Re-reading the story: Luke 19:28–48
Each year we read the Holy Week story; we have probably listened to it since childhood years and we probably feel that we know pretty much every detail of it. The plan this year is to re-read the story and to look for the things we might have missed; the details and the nuances that might add light or colour to each episode we read.
We begin the week on this Palm Sunday with a story that always captured my imagination as a child: the entry into Jerusalem. We read it as though it were a grand parade, the sort of occasion that would merit marching bands in our own time. Perhaps we imagine the streets lined with people either side, some stretching, peering into the distance to see if they can catch sight of the coming Messiah.
Being realistic, the occasion was a much more low-key affair; the Roman authorities would not have contemplated anything on the scale of a royal progress or presidential cavalcade. It was not a matter of tens of thousands of people lining the streets, while the procession passes, more an enthusiastic group welcoming Jesus coming into the city, watched by onlookers, some curious and some critical.
What is Jesus’ intention? Is it to take the city by storm? Is it to stir up a great popular rising? We know it is not. Jesus has warned his disciples repeatedly that he is going up to Jerusalem to die.
What then is today about? It is a prophetic action and to understand what that means, we need to go back to the prophets of the Old Testament.
In 1 Kings 11, the prophet Ahijah takes the cloak of Jeroboam and tears it up into twelve pieces as a prophecy of the break up of the kingdom.
In Jeremiah 13, Jeremiah is told to take the leather belt he is wearing and hide it in a crevice in the rocks, and then, days later, to go back to recover it, by which time it was soaking wet, out of shape and useless—the point being to emphasize the uselessness of Judah and Israel. In Jeremiah 27, the prophet is told to make a yoke with crossbars and straps as a symbol that the people are going to be under the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon.
In Ezekiel, the prophetic actions become more complicated. In Ezekiel 4, he is to take a clay tablet and draw a map of Jerusalem on it, then to make a model of siege works around it—camps and ramps and battering rams—and to put an iron pan between himself and the clay tablet as a sign that Jerusalem was going to be besieged. A chapter later, in Ezekiel 5, the prophet is to take his sword and use it as a barber’s razor to shave his beard and head; some of the hairs are to be burned, some scattered to the wind, and a few kept. The action was to symbolize the defeat and scattering of the people and the survival of just a few after the Lord’s wrath was complete.
The entry into Jerusalem is a prophetic action in the tradition of the prophets. It is not something spontaneous, but something planned and deliberate. The action is meant to be as clear in its meaning as the actions of those centuries before.
Jesus has carefully prepared for this moment. Two of the disciples are sent ahead with specific instructions about obtaining the donkey upon which Jesus was to ride into the city. It is tied there and waiting and there seems a password is agreed, ‘The Lord needs it.’
In primary school days, the words ‘The Lord needs it’ seemed like some magic spell, like ‘Open sesame’; the idea of Jesus as some sort of conjuror seemed attractive in those days. Yet we have seen that Jesus does not work in such a way; there are to be no magic tricks in the days to come; he could have called down divine power, but he does not do so. Instead, ‘The Lord needs it’ is a challenge to people in the village to respond in faith; if they have recognized Jesus for who he is, then the loan of a single donkey is a small thing.
Growing up on cowboy films, it always seemed odd that Jesus would have chosen an unbroken animal, one upon which no-one had previously ridden. Why would he have made such a choice? In the books Numbers, Deuteronomy and 1 Samuel, cattle that have not previously borne a yoke are considered to be ritually pure. Is Jesus making a point about being the fulfilment of the Law? Is he saying that the animal itself is not the sacrifice, but carries the one who will be the sacrifice?
Jesus rides slowly and deliberately into Jerusalem. Zechariah 9:9 is being fulfilled, “See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey”. The spreading of the cloaks is an echo of the welcome given to king Jehu in 2 Kings 9.
It is pointed out by various commentators that Saint Luke makes no mention of the palms—no palms on Palm Sunday, one of the things that easily slips by unnoticed! The palm was a symbol of the celebration of the Jewish triumph over Antiochus Epiphanes in the days of the Maccabees and perhaps Luke wanted to distance himself from violent nationalism—the nationalism that would lead to the destruction of the city and of the Temple in AD70.
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”, shout Jesus’ followers, “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” It is too much for the some of the Pharisees in the crowd, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” they say. The confrontation is reaching its final stages; both sides are now clear about what is being claimed.
Jesus tells them the stones would cry out if the disciples were quiet—the idea of the ground crying out stretching back to the story of Cain and Abel—the blood of Abel will cry out from the ground for vengeance, the blood of Jesus will cry out for forgiveness
Jesus’ prophecy of the fate of Jerusalem is spoken in grief and not in judgment, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace”. They do not recognize God’s presence among them, preferring instead to follow their own way, a way that leads them down the path of a nationalist revolt and the disastrous loss of their city and most holy place.
The malaise is political, a refusal to recognize that kingship might mean something other than a warrior leader who would expel the Romans from their land, but it is also spiritual. The Temple, the holiest of places, has become a place of corruption an exploitation—in blunt terms, it was a place where poor people, coming with sincere hearts, were being ripped off through the sharp practices of the people running the place. Even to buy an animal to offer for sacrifice meant paying with Temple coinage that was sold to them at rigged exchange rates. The Temple has become a scandal and Jesus is plain in his words, “‘My house will be a house of prayer’; but you have made it ‘a den of robbers.'”
The first act of the drama concludes with Saint Luke saying that Jesus continued to teach every day at the Temple while his opponents sought a way to kill him, something not possible while public opinion ran in his favour.
We need to re-read those verses and ask ourselves a simple question, ‘If I were in the story we have just read, where would I be standing?’
Look again at the entry to Jerusalem; at the row with the Pharisees; at the confrontation in the Temple and ask, ‘where in the picture would I be?’