is true to God’s word.
If there is a stone present in this Psalm there are also branches. There is a festal procession that enters through the gates and leads up to the altar. Those who take this road do so with branches – the nature of the branches isn’t revealed, but with our imagination we can see the palm branches – like the ones we so often use in our Palm Sunday processions, waving before the Lord as a sign of jubilation. Yes, because of who God is I can give thanks. I give thanks because God’s steadfast love endures forever.
The synoptic gospels tell the story of the entrance in Jerusalem in different ways. Matthew and Luke have the palm branches and the shouts of hosanna on the part of a rather large crowd. Luke, on the other hand, tells the story in a more subdued fashion. Perhaps he’s less interested in using symbols that suggest nationalist subversion of the Empire. It’s not that Luke is averse to challenging imperial thought; he’s just less nationalistic about it.
In our reading from Luke, instead of the crowd laying out the palm branches, it’s the disciples who put down their cloaks as a sign of welcome. And it’s the disciples – how many we’re not told – who make declaration of praise to Jesus as he enters the city on a colt, which he has his disciples borrow. The manner in which this was arranged is not revealed, though the gospel writers seem to suggest that it was arranged spiritually. Jesus knew where to go and the simple mention of his name brought release of the animal to the disciples. Whatever the nature of this transaction, the entrance into the city begins at the Mount of Olives. The decision to ride into the city on the colt has important ramifications. Readers of the Gospel and observers of the scene might recognize in this the prophetic statement of Zechariah 9:9. Luke doesn’t make an explicit reference – no quotation as in Matthew – but the image is still there.
Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion.
Sing aloud, Daughter Jerusalem.
Look, your king will come to you.
He is righteous and victorious.
He is humble and riding on an ass,
on a colt, the offspring of a donkey. (NRSV)
Yes, this is a messianic statement, but the nature of the kingdom Jesus embodies seems different from that of other kings. He comes in humility, riding a colt rather than a war horse. And as he rides into the city, through the Gate of Righteousness (Psalm 118:19), he receives the acclamation of the disciples: “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord,” a statement that reflects the message of Psalm 118, but then continues: “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven" (vs. 38b). In hearing this word of acclamation, we might hear an echo of the Angels song, who declare to the Shepherds at the time of the birth of the Messiah: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 2:14).
The reading ends with an interaction between a group of Pharisees and Jesus. They’ve witnessed this display of adulation. Maybe they recognize in Jesus’ action that allusion to Zechariah. They see it as a dangerous sign – even if Luke has taken out some of the more subversive elements. Perhaps they’re concerned about Jesus’ safety, after all not long before, a group of Pharisees had warned Jesus to stay away from Jerusalem, since Herod was looking to kill him (Luke 13:31). Or perhaps they worry that Jesus’ actions could bring down the wrath of Rome upon the city (Luke’s readers, of course, know that Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Romans), or maybe they are offended by this display. They have stumbled over what has become the chief cornerstone. Whatever the reason they warn Jesus to shush his disciples. Make them shut up. But Jesus responds – if they keep silent, then “the stones would shout out.”
I think sometimes we skip over this reference, but I’m intrigued by it – and am focusing on it in my own sermon for Sunday. I think that Fred Craddock has caught the sense of the passage: “some things simply must be said; the disciples are expressing what is ultimately and finally true: God will provide a witness though every mouth be stopped; opposition to Christian witness cannot succeed and truth will come out” [Luke: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, pp. 327-328]. If we won’t share the word, then as Jesus is reported to have said – then God can raise up children of Abraham from the stones (Luke 3:8). And of course, there is that stone the builders rejected, but which has become the chief cornerstone, the foundation upon which the spiritual house – the spiritual temple of God – is built (1 Peter 2:4). Shall we take our place in this house, as living stones, declaring the goodness and steadfast love of God?