Palm Sunday, Year A
Matthew 21:1-11 - link to NRSV text
It strikes me in some ways as an oddity of American politics that one of the worst things one candidate can call another is "a Washington insider." Wouldn't we want people representing us in Washington to be "Washington insiders," to know how Washington works and be both experienced and skilled at navigating that system as it is? Why is it an insult to say that a political candidate is a "professional politician"? After all, when a leak has sprung in our basement, we don't seek out a person who is a "plumbing outsider" or "not a professional plumber"; in plumbing, when we want skilled help immediately, we seek out the person who's an insider to the system we use.
There are reasons, though, that we tend to like candidates who we're convinced are outsiders to politics, and I think that one of them is that we're dissatisfied with the games of politics as they're currently played. We don't want someone who works well within the system; we want a system that works, and on some level, we know that the system as it's been running isn't working for a lot of people.
I think a dynamic with some similarities to that is at work in Matthew's presentation of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. Matthew has the crowd proclaiming Jesus as the king in Jerusalem who has come as an outsider, a prophet from Galilee (Matthew 21:11). This is not a case of "meet the new boss, same as the old boss": things are going to change, and in the biggest of ways, when Jesus is king -- starting with how kings rule.
Matthew bends over backwards to present Jesus as the fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9, even to the slight awkwardness of showing Jesus as riding on two animals at once. Matthew wants people to understand that Jesus is "Son of David," the king who restore permanently the Davidic line, fulfilling God's promise to David:
I have made a covenant with my chosen one; *
I have sworn an oath to David my servant:
‘I will establish your line for ever, *
and preserve your throne for all generations.’
(Psalm 89:3-4, BCP)
But Matthew also wants people to know that when he says that Jesus is king, we're not talking about kingship as it's usually conceived, or kingship as it's usually used by those who have it. Jesus is a king who restores the glory of God's people, but not with military victories. Jesus triumphs, but not with the might of the sword. Jesus rides into the city not on a war horse, but like the in Zechariah 9:9, "triumphant and victorious," but "humble and riding on a donkey," a beast of trade rather than of war, because this is a different kind of king, a king who
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.
There are at least two points that are central in the Christian proclamation of Jesus as Lord. The first is that the position has been filled, fully and forever -- no other candidates need apply. Jesus, and not any earthly ruler, nor any power or principality, is Lord of all that is. The second is that the Lord Jesus is not like other kings. Jesus did not come to be "king of the hill," but to fulfill our longing that
every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
That's what the writer of the Gospel According to John meant when he wrote that Jesus said to Pilate, "my kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36). It's not that Jesus is uninterested in what happens on earth. Quite the opposite is true. Jesus didn't come to tell us to give up on the earth, any more than he came to rule it like Pilate. Jesus came to redeem it. Jesus is king, but his kingship is not of Pilate's world and world order, his kosmos.
Jesus didn't come to take over Pilate's system; he came to replace it. When we confess that Jesus is Lord and Christ, the anointed king, we are leaving no room for the Pilates of this world. When we confess Jesus as Lord – not in some distant world or only in the future, but of all that is, and of here and now – we are proclaiming the Good News that it is possible, with Jesus as Lord, for all those with power to use it as he used his, for the vision of the prophets to find flesh among us who proclaim Christ the king.
When the nurse at the door of Viola De Lesseps, Gwynneth Paltrow's character in Shakespeare in Love, comes to wake her, saying "It is a new day," Viola responds, "It is a new WORLD."
That is the vision and the reality we proclaim when we honor Jesus, the outside of Nazareth, as king in Jerusalem. Jesus brings more than a new face under the crown, a new point on the calendar: it is a new world.
Thanks be to God!
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Good stuff, as always! I'll be thinking on your points this Sunday.
Posted by: James | Mar 15, 2005 9:00:23 PM
I read somewhere around the blogosphere this week someone questioning why the passion is read on Palm Sunday. "Isn't it skipping ahead?", they asked. I'd never really thought of it that way before, and I tend to agree, although it just got me curious more than anything else. I've just grown up with the tradition, so never really questioned it before.
Is it simply so the story gets told on a Sunday (for those that don't come to midweek or Good Friday services)? Or is there some much more clever liturgical reason for it?
Posted by: dave paisley | Mar 17, 2005 6:07:23 PM
Dave, I'll have to look into that. For a lot of people who don't go to midweek services even during Holy Week, it seems to function as a way to hear that Jesus was executed before they hear that God raised Jesus from the dead ... but I don't know offhand whether that's an "official" reason. I'll see what I can dig up on the subject tomorrow, though unfortunately most of my books on liturgy are boxed up at the moment.
In the meantime, I'm sure there are others out there who know ... what do you say?
Posted by: Sarah Dylan Breuer | Mar 17, 2005 10:28:39 PM
Marion Hatchett in his commentary on the American Prayer Book (pages 223-224)places the Passion readings and the procession of palms in the Sarum rite, which I believe is a Roman rite from about the 13th century. The Sarum form was used by the reformers as a type or pattern after their break with Rome around the 1530's. This would suggest that our doing both on Palm Sunday is not a mere accommodation to the busyness of our times, but holds other meanings and depths which we could explore.
Posted by: Terry Moore | Mar 18, 2005 10:01:14 AM
What about our leaders today who insist on being Pilates? Leaders of dictatorships and, yes, leaders of democracies, persist in being Pilates.
But, politics isn’t the only place where one finds people with the Pilate mind-set. They’re in the corporate and business world, in non-governmental organizations, and in government institutions.
I do some part-time work in a Canadian federal prison, and while I find that some staff and guards are interested in doing good work with and for the prisoners, I find too many others who “lord” it over those underneath them, even staff over staff.
Likewise within the church, one can find the Pilate mind-set – amongst both clergy and laity. These people seem to see human structures in hierarchical terms in which power is used to control and manipulate to varying degrees.
Posted by: Tom Brownlee | Mar 18, 2005 2:10:11 PM
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