Palm Sunday – 6th Sunday of Lent

2nd April 2023

Reflection on the readings for the Liturgy of the Palms.

Something is up. Something out of the ordinary is going to happen. There has been a level of advance  

planning that’s been done in secret. There’s even a password. 

And the plan is to enact a message that says: the rider of the donkey is your King, your humble King!  The mode of entry tells the onlookers, this is a peaceful act; not an act of aggression.

The Greek word translated as ‘humble’ can also have the meaning of mild, gentle or meek. The same word appears in the  Beatitudes – ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.’ If we look to the original source of the quote, it comes from the prophet Zechariah where the word in Hebrew, ‘a-ni’ has the wider meaning of poor, afflicted or lowly, and is the word used for example in Leviticus 19:10 and Deuteronomy 15:11, to describe those for whom the Israelites must care: the poor and needy. 

The kingship that Jesus espouses is definitely counter cultural. His kingship is about humility, meekness, and solidarity with the poor and needy. Jesus’s attitude to power is to turn it upside down, placing the poor and needy, the meek and humble at the top of the hierarchy. The quote from Zechariah is longer, ‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ Despite being humble, this king is also to be seen as triumphant and victorious! 

The crowd also seems to be part of this action. They quickly cut down branches from the trees and spread their coats on the road as an improvised red carpet. They are setting the scene that supports visually their rallying cry: Here comes your King, your humble King! 

By taking up this cry, the people are affirming their allegiance to this King – and they are undertaking to live under his reign, to live according to his rule.

The gospel story has a prequel in which John the Baptist first emerges on the scene, declaring ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”’ (Matthew 3:1-3). 

Prepare the way for the Lord,  says John, and here a few years later we have the Lord riding along that very way into Jerusalem for what will be the culmination of his earthly ministry.  In Luke’s gospel John the Baptist goes on to give specific examples how the people (the crowd) are to prepare the way. They are to share their extra clothes and their extra food with those who lack. They are to collect no more taxes – or rewards – than are their due. They are not to extort money nor to make false accusations against others. They are to be generous sharing up to half of what they have; they  are to be truthful and honest. At this first stage of the mission, coats are to be shared – on Palm Sunday they are to be laid on the road before the Lord!

The gospel is about transforming the world, turning its habits and its conventions upside down. It is about rebalancing power between those who have lots of resources and those who have little. It is about rebalancing power between those whose jobs and positions – tax gatherer and soldiers, for us oil magnates and lobbyists – come loaded with power and influence, and those how do not – small scale tax payers, peasant farmers, women, the poor, the disabled, the foreigner. For when the meek inherit the earth, when the needs of the poor and lowly are met – when creation is treasured and not trashed – then will the Kingdom of God come on earth. 

I see strong parallels between Jesus’s action in entering Jerusalem on a donkey, and actions carried out by climate activists – such as that on Ash Wednesday when coal dust was used to mark the sign of the cross on the foreheads those taking part who then cried out aloud a lament as they held lumps of coal aloft.  These actions are prophetic actions designed to draw the onlookers’ – and the media, and  the gospel writers’ – attention to the message. The world order needs to be turned upside down so that the interests of the poor and the needy take priority – so that the often unvoiced needs of nature take priority,  so that power and authority are put in the hands of the many, the community, and are not kept in the hands of the wealthy few.

The action carried out by Jesus and the crowds is successful. It sets the whole city into a state of turmoil and flux, and the opinion that Jesus is a prophet is voiced loud and clear. Read on in this chapter from Matthew’s gospel and and you will see and hear more Jesus’s challenging good news message. 

Psalm 118 echoes Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, into the temple. The one who enters these gates has to be righteous. Is Jesus righteous? Yes! The one who becomes the corner stone, will be the one who has been previously rejected. Had Jesus been rejected? Yes – by those with misused power and authority! Has Jesus been marginalised and overlooked by the mainstream protagonists of the world? Yes – it is the humble, the poor and the meek who have recognised his true righteousness. Is Jesus the means of salvation? Yes!  Is Jesus a source of light, of blessing for the world? Yes! 

Let us then echo the crowds, shouting Hosannah! God, save us! Jesus is our blessing!

Matthew 21:1-11

When Jesus and his disciples had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, `The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

“Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

1 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; *
his mercy endures for ever.

2 Let Israel now proclaim, *
“His mercy endures for ever.”

19 Open for me the gates of righteousness; *
I will enter them;
I will offer thanks to the Lord.

20 “This is the gate of the Lord; *
he who is righteous may enter.”

21 I will give thanks to you, for you answered me *
and have become my salvation.

22 The same stone which the builders rejected *
has become the chief cornerstone.

23 This is the Lord’s doing, *
and it is marvellous in our eyes.

24 On this day the Lord has acted; *
we will rejoice and be glad in it.

25 Hosannah, Lord, hosannah! *
Lord, send us now success.

26 Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; *
we bless you from the house of the Lord.

27 God is the Lord; he has shined upon us; *
form a procession with branches up to the horns of the altar.

28 “You are my God, and I will thank you; *
you are my God, and I will exalt you.”

29 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; *
his mercy endures for ever.

Author: Judith Russenberger

Environmentalist and theologian, with husband and three grown up children plus one cat, living in London SW14. I enjoy running and drinking coffee - ideally with a friend or a book.

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