First Thoughts on Year C Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Palm Sunday

William Loader

Palm Sunday: 14 April Luke 19:28-40

Palm Sunday is also Passion Sunday.

Whereas both Mark and Matthew report Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem immediately after telling the story of the blind man (Matthew: men) hailing him as Son of David, Luke has instead added the parable of the money (19:11-27) and before it the encounter with Zacchaeus (19:1-10). Luke’s version of the parable speaks of a nobleman who travelled abroad to receive authority to become a king and returned to slaughter unproductive servants. Luke seems to be deliberately echoing the story of Archelaus, who on the death of his father, Herod the Great, returned to Jerusalem and ruled with great cruelty until deposed by the Romans 10 years later in 6 CE. Now Jesus approaches Jerusalem. People were thinking the kingdom of God might be about to be established. To counter this according to Luke, Jesus tells the parable (19:11).

What does all this mean? People may have shuddered at the thought of the cruel Archelaus. Is Luke perhaps suggesting that such cruelty still applies? Is the time of the trampling of Jerusalem (21:24) akin to Archelaus’s reign or his return? Certainly the servants of God should be conscientious in the meantime. One of the effects of Luke’s composition is to set Archelaus’s return in contrast to the coming of Jesus to Jerusalem. Jesus comes as the prince of peace. 10 chapters ago Jesus set out (9:51). Now he is arriving.

Jesus was approaching the Mount of Olives where tradition had it that God’s final intervention would occur (Zechariah 14:4). As in Mark, the miraculous foreknowledge displayed in fetching the animal serves to underline that the event soon to occur is divinely ordained. The Mount of Olives receives further mention in 19:37, which suggests that the celebration of Jesus was taking place there on the way down the hill, rather than nearer the point of entry into the city. Down the hill and up the other side Jesus rides the donkey. In 19:41-44 he is approaching the city and bewails its fate. Luke has a heart for Jerusalem. He invites us to weep with Jesus. The ghost of Archelaus and the foreboding of the city’s sacking by the Roman in 70CE surround the narrative. If only they had followed the ways of peace (19:42)! There is something more than a superior moralising here. Luke is convinced that failure to heed Jesus set them on the road to ruin (19:44).

In this hall of memories, created by Luke’s narrative, Jesus’ entry becomes something much more than a pageant of celebration. The people who know - the disciples, not the crowds, as in the other gospels - praise God for the miracles they have seen. This is thoroughly Luke’s emphasis. They have seen the deeds of liberation which Jesus announced in his home synagogue. Their acclamation includes, as in the other gospels, the allusion to Ps 118:26, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’. But Luke adds: ‘the king’. We are not to forget the kings! Do not forget Archelaus! Here is the counter king.

What kind of king? The acclamation tells us in what follows: ‘Peace in heaven and glory in the highest’ (19:38). We are transported back to the hillside of Bethlehem and the shepherds who heard the cry, ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among people of his favour’ (2:14). Archelaus brought no peace. The people of Jerusalem refused the way of peace. Jesus offered the way to peace. Peace hailed as heavenly is also peace made for earth. By recalling this scene Luke is recovering for us the cries for liberation among God’s favoured people, Israel, and all who belong to her. Luke brings Christmas and Easter together.

For Luke, Jesus stands firmly within the stream of those who yearn for Israel’s liberation. The liberation is a vision which encompasses Israel and all who are now included with her. Luke’s vision probably included ideas of a kingdom centred on the holy city. More importantly it envisaged community lived out in the kind of inclusivity and wholeness demonstrated in Jesus’ ministry. Riding with Jesus, as it were, were these hopes. Riding with Jesus are the hopes of the oppressed and exploited peoples and the oppressed and exploited individuals. His ministry demonstrated some realisation of that hope. He will carry that hope through suffering and death. On this Luke’s community will feed and in it find its mission.

‘If these were silent, the stones would cry out’ (19:40). In Luke’s day the stones of Jerusalem’s temple and courtyards would have had the marks of that bloody catastrophe, of the burning of 70 CE. Sometimes the stones are all that remain to cry out. They would cry out. In some sense the remnants of the great temple which we now see as the western (or wailing) wall in old Jerusalem still do their crying. They also cry out from the floors of torture rooms, scenes of massacre known and unknown, across the world.

Luke has surrounded the wonderful pageant of Jesus’ mounted descent from the Mt of Olives and ascent to Jerusalem with pain. It is hard to trivialise the scene with shallow triumphalism. The context invites us to the horror of Jerusalem and of all other habitations where human blood has been shed. The message is not the cheap comfort of blame, but the mourning for lost peace. This is, for Luke, no longer a populist throng, but disciples who discern why this baby was born and why he will die. They are to cry out - and not leave it only to the stones and not be silenced by devout advisers.

Epistle Passion/Palm Sunday: 14 April Philippians 2:6-11