No palm trees were harmed and no hosannas were shouted in this Sunday’s gospel! Happy UnPalm Sunday! From its first chapter, Luke’s gospel has been headed, with Jesus, to Jerusalem and here we are, disciples entering the city with our Lord. While it is the last Sunday of Lent it is the beginning of the most important week of the Christian year. This is what it is all about right? For the unchurched, it may seem as if Christmas is the most important, or most central celebration, but, if it weren’t for the series of events we commemorate this week, Christianity wouldn’t exist!
We think of the events from the entry into Jerusalem through the resurrection as having taken place over a period of eight days, but this comes from a literary compression of the story. We are never told clearly how long Jesus ministered in Jerusalem. Based on surrounding details in other accounts, some estimate that Jesus was in Jerusalem for six months; from his entrance for the Feast of Tabernacles in November to Passover in April.
This morning, we entered with the children’s procession with palms but, unlike the other Gospels, Luke’s story of the entry to Jerusalem makes no mention of children or palms. He actually says nothing that would indicate that any of the other people crowding Jerusalem that day paid any particular notice to this rowdy group, that is, other than the Pharisees. All it says is that Jesus entered riding a colt with his disciples, people put their coats down on the road in front of him, and the disciples called out, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of Lord. Peace in heaven, and glory to God in the highest heaven!” (Luke 19:38)
With all the focus usually placed on palm leaves, I expect that we often overlook the coats being laid on the ground, or at least don’t take time to wonder if this is significant in some way. With the palms out of the way in this year’s reading, I discovered that entry on a colt with coats laid on the ground was a common greeting for a royal figure and part of a pre-exilic annual ritual of enthronement. The nature of his entrance also fulfils prophecy from Zechariah 9:9 which states.
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion?
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you:
triumphant and victorious on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
The fact that it was only Jesus and his disciples entering, and only his disciples who were cheering, is important to note. They are believers celebrating the Messiah, but they will not, as it would seem in the other Gospels, later be the same people crying out for him to be crucified. Luke also makes no Davidic claims in this Gospel account. For Luke it is clear that the entry into Jerusalem was, “an event for believers by believers” (Craddock).
So, instead of focusing on palms and cheering crowds let’s continue, as we did through the temptations, to focus on Jesus’ experiences. Scott Hoezee begins his lectionary guide for this Sunday with a story from M*A*S*H*.
“In one of the earlier episodes …the doctor known as “Trapper” gets diagnosed with a stomach ulcer (Trapper was memorably played by Wayne Rogers, who died recently). Although initially upset about having to deal with a hole in his gut, Trapper soon beams with joy when his bunkmate Hawkeye reminds him that according to Army regulations, Trapper was going home! His ulcer was his ticket out of the misery of the Korean War.
As the episode progresses, they arrange a farewell party for Trapper. But minutes before Trapper shows up for his party, he is informed by the Company Clerk, Radar, that the Army had recently changed its regulations and his ulcer would have to be treated right there in Korea. Trapper goes to the party anyway and allows the hilarity, festivity, and joy of the evening to proceed for a good long while until he’s asked to give a final speech, at which time he tells everyone the truth: he’s not going anywhere after all.
But throughout the party, both Trapper and Radar have a look in their eyes that betrays the truth, if only anyone had looked close enough to notice. Trapper smiles and even laughs during the party at times but it’s a bit muted and the sadness in his eyes tells the reason why: it’s a nice party but it’s not going to end the way he had hoped or the way all the other partygoers were anticipating (“Palm Sunday Center For Excellence In Preaching” 2016).
Philippians reminds us of all Jesus had already given up: the glories and splendors of heaven and any powers of divinity. He had to restrain his power, stay in one place, and give in to a body which demanded sleep and food and experienced illness. We know that he suffered major temptation and torment with the devil in the wilderness. Living amidst his creation, he would have been daily reminded of just how badly corrupted it had become. His own creations did not even recognize him.
Think about what Jesus was facing as he rode into Jerusalem with his cheering disciples that must have muted his smiles and laughs that day. He would have been acutely aware that soon, in this same city, he would be arrested, held captive, denied by his closest followers, ridiculed, condemned, beaten, and crucified. He knew that he could avoid it all if he chose to; he knew that he would do nothing to stop it; and he knew he would experience a very public, shameful, and human death.
His disciples were full of excitement about the new king and, despite Jesus having predicted his death three times, still didn’t understand the true nature of the Messiah. Presumably they thought that the cutting off of chariots, war horses, battle bows, and commanding peace would be done through military victories (Zech 9:10).
Most of the Philippians reading today is a hymn which scholars presume Paul quotes from common use amongst Christ’s followers at the time. It covers Jesus’ story in clear progression from pre-existence, earthly career, and glorification. But Jesus sacrificed all for us. He wasn’t looking for honours, for a big throne and lots of wealth, and not so that crowds would cheer and shout his name.
Paul seems to have been dealing with problems in Philippi. The first four verses of Philippians 2 indicate that pride was becoming a problem. One of my et peeves is the use of the word humbled. Have you ever noticed that most of the time when you hear the word being used it is in speeches being given by people who are being highly honoured for some reason? Receiving an Oscar or other form of recognition is the opposite of humbling it is honouring! Sure Jesus was exalted by God in the end but at no time in his human existence nor after his resurrection was he anything but humble. He emptied himself completely for us, people who couldn’t even recognize that he was the very one who had created us. Paul said to the congregation at Philippi,
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves, ‘Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.’ Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, (Phil 2: 4-5).
For us it may be impossible to see Holy Week without the sure knowledge of the victory coming next week, but even for us we meet today with smiles and laughs somewhat muted, truly humbled by the extent of Jesus’ sacrifice for us.