There are “How” shows which are or have been very popular on television in recent years. “How I Met Your Mother” and “How to Get Away with Murder” are two which come quickly to mind. This week’s Gospel lesson could be a pilot episode for one such series, “How to Get Yourself Killed at a Jewish Religious Festival”.
For one reason or another, this was the festival for Jesus to pick a fight with the Jewish and Roman authorities. His ongoing, tit for tat struggle with the establishment, which had lasted for three years, was now going to come to a head. Why now? Why stop at this moment when, if he so chose, he could remain free and continue preaching in the Galilee? Why would Jesus provoke a confrontation that would certainly end in confrontation, arrest, and likely execution?
The easy way to answer those questions is to say, “Richard, it was in the divine plan. When Jesus arrived in Bethlehem, as a newly born infant, he arrived carrying a set of “divine plans”. Whether planted in his human brain or God brain, we don’t know. But he knew that after exactly three years of ministry he was to be in Jerusalem so Judas could betray him so he could be arrested and subsequently die for the sins of the world.” Oh, so Jesus is just some sort of divine robot with no ability to think or act on his own. Gotcha!
I’m no longer OK (not sure that I ever was) with that understanding of salvation history. When you subscribe to that idea, one doesn’t have to put much thought into the wonderful events of Easter and the real motivation of the events unfolding around you. For instance, if Jesus was born to die for our sins and the salvation of humanity, why not let Herod kill him as an infant? If we only need the sacrifice of a sinless being who was both God and man, why wait so long to kill him? If that’s truly what his life is all about, i.e. death, then why not let him die as an infant? Understanding the resurrection is about Jesus’ teachings concerning the Kingdom of God, not a man on a pre-programmed suicide mission.
In the three years following John the Baptizer’s death, Jesus covered a great deal of territory. He encountered thousands of people and his message hit critical mass. In many ways, he had gone as far as he could go without going to a very visible next level. The time to take it to the next level, where his impact would be the greatest, even risking his own death, was at a major religious festival.
So the question on Jesus’ mind is how can he stir the pot, how can he move the ball into scoring position? He is not downloading data from a divine USB drive the Angel Gabriel left with him 33 years earlier outlining step by step instructions on the last supper, Judas’ betrayal, and how to get crucified. Jesus knows what he is doing. However, the outcome isn’t based on a script or scripture. The events of Palm Sunday and Holy Week unfold subject to the political, social, and religious realities that are changing by the minute. Jesus is aware of the outcome and what it may or may not be.
When he arrives in Jerusalem, he needs to enter in such a way that it will send red flags and push buttons among the Jewish and Roman leaders. Jesus wants to be noticed by people from every strata of society. This is exactly what he does. He rides in to Jerusalem, on colt/donkey, reminiscent of a leader once mentioned in the prophet Zechariah five centuries earlier. The working idea is that on the other side of town, Pilate’s entourage was entering the city at the same time. As you can imagine, Pilate’s parade was bigger, better armed, and included real horses. We are told to assume that people put two and two together and said, “look, here is Jesus on his humble donkey just like I remember reading in Zechariah (though literacy is about 1% among the Jewish population) and Pilate with his mighty white horse, look at the overwhelming contrast between these people.” As much as I would have really liked that to have happened; I think Jesus’ entry was lower key, at least until he arrived at the temple later in the day.
There are three to four times in the Hebrew Bible when an important “leadership” figure rides into a town (or village) like a conquering hero on a colt. In each of these occasions, this is seen as symbol of the leader’s humility. The most notable example of this is found in Zechariah 9. With this in mind, the gospel writers (writing years after the events occurred) sought to match Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem with these Old Testament parallels. Their challenge, when recreating the story of Palm Sunday, was to build the story of Jesus that would resonate with their own 1st century Jewish communities. Zechariah was the right choice for their parallel. So much of what we find in our story from Palm Sunday to Easter is originally found in the Book of Zechariah.
• The anointed on riding a donkey into Jerusalem
• Waving palm branches
• Crowds shouting “save us” or hosanna
• Someone paid 30 pieces of silver (you can’t make this up)
The Gospel writers, living and writing years after the events of what we call Palm Sunday used the Book of Zechariah to create the details and create we call Palm Sunday. Educated first Jewish audiences would recognize the parallels. Christians who don’t know the Old Testament have come to believe they events of Palm Sunday are history. In fact, it’s recycled Jewish history from 500 years before the birth of Christ that has nothing to do with the Messiah. (The leader mentioned in Zechariah 9 is a de-militaristic king, anyone who understood the scripture would know this.) Zechariah tells the story of the rebuilding of the temple following the return of the Judean exiles from Babylon. The book does focus on the restoration of Israel’s right relationship with God.
What are we focused on at Palm Sunday? Is it the drama, the blood? Stories written to keep the peace amid first century splits within the early Christian church by recreating historic events by using 600 year old details from the Hebrew Bible, or restoring a right relationship with God?