Towards Palm Sunday (Matt 21): Passover and politics

Next Sunday is Palm Sunday. To hear the story, we are turning back to the book of origins (better known as the Gospel according to Matthew), after a month during Lent of healing stories from the book of signs (the Gospel according to John), where there is an account of what took place as Jesus entered Jerusalem (Matt 21:1-11).

As we approach the day, we have opportunity (during this period of enforced social distancing and self-isolation), to survey the scene of the first Palm Sunday, and reflect on these questions: What do you see? What do you hear? How is God revealed to you in this story? How does God speak to you in this story? What is the word of God, the vision of the Lord, for you, today, from this well-known story from so long ago?

What do you see? What do you hear? I see pilgrims travelling the winding route to Jerusalem, climbing the hills outside the city as they make their way to the capital of ancient Israel, to the city where the Lord God, so it was believed, was residing in the Holy of Holies, the inner court of the Temple. I hear the noisy, bustling sounds of these pilgrims, excited with anticipation as they make their way along the same routes, up the same hills, year after year, at this time of the year.

It was Passover; one of the three high festivals of the year for good religious Jewish people. It was Passover, the festival of unleavened bread, which recalled the hurried departure of the people, long ago, from captivity in Egypt (Exodus 13). It was Passover, a celebration of the foundational myth at the heart of Jewish identity; the story that tells of the liberating actions of God, in the face of the military might of the Egyptians, the liberation of the people from their time of enforced slavery, as they set out, across the wilderness, to the land they had been promised (Exodus 14–17 and beyond).

Passover was a central religious celebration. But also, it was a thoroughly politicised procession of pilgrims, wending their way to the holy city, the city of peace. Passover was when bread was eaten without leaven, to signify the haste with which the departure from Egypt took place. Passover was when lambs were roasted and eaten as a sign of that liberation, when bitter herbs were sprinkled eaten as a reminder of the bitterness of slavery. Passover was when the intervention of the divine into the social and political situation of those ancient Israelites was to the fore in the minds of those later pilgrims.

So, we see a scene of Passover pilgrims, celebrating this ancient political action of God which they hold before themselves as the fundamental paradigm for what their faith means for them. “Yes, God is for us! Yes, God will save us!”

The story is told in each of the three synoptic Gospels, Mark, Matthew, and Luke. In each account, the disciples arrive in the city, seek out lodgings, and at the appointed time, they recline at table to eat the Passover meal, the annual family celebration when the story of that first Passover is told. A time when the actions of God in confronting and overturning the political rulers is remembered, retold, and celebrated.

What do you see? What do you hear? Can you see the Roman soldiers, on the edges, behind the crowds, looking out from the Antonia Fortress? The Roman soldiers, strategically deployed, watching with care the every move that was taking place in the approaches to the city. They knew, from many years’ experience, that the city swelled with the influx of pilgrims each year at this time, as the Passover pilgrims made their way towards Jerusalem.

They knew, from years of monitoring the crowds, of the potential for dispute and conflict that simmered underneath the crowds. They knew that this was a high point in the Jewish year, and that any Jew with finely-attuned attention to the history of their people, would know of the charged political consequences of this festival.

Passover was a celebration of that time when God intervened, overturning the despotic ruler, liberating the faithful people. As it was long ago in Egypt … so it now could well be, in Jerusalem under Roman rule. A political celebration, wrapped around with religious significance, a celebration of political victory.

That is the context for the entry into the city of the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee. He came preaching the coming kingdom of God—a kingdom to be marked by righteous-justice (Matt 6:33). He blessed those who sought that righteous-justice (Matt 5:6, 10). He urged people to walk the way that led to justice for all (Matt 12:18-21). He came into the city filled with zeal for God’s righteous-justice kingdom (Matt 23:23). The festival of Passover was a most appropriate time for him to enter the city and make his mark.

See more on righteous-justice at https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/13/you-have-heard-it-said-but-i-say-to-you-matt-5/

Tomorrow: riding on a donkey (or two) as the crowd shouts ‘Hosanna’

This series of blogs on Palm Sunday is based on research by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires, published in Validating Violence – Violating Faith? Religion, Scripture and Violence. Edited by Emilsen & J.T. Squires , ATF Press, Adelaide 2008. See https://assembly.uca.org.au/rof/images/stories/interfaithsep/25sept.pdf

We have also turned it into a creative dialogue, which you can read at https://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2019/04/palm-sunday-ps-1181-2-19-29-luke-1928.html

Author: John T Squires

My name is John Squires. I live in the Australian Capital Territory. I have been an active participant in the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) since it was formed in 1977, and was ordained as a Minister of the Word in this church in 1980. I have served in rural, regional, and urban congregations and as a Presbytery Resource Minister and Intentional Interim Minister. For two decades I taught Biblical Studies at a theological college and most recently I was Director of Education and Formation and Principal of the Perth Theological Hall. I've studied the scriptures in depth; I hold a number of degrees, including a PhD in early Christian literature. I am committed to providing the best opportunities for education within the church, so that people can hold to an informed faith, which is how the UCA Basis of Union describes it. This blog is one contribution to that ongoing task.

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