Liturgy of the Palms C - March 28, 2010
I was surprised to see in today's lectionary that there's only a Psalm portion and a Gospel reading (albeit two of the latter to choose from). We're basically just handed the Palm Sunday story, as if to say, "No explanation necessary."
We do have a Psalm -- reminding us that God's steadfast love endures forever and offering us great liturgical lines like, "The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone" (v. 22), "This is the day that our God has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it" (v. 24), "Blessed is the one who comes in the name of our God" (v. 26a).
This Psalm also offers us the plea, "Save us."
Which is what "hosanna" originally meant -- from the Hebrew "hosha'na," likely derived from Yeshua, meaning "salvation, deliverance, welfare." (Matthew 1:21: "She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus (in the Greek; Yeshua in the Hebrew) for he will save his people from their sins.")
We utter "hosanna" in celebration, a meaningless collection of sounds we learned as children, but when we utter it we are crying out, "Save us" -- acknowledging our own need for salvation and also acknowledging Christ as one who can save us.
In John we read:
The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Yeshua was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet Yeshua, shouting, "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of our God—the Sovereign of Israel!" Yeshua found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: "Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your sovereign is coming, sitting on a donkey's colt!" Yeshua's disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Yeshua was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of and done to Yeshua. (John 12:12-16)As so often, the disciples don't understand. But the great crowd does.
"Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion."
The phrase "daughter of Zion" makes me think of "Daughters of Jerusalem," which in turn makes me thing of Song of Songs.
"I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my beloved, tell him this: I am faint with love" (Song of Songs 5:8).
The people of Jerusalem and of all Israel have been faint with desire for a savior. In the book Jesus and Empire, Richard Horsley writes, "By the time of Jesus, the Galilean, Samaritan, and Judean people had lived under the rule of one empire after another for six hundred years, except for one brief interlude of less than a century" (16). The Assyrians. The Babylonians. The Persians. The Greeks. And finally the Romans.
Having grown up in white middle-class twentieth-century America, I'd never really thought about the New Testament characters as living under Roman rule. All of the stories seemed to be about religion. Sure, there's wee Zaccheus the tax collector, the ruling officials who mark in historical time the date of Jesus' birth, and so on, but the occasional times they show up they seem like set pieces. All of Jesus' conflicts seem to be with religious leaders.
But Biblical Palestine didn't have the separation of church and state that is so much a part of my personal experience. Nor was it wholly theocratic in a way that meant that Judaism was the dominant power structure affecting the people's lives.
In Palestine, as in many of its conquered lands, the Roman Empire utilized the native structures of rule to keep control over the lands and people it had conquered.
Herod retained the high priesthood and Temple apparatus as part of his regime. After eliminating the last members of the Hasmonean family, he installed high-priestly families of his own choosing, even families from the diaspora in Egypt and Babylon. Even more ominously, he completely rebuilt the Temple in grand Hellenistic fashion. "Herod's" Temple became one of the "wonders of the world," famous as a tourist site for wealthy Romans and a pilgrimage destination for well-off Jews from diaspora communities in the Hellenistic cities of the eastern empire. That meant, however, that the Judean, Samaritan, and Galilean peasants who had previously lived under only one set of rulers, the Hasmonean high priests, were suddenly subject to three layers of rules and the economic demands of all three: tribute to the Romans and taxes to Herod on top of the tithes and offerings to the temple-state. Herod (and his successors) also took steps to integrate Palestine into the larger imperial economy.So not only were the Jews subject to the rule of an occupying government, but that occupying power also controlled the religious establishment.
After Herod's death, the Romans left the high-priestly rulers in place under the watchful eye and political-military backing of Roman governors in Judea (and Samaria). The governors usually held the power to appoint their own nominee to the high-priestly office itself, hence the high-priestly incumbents were directly beholden to the governors.
We read in Luke:
As Yeshua rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As Yeshua was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, "Blessed is the sovereign who comes in the name of our God! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!" Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Yeshua, "Teacher, order your disciples to stop." Yeshua answered, "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out." (Luke 19:36-40)Here the disciples do get it -- though I'm unclear if the gathered crowd is being conflated with the smaller group of disciples who have traveled the countryside with Yeshua these many months -- but I'm more interested in Yeshua's declaration: "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out."
The Savior has come, and all creation knows it. And perhaps the Pharisees know it, too. Yeshua will be crucified by the end of the week -- a punishment the Romans used on rebels. The Pharisees are saying, "Keep it quiet. Don't draw attention to yourself. Don't look like a rebel leader. What, are you trying to get yourself killed?"
Four weeks ago we read:
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to Yeshua, "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you." Yeshua said to them, "Go and tell that fox for me, 'Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.' Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of our God.' " (Luke 13:32-35)It's easy to miss, given all that comes later in the passage, but this passage opens with the Pharisees saying, "Herod wants to kill you -- get away from here." The Pharisees are warning Yeshua.
Yeshua says, "I'm not trying to get myself killed, but I am going to confront the very center of this domination system, which I know probably will get myself killed -- but do you not see that I am doing this to save you?"
And indeed, the gathered crowds at that entrance to Jerusalem do recognize it. They cry out, "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of our God!"
And it is so easy for us to get caught up in that celebration, to move from celebration to celebration -- Yeshua's celebrated entrance into the holy city at the time of festival, Yeshua's triumphant emergence from the empty tomb on Easter.
But we're still a week away from Easter.
We are still on this Lenten journey, drawing ever closer to that final confrontation and overthrow.
I know of a pastor who said, two weeks ago, on Lent 4, "Next Sunday is the last Sunday in Lent, and then it's Palm Sunday."
And indeed we are no longer in the desert -- we have entered the city of Jerusalem. So our Lenten desert days are at an end, so to speak.
We don't sing that (h)alle-- word yet, but we do shout loud hosannas -- celebrating the coming of Yeshua, coming from that itinerant Galilean ministry in to the city, in to the heart of the religious institutional life.
But we are not at Easter yet. Last Sunday was not the last Sunday in Lent. It's important to me to remember this. This is not the end of the story. We are still preparing for Easter.
I've never been very good at Lent -- probably in part because I grew up so Low Church that I didn't even know some Protestants did Lent until I was in college -- but the idea of Lent as a time when we consciously draw closer to the Divine -- shedding that which separates us and cultivating that which unites us -- has been seeping into me.
Laura Ruth, in response to an update email I sent her last weekend, said to me: "Lord, you know when Jesus said you have to give up your life to gain your life, maybe he meant give up the part of life that gives no life."
Lent this year has coincided with my relinquishing -- or beginning to relinquish -- various things that do not give me life. Relationships that are not possible. Communities that only frustrate and do not feed me. Material goods that fill my space but never get any actual use.
It's a journey that's definitely not over yet. This weekend, for example, I had a resurgence of grief over a relationship I know it is healthiest to let go of but which I still crave having in my life.
Letting go of our old lives is hard. And it is like death in a way. Yeshua says, "Whoever loses their life for my sake will gain it." Whoever is willing to give up old ways of being in the world, old habits of living, will find a new way of living. "And whoever wants to save their life will lose it." If the waters are rising up around you and you are trying to save from the floodwaters something too heavy for you to carry, you will drown unless you let go.
That first crowd which welcomed Yeshua into Jerusalem cried out, "Save us!" Is that what we cry? Do we recognize how much we are in need of salvation, of being lifted up out of the mire of our habits and our addictions, how much we long to have oppressive yokes lifted from us? Or are we just looking for someone to pass us by on their way to somewhere else, to leave us alone, to not call us into radical risk-taking new life? Are we comfortable where we are, happy to wave palm branches from the sidelines and then return to our old lives?
I've heard a lot of talk this Palm Sunday weekend about Jesus' "triumphal" entry into Jerusalem. This throws me, because the rejoicing on Palm Sunday feels expectant -- the Savior has come, and we are so excited about what zie will do here in Jerusalem, here at the center of religious and political power. We are so looking forward to an overthrow of all the earthly powers that oppress us. And of course, Yeshua is forever confounding expectations. Yeshua submits to the authorities, submits to betrayal, abandonment, suffering, and even death. The triumphal moment is Easter morning -- when Yeshua arises having confronted death and demonstrating that death need not hold us captive forever.
To see Palm Sunday as a triumphal moment seems premature to me. We know the hard work that lies ahead. It is the work of confronting the death-dealing forces of the world and ultimately death itself.
One sermon I heard this Sunday suggested that this week -- Holy Week -- we begin a journey into the heart of that which oppresses us.
Does that journey change us? Do we decide that this struggle isn't worth the cost?
We encounter a crowd crying out again on Good Friday, but this time they are not crying "Hosanna!" but rather, "Crucify!"
In their book on Holy Week, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan suggest that the crowds in front of Pilate, the crowds who call for the release of Barrabas, were hand-picked by the authorities -- that they are not the peasants who have been following Yeshua and who rejoiced on Palm Sunday.
Pilate asks, "Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews [that is, Jesus]?" But, Mark tells us, the temple authorities "stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead" (15:11).The interpretation I'm used to merely assumes that the welcoming rejoicing crowd turned on Jesus -- just as Judas, one of the Twelve, betrayed Jesus; just as the disciples will abandon Jesus at the Cross. Either way, the question remains: which crowd are we in?
Almost certainly, this is not the same crowd that heard Jesus with delight during the week; Mark gives us no reason to think that crowd has turned against Jesus. Moreover, it is highly unlikely that the crowd from earlier in the week would be allowed into Herod's palace, where this scene is set. This crowd, the crowd stirred up by the chief priests, must have been much smaller and is best understood as provided by the authorities (somebody had to lead them into the palace).
Rodney A. Whitacre, in a book on the Gospel of John, notes that according to some manuscripts of Matthew 27:16-17, Barrabas's personal name was Jesus. "So the crowd had to choose between two men, both of whom were named Jesus and were identified as 'son of Abba' yet who represented two different understandings of God's salvation." The NRSV tells us that, "Barrabas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder in the insurrection" (Matthew 15:7). Certainly a different kind of action against the forces of oppression than Jesus' -- but can you blame an occupied people for finding that appealing? Which kind of Savior are we seeking? Which crowd are we in?
Where are we when Yeshua celebrates the Passover seder? Where are we when Yeshua goes to pray and asks the disciples, "Stay here and keep watch with me"? Where are we when Pilate asks, "Whom do you wish me to release to you?"
Are we in that Upper Room, close at table with Yeshua and so many friends, partaking of the fruit of the vine, of the parsley dipped in salt water, of the unleavened bread, of the bitter horseradish and the sweet haroset?
Do we understand that when we commemorate that Last Supper we are echoing God's deliverance of the Hebrews from the Mitzrayim, the tight places, of Egypt, and also declaring God's deliverance of all of us from our own Mitzrayim?
Borg and Crossan's book on Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday, and closes with a reiteration of the questions, "Which journey are we on? Which procession are we in?"
For at the same time as Yeshua was entering Jerusalem on a donkey, Pilate was entering by another way.
Borg and Crossan summarize:
From the East, Jesus rode a donkey down the Mount of Olives, cheered by his followers. Jesus was from the peasant village of Nazareth, his message was about the kingdom of God, and his followers came from the peasant class. They had journeyed to Jerusalem from Galilee, about a hundred miles to the north [...] On the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Idumea, Judea, and Samaria, entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers. (2)"Which journey are we on? Which procession are we in?" Do we journey through peasant villages, casting out the demons that oppress and afflict people, healing them of their ailments? Do we cross the sea, going back and forth "to the other side"? Do we feed the hungry, making abundance out of scarcity?
Or do we come from places of power? Are we representatives of an occupying power, of death-dealing forces? Do we come to keep the peace ("and where they make a desolation, they call it peace," says a Caledonian chieftan of the Roman Empire, in Tacitus) or to bring true peace ("The opposite of war isn't peace, it's creation" -- RENT)?
The early followers of Yeshua were called followers of The Way. The Way. Not a stagnant commoditizable item, not a single moment, but a journey.
When we cry, "Hosanna!" are we celebrating the entrance of a triumphant king or a humble savior?
"Which journey are we on? Which procession are we in?"
Let us carry these questions with us as we journey through Holy Week.