First Thoughts on Year A Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Palm Sunday

William Loader

Palm Sunday:  9 April  Matthew 21:1-11

Palm Sunday is also Passion Sunday. The Palm Sunday passage moves us towards the Passion. It has its genesis in Jesus' strategy to bring himself and his message to Jerusalem. This was much more than a PR opportunity not to be missed because of the concentration of people in Jerusalem during Passover. Rather it belongs to the body language of the message of the 'kingdom'. It is an expression of hope for change. Just as Jesus reflected the Jewish roots of his passion for change by choosing twelve disciples, so also his march on Zion reflects his people's vision that God would bring about a change beginning with Jerusalem. To affirm the vision of the kingdom and to live out its hopes in the present in action and symbol meant challenging existing structures of authority, both those of the temple leadership and those of Rome. This is the backdrop for the drama which follows. To journey with Jesus still means espousing a challenge to the powers which hold sway in our world (and our church).

Palm Sunday invites play, serious play. Here is the procession to end all processions. Here is adulation. The creative imagination can place the hearer among the crowd beside the road, reluctant, fully adoring, standing aloof in confusion or alienation, perhaps remembering key events from Jesus' ministry. Let the imagination run!

It is important, however, not to cut story from its moorings so that it becomes a triumphalist celebration. In Matthew, as in Mark, whom Matthew closely follows here, this is the fateful entry which will take Jesus to his death. The dramatic irony which celebrates Jesus as king and reaches its climax with Jesus crowned king of the Jews on the cross, is beginning. The acclamation of the crowd is, therefore, at least ambiguous. They will, in Matthew, call Jesus' blood upon themselves and their children. That will have fateful consequences - according to Matthew in the destruction of the temple and the widespread slaughter of  its inhabitants, according to subsequent history in the annals of anti-Semitic hate. The scene is full of danger and denseness. John's gospel shows some sensitivity to the problem when he adds the footnote that the disciples did not really understand what was happening or what it meant until after Easter (12:16).

Nor should we picture an historical event in which the whole of Jerusalem lined the streets, thronging the new Messiah. An actual entry with some shouts of praise doubtless occurred but would have been sufficiently lost in the Passover crowds as not to warrant the military's attention, who would have been swift to put an end to what could have seemed like a potential disturbance. Whatever the event, it became highly symbolic. Perhaps it had this quality from the start, especially if we imagine a provocative act on Jesus' part in emulating Zechariah's prediction, which Matthew now fully cites; but this is doubtful. Throughout the passion narrative it is difficult to know where reports gave rise to scripture elaboration and where scripture gave rise to stories. Most echoes of scripture (especially the Psalms) probably began as allusions and subsequently became quotations, as here in Matthew. Matthew's concern for precise fulfilment has Jesus ride on 'them', that is, both the ass and its foal, one of the funniest results of 'fulfilmentism' in the New Testament!

Matthew begins, as does Mark, with the finding of the animals, a miracle similar to the finding of the upper room a little later on. Hearers of the evangelists would recognise in this a sign of divine involvement; it worked for them. Matthew dwells on it less than Mark. The actions of the crowd are as they are reported in Mark. Their acclamation, using the words of Psalm 118, which finds it echo in the eucharistic liturgy, is more than heralding a Passover pilgrim. It is heralding the Davidic Messiah. Matthew simplifies their cry. It becomes: 'Hosanna to the son of David.' 'Son of David' is an appropriate title for Israel's Messiah, a hope modlelled on selective memory of his achievements. It is found on the lips of the Canaanite woman, two sets of two blind men (20:29-34; 9:27-31; cf. Mark 10:46-52), and a few verses later on the lips of children who also cry: 'Hosanna to the Son of David' (21:15). Matthew uses acclamation by outsiders, marginalised and little ones, to shame Israel for its failure to acknowledge him as 'the Son of David' of Jewish hopes.

According to Matthew Jesus' presence sets Jerusalem in turmoil. One is reminded of the consternation caused there by the magi (2:3). To describe the turmoil Matthew uses the word for earthquake (eseisthe), which will reappear at Jesus' death (27:51) and again at his resurrection (28:2). The event was 'of earth shattering significance' - certainly in world history, in retrospect - so Matthew writes this into the scene. It is his own creative addition to Mark's account.

The crowds in Jerusalem have not really grasped who he is, stopping at 'the prophet from Nazareth' (21:11). This nevertheless forms a good transition to what immediately follows in Matthew, the attempted reform of the temple (21:12-13). Matthew has removed from the scene the cursing of the fig tree which encapsulates the event in Mark (11:12-14; 20-21; Matthew brings it later: 21:18-19). Instead we see the true Son of David performing in the temple acts of healing which in Matthew appear strongly linked with Jesus as Son of David and may reflect popular traditions about the first Son of David, Solomon as a source of medical wisdom. They may also reflect fulfilment of the great prophetic hope that in the end times there will be healing on Mount Zion. The presence of 'the Son of David' in the episode immediately preceding the entry (20:30,31), in the entry and in the episode which immediately follows (21:15), has the effect of making the whole a celebration of his identity as Israel's Messiah, as the bringer of wholeness and healing.

Jesus was not entering a foreign city, nor entering the city of 'the Jews'. He was a Jew. He was entering the city which symbolised in his faith and his scriptures God's promise to Israel. To confront one's own faith and its traditions is painful. This is part of the drama of the event, both in Matthew's account and in the earlier forms of the story, not least in the event itself.

Thus Jesus' approach to Jerusalem has become for many a symbol of the confrontation they must make, including the confrontation with themselves. The issues at stake are not ultimate control or power, though it is easy to give this impression: Jesus is the rightful king! For then might dictates the terms and we reinforce the theme that might is right and right is might and reproduce its abuses in the swirl of deduction. The children acclaim the true signs of messiahship and they have less to do with palms and crowns, which ultimately must be subverted into irony on the cross, and more to do with acts of healing and compassion. Without them the entry story is ambiguous, a potential disaster, which realises itself in every generation in the name of piety. A radically subverted model of power exercised in compassion challenges the temple system and Rome in its day and their equivalents in our own, around us and within us.

Epistle: Passion and Palm Sunday:  9 April  Philippians 2:5-11