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Palms, provocation and power

Peter Carrell takes a fresh look at what Jesus chose to provoke and proclaim as he entered Jerusalem.

Peter Carrell   |  29 Mar 2017

Sunday 9 April 2017 - Palm Sunday

This Sunday it is possible to prepare a 'Liturgy of the Palms' and 'Liturgy of the Passion'. 
In our church there are broadly two traditions or customs followed:
 
 1. This Sunday is Palm Sunday and the readings should focus on the procession of Jesus into Jerusalem with the Gospel reading being the story of Jesus' entry to Jerusalem from the gospel of the year.
 
 2. It is the Sunday in which we celebrate both the Liturgy of the Palms and the Liturgy of the Passion. Thus the gospel story of entry to Jerusalem is told near the beginning of the service, in conjunction with a procession of palms, but the gospel readings in the normal place for readings to occur in the overall service should concern the passion or suffering of our Lord.
 
 I am offering comment on readings for a liturgy which solely focuses on Palm Sunday. Accordingly I am combining readings from the two columns set out in NZL 2017 for Sunday 9 April in order to offer commentary on a standard set of three readings plus psalm.
 
The entry of Jesus into Jerusalem with acclamation is also the beginning of a week of intense suffering on the part of Jesus.
 
Theme

The coming of the King/Beginning of Holy Week/

Jesus' last days before the cross/The suffering of Jesus
 
Sentence  

Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest! (Matthew 21:9)

 Collect
 
 Jesus, when you rode into Jerusalem
 the people waved palms
 with shouts of acclamation.
 Grant that when the shouting dies
 we may still walk beside you even to a cross. Amen.
 
 Readings
 
 Isaiah 50:4-9a 
 Psalm 31:9-16 
 Philippians 2:5-11
 Matthew 21:1-11
 
 Commentary
 
 Isaiah 50:4-9a
 
 Speaking in the voice of the 'servant' - a strong Isaianic theme through these chapters - the prophet envisages the servant of the Lord perfectly in tune with his master, speaking as the Lord tells him and obedient to the will of the Lord.
 
 Christians reading Isaiah recall this great prophetic book has functioned in some Christian minds as 'the fifth gospel'. They see in this (and other servant passages) hints of the story of Jesus in his journey to the cross.
 
 In our journey through this Palm Sunday and Holy Week, we see Jesus having set his 'face like a flint' (7) towards the cross, and we will find through our readings that he 'gave [his] back to those who struck [him]' and that he did not 'hide [his] face from insult and spitting' (6).
 
 No one will find Jesus guilty during his trials (9) and the Lord will vindicate him on Easter day (8).
 
 Psalm 31:9-16
 
 David's life had its ups and downs. At certain periods he was 'on the run', pursued by relentless forces determined to end his life and therefore his influence on the course of events in Israel.

These verses in this psalm 'of David' express pain and sorrow with a heartfelt tone which conveys bitter experience.
 
 We read this passage as an expression of what we understand the suffering of Jesus to have been. With some phrases we might first think of Jesus dying on the cross (for instance verses 9-10, 11a-12), with others we might think of Jesus journeying through the following days when people were plotting against him (for instance verse 13), or our attention may be drawn to the specific circumstances of the journey to the cross between Pilate's headquarters and Golgotha (verse 11).
 
 What kept Jesus going? What might keep us going through our own suffering? The answers lie in verses 14-16.
 Philippians 2:5-11
 
 These verses tune in well with the readings that precede it. In theological terms they set out the historical pathway of Jesus as one come from heaven to earth in order that humanity might be saved before his return to heaven.
 
 Paul, however, is not writing an abstract 'theology of the cross' for the attention of later theologians.

Rather, Paul has been urging his Philippian readers, troubled by some varying schools of preachers, to be united in Christ (verse 2).

To get to this place of unity something is going to have to give. So Paul entreats his readers to act in the interests of others, rather than in their own interests (verses 3-4). The icing on the cake of this argument is that the Philippians should,

 'Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus' (5).
 
 What might this mind be, Paul? A good question and one Paul is glad we have asked. Thus his answer proceeds through verses 6-11. Many scholars think that the words Paul writes here were an early Christian credal hymn.
 
 Time and space prevents a full discussion of verse six: issues are round the meaning of 'form of God', 'equality with God' and 'something to be exploited'.

Another reading is that this verse constitutes an early declaration by Paul that Jesus of Nazareth was also divine. (If so, this challenges those theologians (and sceptics) who say that the attribution of divinity to Jesus came from the later, Greek-influenced church rather than from the early, Jewish-derived church). Others question if this verse anticipates later thinking about the Trinity, for instance on the 'co-equality' of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
 
 With the context of 2:1-4 in mind, Paul is making the point that Jesus had exalted status which he did not cling to. Instead, he jettisoned all privilege and power in order to look to the 'interests' of ourselves.
 
 Similarly, much ink has been expended on the related question of what 'emptied himself' means in verse 7. For instance, did Jesus empty himself of all divinity or of all divine knowledge (e.g. in order to be fully human), but, if so, can we talk of Jesus being divine during his life on earth? One can easily multiply many such questions! This subject, of Jesus emptying himself is called 'kenosis.' What we can say, confidently, is that Paul is saying that whatever it took for Jesus to be in the place where our interests were placed ahead of Jesus' interests, Jesus did it. Jesus held nothing back in order that we might be fully saved.
 
 With verse 8 we may feel we are on ground which yields less questions: in Jesus' life as told in the gospels we encounter one who is humble, who walks obediently to God, even to the cross and death on it.
 
 Through verses 9-11 we have no mention of 'resurrection' or 'ascension,' yet what we read implies the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, captured and expressed in the word 'exalted'.

 Jesus came down from heaven to earth, from high status to no status, from life to death. The journey has been reversed: earth to heaven, no status to resumed status, death to life. Verses 9-11 set out this reversal but the focus is on 'resumed status': 'highly exalted,' 'name that is above every name,' 'so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,' and 'every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.'

 
 In a sense these verses both look back to the event of the resurrection-and-ascension of Jesus (understood as one event of lifting Jesus up), look up to where Jesus is today (from other NT passages, e.g. Acts 2:32, the exaltation of Jesus is to 'the right hand of God') and look ahead to the day of the end of all things when the exalted Jesus will be revealed to all humanity.
 
 Matthew 21:1-11
 
 As with many gospel stories, the preacher is faced with the challenge of refreshing the impact of familiar stories.

Christians are generally not in danger of finding that 'familiarity breeds contempt' for stories about our wonderful Lord. But we may be in danger of familiarity breeding comfort or complacency. Can we hear this story this year as though for the first time? 

 
 We have already met the crowds following Jesus (at least 'following' in some loose sense of the word).

In the story immediately preceding this one, 'a large crowd followed him' as Jesus left Jericho (20:29). Healing the blind is impressive and would have done everything to 'hype' the crowd. It does not take much imagination on our part to work out that the crowd gossiped what is happening and heightened anticipation as Jesus walked from Jericho towards Jerusalem.
 
 Jesus himself makes something of a public event about his arrival in Jerusalem for he organised his disciples to secure animals to transport him (21:1-3) and this organisation seems to presuppose earlier organisation between Jesus and the supplier of the animals (2-3).
 
 Thus we must confront the fact that Jesus did nothing to avoid Jerusalem (he intended to go to the city), refrained from quietly and unobtrusively entering Jerusalem (e.g. by nightfall, face covered up) and created a public event via entry on an animal.
 
 From a narrative perspective this makes sense: if Jesus is to die at the hands of others then the 'others' (i.e. various authorities with the power to execute someone) need some provocation.
 
 From a theological perspective it helps us as readers to continue to be presented with the reality of Jesus who is no ordinary citizen in Israel.

With the impressive entry to Jerusalem comes the opportunity for the crowd to give voice to their understanding of Jesus (the Son of David = Messiah, 9; and 'the prophet Jesus', 11) and for the writer to give his understanding of Jesus (king of Zion, prophesied beforehand, 5 = Zechariah 9:9 from an alternative Old Testament reading for today).
 
 But these descriptions and titles of Jesus also contribute to the sense of provocation: if one does not listen to a prophet, perhaps the prophet should be done away with so his voice is silenced; if one does not like rival authorities around being acclaimed as king and messiah, there is one way to effectively end the claims.
 
 As always through the gospels, the royal claims of Jesus are as much about a particular kind of royalty as about being a king.

So Jesus comes on a humble animal, fulfilling a prophecy about humility (5). He has not come to replace either Herod the Judean king or Pilate as representative of the Roman emperor. But he comes in the name of the greatest power, the Lord God.
 
 What is our response to this reading?
 
 Partly we hear the reading as a chapter in the unfolding story of the whole gospel and in the development of the specific story of this last week of Jesus' life. To this reading our response is the response we make to the larger story of which it is a part. The preacher, for instance, could ask today the same question as on Good Friday and Easter Day: what do you make of this Jesus? Do you entrust your life to him?
 
 But we can also focus on this reading separately (but perhaps with the other readings of the day in our minds) and ask questions about power and politics.

What kind of kingship brings salvation to the world? How do we exercise our power? That is to the extent we have power: in the home, at work, in community affairs? Are we humble, as Jesus was? In the face of powers which do not have the best interests of humanity at heart, what kind of provocative action can Christians engage in? That is a tricky question to answer, as today's gospel reading offers a wonderful model of 'non violent' provocation of powerful authorities, but the next passage, 21:12-17 offers a different kind of model in which violent action takes place.

 
 We might also ask, what is salvation according to the gospel which takes this different form of royal power, rather than a direct overthrow of existing authorities?

The Rev Dr Peter Carrell is Director of Theology House in Christchurch.

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