Delivered at Ames UCC
on March 20, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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Holy Week begins today, outside of Jerusalem. Jesus is with the disciples. He reaches the Mount of Olives. This place has been an important place in the history of Judea: It is where King David went to weep (2 Samuel 15.30) and it is where Zechariah said God would bring the end and then take control as king of all (Zechariah 14.9).1
Jesus continues on. He rides a donkey the disciples “procured” at his request. The last time we saw a donkey was when Mary rode one, pregnant with Jesus. The donkey is also a reminder of Zechariah’s prophesy (9.9b):
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
It’s enough to give you the shivers. But that’s not my goal, at least not entirely. Each gospel was written down decades after the facts. They rely on both human memory and the human will to make a case for Jesus as Christ. It is up to us to discern which is at play in any given section and, either way, which parts of those stories resonate most with our personal encounters with the divine.
It is a lot of work. So, for today at least, I am not going to join with Mark in trying to convince you of something about Jesus. I will try, instead, to simply to give some of the context, as best scripture and scholarship can currently show, for Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday.
I do so in the hope that each of you will participate fully in our services this week. Without Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, Easter is just a chocolate bunny. Delicious, but hollow.
Jesus and the disciples enter into Jerusalem. They are not alone, as we hear. But they are also not the cause for celebration.
This is Passover so many Jewish pilgrims are coming into the city. Those who have already arrived, and those who live in Jerusalem, are throwing down greens and calling out blessings for the new arrivals, as was common on holy days.
As Christians, we read the Hosanna! as a confirmation of Jesus’ identity as the anointed one. Our Jewish cousins would disagree, saying instead that this is simply a portion of Psalm 118 (25–26) that is often sung at such gatherings.2
The only truly unusual part, which resonates with Jesus’ passage by the Mount of Olives and on a donkey, is the way the crowd also throws down cloaks as for a king. That was not standard practice.
Jesus rides on, arriving at the temple. There is nowhere more important in his life or that of his co-religionists. As we learned last week, people had died to defend it from the desecration of foreign powers and greedy locals. This would be the ideal time and place for Jesus, having gone past the mountain, ridden a donkey, and had cloaks thrown down, to proclaim himself as king.
But he does not. Jesus just looks around the temple then goes back to Bethany for the night.3
And here is where our church traditions do us a disservice. If you were paying attention to the chapters and verses of our scriptures these last few weeks, you would have noticed that today we went back in time. We had two weeks in chapter ten, two in chapter twelve, and one in chapter thirteen. And here we are back in chapter eleven.
The result is an impression that we go from joy to betrayal to death in only five days and without cause beyond this pilgrimage arrival. What actually happened? Well, all of the haranguing we have heard over the last four weeks.
Jesus came in with the pilgrims, went to the temple, then left. But then he came back and let the people have it:
You are murderers of God’s true messengers!
Don’t be showy, be generous!
Love each other! All else is failure!
Destruction will come, do not doubt!
Jesus did not come peacefully into Jerusalem, leave, then get killed. He came in brazenly and kept coming back in to give confrontational, even noxious, lessons. That is why his road and that of Pilate begin to point toward each other today.
Pontius Pilate’s Palm Sunday begins at the coast, the preferred home of Judea’s Roman governors.4 Though he is a proxy for the emperor, Pilate is physically quite far from the seat of imperial power. The distance between Jerusalem and Rome, on foot and by boat, is 3,000 miles if you take the southern route and nearly 4,000 miles by way of the north.
One way to read Pilate’s placement here is that he is such a strong leader that he can manage an important community on the edge of empire. Another way is that he is such a poor leader that he can only handle something insignificant in the boonies. The historic record suggests something in the middle.
Pilate is able to hold onto his post for a full ten years before the Samaritans get him fired for slaughtering so many of them when they assembled for a treasure hunt and he assumed it was a revolt. This wasn’t the first time he had shown what one author describes as “poor judgement, stubbornness, and…weakness.”5
But Pilate does know that shows of strength are essential to occupation. Holidays like Passover are a useful time to remind residents and pilgrims alike of who is in charge, and to maintain control in case things get out of hand. Passover does, after all, celebrate liberation from another oppressive force, namely Egypt. People could get stirred back up.
So Pilate enters Jerusalem with a massive show of concentrated force: “cavalry on horse, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold.”6
On Palm Sunday we have two different representatives of power coming together. The man on the donkey comes in the back gate. A teacher and healer intent on making his voice for God heard. The man on the chariot comes in the front gate. An international cop intent on maintaining the peace.
EASTER NEEDS HOLY WEEK
The allusions Mark makes to Jesus as king—the Mount of Olives, the donkey, the cloaks—can make it seem like God had Holy Week all planned out. Or maybe Jesus did, if the story really happened as described. Maybe Jesus simply made sure to hit those familiar notes to heighten the attention to his message.
Either way, we are entering into the crisis that seems always to come when someone loudly and publically and insistently says “your ways are morally corrupt and spiritually broken, you are killing your own souls just as you do creation.”
We would not be here today without that message or without the hope that is, somehow, embedded within such a critique. Yes, Jesus, there is the ugly world we keep making. Yes, Jesus, there is something else inviting us to do better.
The order of our readings does a disservice to our understanding of the full story of Jesus. So do we if we go from Palm Sunday to Easter with nothing in between. Without following Jesus from the Mount of Olives to the temple, then to the garden and the hill of death before arriving at Easter’s gorgeous mystery, we are just like Pilate: interlopers more concerned with calm than freedom.
So please come with me Thursday night across the street and then back here on Friday night. Come to remember how easily we find ourselves in the position to betray God’s call. Come to remember, too, how we may also choose to remain steadfast instead.
Let us stand by Jesus as faithfully this week as we did on Christmas morning. Then Easter morning not only will our baskets be filled with chocolate, but our souls with the full transformative power of Christ.
1Ernest, James D. “Exegetical Perspective on Mark 11:1-11,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 155.
2Levine, Amy-Jill and Marc Zvi Brettler. The Jewish Annotated New Testament. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 83.
3Ernest, James D. “Exegetical Perspective on Mark 11:1-11,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 157.
4Borg, Marcus J. and John Dominic Crossan. The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem. (New York: HarperOne, 2006), p. 3
5Vos, J. G. “Pilate,” The Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible, Volume 4 (M – P). Merrill C. Tenney, General Editor, and Moises Silva, Revision Editor. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), p. 896.
6Borg, Marcus J. and John Dominic Crossan. The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem. (New York: HarperOne, 2006), p. 3