Sermon by the Rev. Dudley C. Rose, Associate Dean for Ministry Studies and Lecturer on Ministry, Harvard Divinity School; Affiliated Minister in the Memorial Church, March 28, 2021. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications
Palm Sunday. It is such an odd and sad story. Jesus comes into town. The crowd cheers him on, but less than a week later, they turn on him. It is the sorry story of the fickle human heart, or more to the point, maybe the story of human cruelty to those who fail to live up to expectations. Surely there is evidence. Even Jesus’ closest disciples demanded a different ending. James and John wanted the good seats in heaven. Peter wanted nothing to do with a failed and suffering Messiah.
But you and I know how the tale finally turns out; we see the redemption at the end. We have insider information. We set aside the sorrow of it all.
Jesus’ enters Jerusalem. We join the celebration. Our children joyfully wave their palms. All glory, laud, and honor to you, O Christ, we sing, to whom the lips of children made sweet hosannas ring! Until we get to verse 10. As the account concludes, Matthew gives us a disturbing tell: When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”
The whole city was in turmoil, shaken. It’s not a common word. It appears just five times in all the New Testament. Matthew uses the word again when Jesus died: And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. And he uses it again to describe the guards when they see the risen Christ on Easter morning: And for fear of him the guards trembled (were shaken) and became like dead men.
The Letter to the Hebrews uses it to say that God will shake earth and heaven. And the book of Revelation uses it to describe a shaking so strong that it will shake the stars from the sky like figs from a tree in the wind.
This wind stirring is no breeze. It is not a playful interlude to begin the events of Holy Week. It is not the calm before the storm. Already the storm is present. The whole city was shaken. Unnerved, people were asking, “What’s going on here? Who is this?”
And even though we know who this is–Jesus of Nazareth—there remains Matthew’s haunting question placed on trembling lips, “What’s going on here?” Why is the city shaken to its foundations in the face of this rag-tag procession from the hinterlands of the Galilee?
The Biblical scholars Dom Crossan and Marcus Borg in a little book, The Last Week: A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus’ Final Week in Jerusalem draw a vivid picture of the day.
“Two processions entered Jerusalem on a spring day in the year 30, [they write]. It was the beginning of the week of Passover, the most sacred week of the Jewish year.
One was a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession. From the east, Jesus rode a donkey down the Mount of Olives, cheered by his followers. ¼ They had journeyed [on foot] to Jerusalem from the Galilee, about a hundred miles to the north ¼ . [The last leg alone would have been exhausting. From Jericho by the Jordan, they would have climbed 3400 vertical feet over the final 16 miles].
On the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Idumea, Judea, and Samaria, entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers…. They and Pilate had come up from Caesarea Maritima, "Caesarea on the Sea," about sixty miles to the west, … the new and splendid city on the coast. It was much more pleasant than Jerusalem. … But for the major Jewish festivals, Pilate … went to Jerusalem.
Imagine the imperial procession's arrival in the city. A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of saddle leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. …”
Borg and Crossan think Jesus meant to create a counter procession to Pilate’s procession. They think Jesus’ Palm Sunday procession was an intentionally political act of resistance against Rome. I have my doubts about that. First of all, Rome wasn’t the only imperial society around to protest against. Way back in the Book of Deuteronomy God, speaking through Moses, foreshadowed that Israel, too, would one day beg for a king. In a stunning insight Moses calls attention to the temptations of kingship. He warned the king will want a great number of horses, and especially bad would be horses imported from Egypt. The king will also want countless wives and immeasurable riches, silver and gold. And should the king fall to these temptations, which seemed inevitable, the text succinctly says, “His heart will turn away.”
Solomon amassed fourteen hundred chariots and twelve thousand horses. He made silver as common in Jerusalem as stones, and he made cedars as numerous as the sycamores of the Shephelah. He imported horses from Egypt. (1 Kings 10:26-28a)
He had seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines, and the text says that, indeed, his hear turned away. (1 Kings 11:3)
And before him, King David is thought to have been worth over $200 billion worth of gold at today’s valuation. And David pilfered the wife of his most loyal military commander and then had the commander killed so the king could her make her his own.
Here are perhaps the two best kings in Israel’s pre-exilic history, and even their hearts were turned by the accumulation of wealth, power, and pleasure. And don’t even get me started on Herod the Great or Herod Antipas.
It is a well-intentioned clarification to make clear that the Romans crucified Jesus. The ghastly history of Christian inspired anti-Semitism is more than reason enough. But it goes too far to say that Jesus’ beef was only with the emperor. Jesus had grievance with a wide swath of the human heart.
Jesus came humbly on a donkey and in the genealogy of the prophets. “Tell the daughter of Zion, look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey.”
To be sure, Jesus's procession countered what was happening on the other side of the city. Pilate's procession embodied the power, glory, and violence of the empire that ruled the world.
Jesus and his small band represented a different kind of kingdom, the kingdom of God.
That much is clear. But why would such a small and pathetic procession carrying such a ridiculous message shake the whole city to its foundations?
One answer with plenty of evidence: Rome brooked no resistance of any kind. The horses and chariots and armor were not just for show. Maybe everyone feared there would be a massacre. But generally, that wasn’t Rome’s way in the provinces. All they needed were a few examples hanging by the road to deter any uprising.
Some have suggested that there was a kind of voyeuristic excitement in the city as the Passover crowd gathered. There was bound to be some violence. And after all, there is something seductive about violence that gathers a crowd. By Good Friday there would be a mob crying out, “Crucify him! Crucify Him!”
And lest we think too quickly that all this is a plague of ancient and ignorant societies, let us confess that still the powers and principalities rule by retaliation very often out of proportion to the offenses they are punishing. Our prisons are but one example.
And still it happens that even those who stand to lose the most at the hands of such retribution and violence often stridently support it and even say it is the will of God. So, almost certainly, already by Palm Sunday the expectation of violence on the horizon was creating in some fear and in others attraction and in some a strange mixture of both.
In one sense Pilate and all Jerusalem with him were as clear as a bell that power was just what it looked like. Power resided in the empire. Power resided in the military. Power resided in the ability to impose one’s will with but a word or the sweep of a sword. Power was a captivating logic that held everyone in its spell. Power was as clear as a bell.
Except that it wasn’t.
There was something else going on, something else about this procession, that shook the city to its foundations, even shook Pilate and his well-armed militia.
Four-score and seven years ago a 28-year-old theologian and minister preached, clear as a bell, one of the most remarkable messages I have ever encountered.
“For those who are great and powerful in this world, he said, there are two places where their courage fails them, which terrify them to the very depths of their souls, and which they dearly avoid. These are the manger and the cross of Jesus Christ.… For here thrones begin to sway, the powerful fall down, and those who are high are brought low, because God is here with the lowly.”
At the manger and at the cross. Terrifying, swaying, brought low are the thrones of the powerful. For they know that the compelling story of earthly kingdom’s power, of violence’s power, of power’s power is but a lie needing only one humbly approaching on a donkey, needing only one staring down the worst that power has to offer, needing only this one to unmask it.
Now, talk about terror. This one coming through the gates of the city shook it to its foundation. Matthew captured it exactly: As he made his entrance into Jerusalem, the whole city was shaken. Unnerved, people were asking, “What’s going on here? Who is this?”
But of course, they already knew. They already knew. Humbly and on a donkey came the one who in his very bearing pointed the way to life itself. “What’s going on here? Who is this?” They knew who he was. And it shook them to the depths of their souls. Amen.
Go now in the light of love.
May God’s face shine upon you.
May God be gracious unto you.
May God look upon you with kindness.
And may God give you peace.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, London, 1933-1935 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 345-6.