March 28 2021

Palm Sunday 2021

On Palm Sunday the crowds provide the spectacle and the dialogue. “When he entered the city, the whole of Jerusalem went wild with excitement. ‘Who is this?’ the people asked. ‘Hosanna to the Son of David, blessings on him who cometh in the name of the Lord…’”

As we listen to this narrative again today, it is not difficult for us to identify with the people who line the streets of this ancient and venerable city.

The hopes and possibilities they harbour in their hearts are contagious. They wave the leafy branches of the palm trees. This could mean liberation from the oppressive Roman occupiers. It is very easy for us to visualise the hope and optimism on those faces as they identify the person of the charismatic figure of the rabbi from Nazareth.

Children think this story one of the most vivid of the gospel tales, almost as good as the nativity with Mary and Joseph, because Palm Sunday also features a donkey. Here comes Jesus, riding slowly into Jerusalem because he too, like the donkey, is meek and mild.

But at Sunday School, the teachers do not immediately continue the narrative, because the next bit is the cleansing of the temple, which is some distance from meek and mild: it is violent, with Jesus wielding a small whip of cords, and overturning the tables of the money changers and the sellers of doves.

Paradox and contradiction cluster about him. The people long for some sort of military messiah who would take his rightful place as king of the Jews. However Jesus presents himself in an entirely spiritual role. His presence appears to be subversive, yet not subversive of the Roman authorities, but of his own people’s hopes.  He is bringing liberation, yet not as they expected it.

It is good for us to be reminded of this, that the divinely good and holy is always much more different and much grander than ever we can imagine.

There was an element of performance in the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, and yet it can possibly be best understood as an acted parable. The significance of the drama, of the beast of burden, of the enthusiastic crowds, can, like so much in the life and experience of Jesus, be traced back to the words of an Old Testament prophet.

Jesus, who knew the Jewish scriptures intimately, followed deliberate paths in relation to the prophecies he had read about. They were his roadmap and his justification. He habitually referred his listeners back to the earlier scriptures, and clearly drew more than just inspiration from them. He saw himself actually fulfilling them in some detail. When his enemies and friends alike asked him from time to time for some sign that he was indeed the promised messiah, he chose not to perform some startling miracle, but told them to think about what he had said and done, and make the comparison themselves with what the ancient prophets had promised.

On occasion he would quote the scripture to them and add that he was indeed the fulfilment of what they had just heard. Specifically in Luke 4,21, when, after reading from the book of Isaiah, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he tells the congregation in the synagogue, “Today hath this scripture been fulfilled in your ears.”

Approaching Jerusalem he accepted the peoples’ palm branches and their shouts of “Hosanna !”, but his kingship was nothing if not paradoxical. The author of the hymn

Ride on, ride on in majesty
In lowly pomp ride on to die…

encapsulates it perfectly. The crown which Jesus would shortly wear would not be kingly, but a crown of thorns. The royal purple the soldiers would put over him as a cloak would cover a beaten body. He is revealed as a ruler whose power lies in utter humility.

In modern terms he can be interpreted as one who challenges the structures of established behaviour. He is on the side of the oppressed, the poor, the weak, the underprivileged, the disadvantaged. He can be best understood and responded to in the same way in which we should respond to and understand the least and lowliest among our society.

The nature of his kingship is illuminated by the prophecy in Zechariah chapter 9 verse 9, “Rejoice greatly O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud O daughter of Jerusalem ! Lo your king comes to you… humble and riding on an ass, on a colt the foal of an ass.” Zechariah’s king does not glory in kingliness, his policy will be disarmament, and his gift will be peace for all nations.

The prophecy reads, “I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations.”

It is not widely known or appreciated that Jesus’ route into the city is from the east, taking him over the mount of olives. This is the place where the messiah was traditionally thought to appear, and  as the place of universal resurrection.

Jesus was also the embodiment of a mind even greater than Zechariah’s. He modelled himself on the prophecies of Second Isaiah who had written about the Suffering Servant. The Servant would redeem his people through the pathway of rejection, pain and death.

As he rode into Jerusalem on what we now mark as Palm Sunday, and celebrate as a prelude to the highest Christian feast of Easter itself, this was the message he embodied, the fruit of all his teaching. In the words of Zechariah again, “His dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” His mission was one of peace for all people everywhere: a king of humility and peace, with no limit to his kingdom.


Entry of Christ into Jerusalem: Painting by Pietro Lorenzetti, 1280-1348


Sunday Service homilies from the Minister during coronavirus period