Sunday, March 25, 2018

Should the Rocks Need to Take Our Place


I really wonder sometimes what sort of people were in the Palm Sunday crowd that greeted Jesus as he made his entrance into Jerusalem. Matthew and Mark aren’t particularly specific when they refer to the crowd—indeed they make the crowd seem like random people from the city. But Luke and John are more precise. John says that the people that welcomed Jesus to the Holy City were the very ones who’d watched him raise Lazarus from the dead. And Luke, whose version of the story was read earlier, calls them a multitude, but says they’re the “multitude of the disciples.“
This makes a certain amount of sense. Back when there was a Temple in Jerusalem, huge throngs of people from all over Judæa and Galilee and wherever Jews were living—tens of thousands of people—would make pilgrimage to the Holy City to celebrate the Passover each year. Since Jesus had traveled throughout much of the region by this time, that would mean that hundreds (if not thousands) of them were familiar with him, had heard his teachings, or had even witnessed miracles he’d performed. Therefore it isn’t so difficult to imagine that word of mouth spread throughout Jerusalem among those who were his followers (or at least his hangers on) that he was about to enter the city. These are the ones who might have gathered by the road to witness his coming and to cheer him on. And it’s also not too difficult to imagine the effect that his mode of entry might have had on them.

Many of them were religious Jews, after all, and were probably quite familiar with images of a messianic age that the prophets had shared. It was one of those images that they suddenly saw come
to life when Jesus entered on a lowly beast of burden; for the prophet Zechariah had said, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” I can easily imagine that up until that point, many of them had seen Jesus as a wonderful rabbi, a favorite teacher, maybe even a great faith healer… but nothing more. But when he entered Jerusalem as the humble victor, then they realized it: He must actually be the Messiah! They got caught up in the crowd mentality and began to cheer, covered in goose bumps, tears of joy welling up in their eyes. As a token of their willingness to give themselves over to his gentle rule— for certainly he would be the ruler soon!— they spread their cloaks in the road to create a pathway for his entrance into their capital, which was also the city of God.

Some of the Pharisees then told Jesus that the crowds really needed to pipe down. Because the word “Pharisee” is often associated in our minds with religious hypocrisy, we too often condemn all Pharisees as being against Jesus. This was not the case, and indeed this particular story is proof that some Pharisees were friends (or even followers) of Jesus.

Luke doesn’t indicate that the Pharisees in this story were in any way “out to get” Jesus. And hadn’t Luke just said that the Palm Sunday crowd consisted of “the whole multitude of the disciples”? Thus when he then in the next sentence refers to “some of the Pharisees in the crowd,” it’s evident that these same Pharisees might well have been among those disciples. Indeed, when the Pharisees tell Jesus to quiet the crowd, they seem to be making the request respectfully, calling him “Teacher.” I can easily imagine that they’re not making the request because they don’t want Jesus to get all that attention from the people, but rather because they don’t want Jesus to draw the attention of the Romans or of the religious authorities headquartered in the Temple. Thus, we should probably interpret the Pharisees’ request not as jealousy, but as a desire to protect Jesus—something they actually did on a number of occasions.

But it’s not the Pharisees’ request, but Jesus’ answer to it that I want us to think about today. Jesus’ response was that he might be able to shut the crowd up, but if they were quiet, the stones would take up the song of praise that the people had left off. I think of this, because the contemporary church is very uncomfortable with Palm Sunday, and often attempts to relegate it to a few words at the beginning of the service for that holiday that is now officially called Palm/Passion Sunday. The triumphal entry of Jesus gets a couple of minutes, therefore, but the rest of the liturgy concentrates on the Passion, that is, the betrayal, trial, crucifixion, and death of Jesus.

The reasoning for this is that a lot of people come to church on both Palm Sunday and Easter, but most of them don’t attend church during Holy Week. Thus, they celebrate a triumphant Jesus on one Sunday with shouts of Hosanna! And celebrate a victorious Jesus again a week later with shouts of Alleluia!—all without acknowledging (or even hearing about) his suffering and death in between.

I therefore understand the church’s need to remind people that, after he was received as a king on the first day, by the fifth day he was betrayed and denied, and on the sixth day he was executed as a criminal. And yet, I think that our attempts at changing the emphasis of Palm Sunday are similar to the well-intentioned Pharisees who asked Jesus to order the crowds to be quiet. Perhaps Jesus’ response to us in our era might as well be, “ Let the people shout, for if they don’t, the very stones would cry out.”

There is something about this that I very much like. I am pleased that Jesus was willing to accept the crowd’s shouts of Hosanna! on Palm Sunday, knowing that in just a few days they would either turn against him, or at least keep their mouths shut while others shouted Crucify him! There is an entire theology of worship in his statement that the crowd that’s there—the ones who (as the Pharisees thought) might draw too much attention from the wrong people, or who (as Jesus knew) would turn against him— was the crowd that was supposed to be there. In the past, many of those people had been a scandal in the eyes of the respectable: Tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers—outcasts of all sort. And in the future, they would prove to be unworthy disciples: some raised their voices against him while others kept quiet as they watched a miscarriage of justice unfold before their eyes. But worship takes place in the present tense. It isn’t based upon our past worthiness, and it cannot worry about what needs to be done later.

I think Jesus’ statement about the stones in Luke might well have been John’s inspiration for including in his gospel a couple of stories about Mary, the sister of Martha. Shortly before Palm
Sunday, Jesus visited the home of these two sisters. Martha was busy serving and cleaning up, while Mary sat with Jesus and listened to his teachings. “Tell her to get up offer her rear and help me!” Martha said to Jesus. But Jesus told her that Mary’s priorities were the right ones. Though Martha’s work was good, Mary’s desire to spend time with Jesus was better. And we saw this again later when this same Mary extravagantly anointed Jesus’ feet with ointment that had cost her a fortune. “Tell her to quit wasting something so expensive on your feet,” Judas told Jesus; “the amount of money she spent on that would better have been spent on the poor!” Jesus’ response wasn’t the one we wanted: “the poor you’ll always have with you,” he said, “but you won’t always have me.” In other words, don’t use the poor as an excuse for not worshiping or for not spending time with me. They’ll still be there after the postlude, and you can help them all you want.

The writer Ann Lamott once said that “one of the immutable laws of being human
is that the people who show up are the right people.” We’re the ones who showed up today. We can’t treat Palm Sunday as some sort of April Fool’s joke, thinking because Jesus was crucified on Good Friday that any worship we give him today is naïve at best, and hypocritical at worst. Though we spend time in worship talking about the past—sometimes thanking God for it, sometimes apologizing for it—and though worship also looks to the future—sometimes longing for a day when God’s reign will indeed become a reality, sometimes strengthening us for God’s work in the world—real worship can only occur in the present tense. A sinful past is part of who all of us are. And a future of the best intentions which we won’t be able to live up to is also part of who we are. If coming to church and praising God depended on who we were in the past or what we will do in the future, then not one of us would be worthy of ever singing a hymn or praying a prayer. And yet, here we are. We are the ones whose shouts of Hosanna! welcome Christ to Jerusalem this day. After all, someone has to—if we did not the very stones at the church’s foundation, the very beams holding the roof up, would take up the shout. As we welcome Christ into our midst, God welcomes us to God’s temple. For we are that Temple, and let us never forget that here and now, we are a house of prayer for all people.

—©2018 Sam L. Greening, Jr.

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