Towards Palm Sunday (Matt 21): Acclaiming the king, anticipating the kingdom

Next Sunday is Palm Sunday. 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 its significance. 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?

As you read the account in Matt 21, ask yourself: What do you see? What do you hear? We see pilgrims travelling the winding route to Jerusalem, and Jesus amongst them. We hear the crowd singing Hosanna! and we see them spreading their cloaks along the way, to honour him. And we hear their cries in the ancient hymn, “Blessed is the coming king, the one who comes in the name of the Lord, the one bringing the peace of heaven into this city here on earth”.

So the people cry, singing words from Psalm 118 about the king who comes to implement the kingdom willed by God—a psalm which is echoed in the song of the angels from early in Luke’s Gospel, declaring that, in Jesus, God is bringing “peace on earth, among those whom he favours” (Luke 2:14)

What do you see? What do you hear? Can you see the thoroughly political nature of the activity of Jesus? Can you hear the thoroughly political nature of the cries of the crowd? Hosanna—Save us! Blessed is the King—not Caesar, not ruler of the Romans, but Jesus, King of the Jews, the one Chosen by God to proclaim the kingdom. Can you hear these cries?

In this story, as throughout all of the Gospel accounts, the actions of Jesus have clear and strong resonances from the scriptures that he knew so well. He does not enter Jerusalem with a fatalistic acceptance of what lies ahead; instead, they are a call to this-worldly involvement, to action in our own time, serving the people amongst whom we live.

So it is in this story of the Passover pilgrims. The cries of the crowd, the actions of the people, the anticipation of the Roman soldiers and the symbolic statement made by Jesus as he rides into the city on a donkey—all of this points to the inherently political, thoroughly this-worldly orientation of the ministry of Jesus.

The kingdom is coming, the future kingdom is here and now in our midst, and the kingdom will overturn the expectations and practices of the political powers within this world. The Romans did well to notice, and anticipate, and respond to such a message. The Jewish leaders, so it seems, were anxious, also, about what was taking place.

Matthew ends his report by noting that “the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’” That was the critical question, for all four authors of the Gospels in the New Testament. The stories they tell are focussed on answering that question: ‘Who is this?’ Matthew has this questioned answered immediately, as the crowds were telling one another, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” His name and reputation were known. Certainly they perceived the significance of the way that he chose to enter the capital city. He was calling people to follow him in a clear, direct, and challenging way.

On the following Friday, we will remember that Jesus, ultimately, was condemned to death with a sign that declared that he was “the King of the Jews” (John 19:19–20). We see, very clearly, in the inscription nailed to the cross, the political nature of the message of Jesus. From the perspective of the Roman rulers, articulated by Pilate, Jesus was given a drastic political punishment, death by crucifixion, for the political insurgency that he was seen as undertaking, in claiming to be the King of the Jews.

That King is the one whom we follow. This is the path that he calls us to walk. When we pray, as Jesus instructed us, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven, we are praying that what we hope for, in heaven, is to be lived out, here, on earth, every day, in our life of discipleship. Our faith calls us to be faithful disciples of Jesus. It calls us to compassionate engagement with others in our society. It is a costly call, but a compelling call.

For us, today, that is the challenge: how do we show the merciful love and righteous-justice that Jesus spoke about and lived for in his life? Jesus ultimately was crushed by Roman imperial power; as he died, however, he showed that there was another way. A way of faithfulness to God’s calling. A way that truly leads to peace, to peace with righteous-justice.

And so, as we look to that time with hope and anticipation, we pray, as we always do: your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven … and we wait, patiently, and work, persistently, with that end in view.

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 W. Emilsen & J.T. Squires, ATF Press, Adelaide 2008. See https://assembly.uca.org.au/rof/images/stories/interfaithsep/25sept.pdf

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/31/towards-palm-sunday-matt-21-passover-and-politics/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/01/towards-palm-sunday-matt-21-riding-on-a-donkey-or-two-as-the-crowd-shouts-hosanna/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/02/towards-palm-sunday-matt-21-waving-branches-spreading-cloaks/

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/

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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