Sunday, April 09, 2006

Palm Sunday

Mark 11
1As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, 2saying to them, "Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 3If anyone asks you, 'Why are you doing this?' tell him, 'The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.' "
4They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, 5some people standing there asked, "What are you doing, untying that colt?" 6They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. 7When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. 8Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. 9Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted,
"Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!"[b]
10"Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!"
"Hosanna in the highest!"
11Jesus entered Jerusalem and went to the temple. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.

For those of us who are immigrants to Toronto, the most common adjustment required was one of scale. If we just look at art and culture, Toronto overshadows everyone else: 125 museums in the GTA, over 50 ballet and dance companies, six opera companies
two symphony orchestras, over 150 pieces of public art and monuments, and three of Canada's largest parades: Gay Pride, Caribana, and of course, the Santa Claus parade.

I vividly recall my first experience of the Santa Claus parade in Toronto. New to the city, we figured out that if we took the kids and jumped the subway at St. Clair West station immediately after church we could go to Museum station and step out right as the parade passed, at least in the middle of the parade if not the beginning. The plan was inspired: we bundled up the baby (who has since morphed into a 5'8" monster), got his sister all primed and made it downtown in record time. We mounted the stairs in our moment of triumph and discovered...crowds! Thick crowds, eight, ten, twelve people deep, stretching in every direction. I recall tears. The following year we discovered that the parade is on television.

Now contrast this with little Kingston, Ontario. The conversation goes something like this:

"Is it today?"
"I think it's today. Let's go take a look"

Wandering downtown (a three-minute walk) we stand on the edge of the curb with literally tens of onlookers, and await the jolly old elf. Moments pass, and there he is, riding his sleigh and throwing candy to every kid standing by. No tears, or at least only tears connected to too much sugar and the profound need for a nap.


When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted,
"Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!"
"Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!"
"Hosanna in the highest!"

You don't need a degree in theology to guess that the parade that day in Jerusalem was more akin to little Kingston than the Santa Claus parade held in our fair city each year. At first glance, this idea is sort of disappointing, since we want Jesus' moment of triumphant entry to be grand and citywide, a spectacle to shake up the town and her people. Preachers in particular love to draw a parallel between the crowds on Palm Sunday and the crowds that shout for Jesus' death later in the week. It's a powerful idea, but one that isn't really supported by the text.

And beyond this initial idea of a "tale of two parades" lies another story, this one we can call "a tale of two messiahs." The first messiah lived in the hearts and minds of the Jewish men and women that lived under Roman occupation and dreamed of freedom. Israel had been client state since the return from exile in Babylon, enduring foreign ruler after foreign ruler and never knowing the reality of a local king. Some felt that kingship was failed experiment that should not be repeated, but others turned to their scrolls and found a new vision, a vision of a new David, a king and messiah that would rule in a new way:

5"Behold, the days are coming," declares the LORD,
"When I will raise up for David a righteous Branch;
And He will reign as king and act wisely
And do justice and righteousness in the land.
6"In His days Judah will be saved,
And Israel will dwell securely;
And this is His name by which He will be called,
'The LORD our righteousness.'

This vision from Jeremiah 23 is part of a body of literature that imagines a new style of kingship, a kingship devoid of corruption and greed and sponsorship scandals. The "righteous Branch" is the same hoped for ruler that lives in the imagination of most people but sadly only seems to appear during election campaigns. Every ruler promises to govern "cleanly," every ruler promises more jobs and more freedom and more prosperity and a jaded electorate only ever diminishes in strength.

Perhaps this is why so few turned out that day in Jesusalem. It is very telling that if you take the Gospels in order they were written, you will find that the later the Gospel the larger the crowd. Mark has no crowd. Luke says "crowds of the disciples." Matthew takes the bold step describing "crowds" and John, the very last to be written says "a large crowd." Like the fish that gets bigger with each telling, the evangelists grow the crowd over time and didn't know we would be reading these books side-by-side.

In our "tale of two messiahs," however, the hope was the same. The few that gathered that day to watch the triumphant entry had the same hope and the same messianic dreams as the ones who failed to turn out that day in Jerusalem. They closed their eyes in the same way and imagined the same promise fulfilled:

1Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse,
And a branch from his roots will bear fruit.
2The Spirit of the LORD will rest on Him,
The spirit of wisdom and understanding,
The spirit of counsel and strength,
The spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
3And He will delight in the fear of the LORD,
And He will not judge by what His eyes see,
Nor make a decision by what His ears hear;
4But with righteousness He will judge the poor,
And decide with fairness for the afflicted of the earth. (Is. 11)

For those who followed the local news, those who watched for signs and longed for messiah to come, it is unlikely they imagined Jesus in this role. Even before his "triumphant entry," the local headlines would have left many in the anti-Roman camp feeling empty:

Itinerant preacher chooses twelve disciples
Jesus talks about seeds and lamps
Strange healing in Galilee
Man learns the hard way that pigs don't swim
Mass feeding reported
Jesus rejects divorce (then reveals he was never married)

For those looking for routed encampments and dead Centurions, the news from Galilee and the surrounding area would have been less than inspiring. For those on full-time messiah watch, men who bless children and go around talking about yeast are unlikely to challenge Roman hegemony. Even before he entered with shouts and words of praise, many if not most knew that this was not the messiah they were looking for. Same hopes, different messiah.

The second messiah in our "tale of two messiahs" rules a different kingdom, and can't stop talking about it:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven"
"The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed"
"The kingdom of heaven is like yeast"
"The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field."

This messiah preached an alternative vision to the vision of power and conquest and overcoming Rome and imagined ruling a kingdom quite unlike anything the world had ever known. This messiah saw a kingdom for the least and the last and the powerless ones and imagined that somehow faithful people could help bring it about. This messiah would reach people with words and parables and biting critique and "paint the kingdom" in colours too vivid to resist.

As his week in Jerusalem begins, we read this little passage that says more about Jesus and his future than much of the build-up to Holy Week.

The large crowd listened to him with delight. As he taught, Jesus said, "Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. (Mark 12)

This is the messiah to enters the city with tens of onlookers and continues to teach and share in the life of the common people that followed him. They listened with delight. His words were thoughtful and funny, his words mocked the self-righteous and placed the centre of heaven's kingdom where it belonged: within the hearts of those who listened to his words and followed in his way. It placed the centre of heaven's kingdom in the poor and the poor in spirit. It placed the centre of heaven's kingdom in the explosive growth of seeds and yeast, and it placed the centre of heaven's kingdom in the children he met on the way.

This is the profound threat that Jesus posed to the rulers and the so-called righteous: a kingdom where the least and the lost claim there place at God's side, where the broken and the estranged are called home, and a place where those who thirst for justice with be called God's children. Suddenly those tens of onlookers, shouting "hosanna," look very threatening indeed. Amen.


Post a Comment

<< Home