A Provocation: Palm Sunday: April 9, 2017: Matthew 21:1-11

Matthew 21:1-11
21:1 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples,

21:2 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.

21:3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.”

21:4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

21:5 “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.”

21:6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them;

21:7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.

21:8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.

21:9 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!”

21:10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”

21:11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”



A Question or Two:

  • What does Hosanna mean?  Really?
  • Why are the crowds singing this song?  Really?

Some Longer Reflections:

Before you preach on this text, go find six or nine videos of people riding donkeys.  There are many, and a simple Google search will turn up more than you care to watch.

But watch several.

Many of the videos you will find feature people riding, people who have never met a donkey personally.  The videos are funny and the people fall off a lot.  I wonder if Jesus had ever ridden a donkey before?  Probably he had.  But maybe not.  That might be why the storyteller (in Matthew, anyway) tells us that Jesus is riding on BOTH a donkey and its foal.  Whether that means he was somehow doing circus tricks or that he alternated between riding a proper sized animal and then pretending to ride the foal, which would be far too small to ride.  Either way the video would have been funny.  Imagine Jesus crouch-walking as he pretends to ride the foal.

Some of the videos show people on donkeys who wade easily through flooding rivers where cars and pickup trucks have foundered.  These videos seem focused on the sure-footed strength of the donkey and its superiority to modern technology.  I wonder if Jesus might have been making a point like that, somehow.  Roman warhorses would, of course, crossed the same streams as easily as a donkey, so the story won’t work as a chuckle at the failings of modern technology.  But the point could be that you do not need a massive warhorse to cross dangerous waters.  The simple donkeys that you can find in any Jewish town will do that just as well, for far less money.  This also would make a good video.

Commentators have posited a possible parody of Roman military parades.  Instead of entering Jerusalem at the head of a parade that demonstrates power, riding a spirited warhorse, Jesus rides in (from the opposite side of town, on a borrowed beast of burden.  And its foal, just for good measure.  I wonder if the crowd caught the parody as well.  I wonder if the strange excess of laying their cloaks on the road was part of their entering into the humor of the situation.  This seems even more likely if you consider that the garment they are laying on the street is not a coat (sometimes “cloak” could imply that), but the regular outer garments that people wore.  But if τὰ ἱμάτια were outerwear, what people were left wearing was (by the principle of exclusion) underwear.  This undergarment was not BVDs, to be sure, but the people in the crowd are traipsing about rather less clothed than at the beginning of the scene.  It is customary to read this state of undress as evidence of their fierce devotion to Jesus and his cause.  That works.  But it also works if you read it as part of the parody of Roman pretension.  Imagine the crowd forming ranks and files and parading along behind Jesus, hailing him as the Son of David, the anointed one, the messiah.  A bunch of guys in their underwear marching as if they were an army.  

So what are we to make of the Hosannas?

At first glance, this HAS to be a sign of passionate devotion.  It is, after all, a call for deliverance, for rescue, for God to finally keep promises too long pending.

Since this seems such an obvious reading, I entertain the idea that this is part of the carnivalesque parody of displays of military power.  I figure that anyone can find her way to the usual reading.  I take it as my job to help people find odd readings, just in case they are productive.

What if the crowd cries Hosanna in a parody of the fervid intensity of the Zealots who haunt every religious tradition?  What if the storyteller wants her audience to reflect on the actions of the Zealots inside the walls of besieged Jerusalem: in an effort to impel more sudden, more immediate divine intervention, the Zealots burned the food supplies that would have allowed the Jewish defenders to hold out against the siege for perhaps six years.  I wonder if the Zealots chanted Hosanna as they lit the fires that would finally lead to starvation and defeat.  If so, then this scene could be a parody of bone-headed religious passion.

That is possible, but I still like this better when I read it as the revelation of the “hidden transcript” of Jewish resistance to Roman brutality.  When I read it this way, this scene opens the curtain on the hopes and demands that Jews carried (barely) out of Roman sight.

And of course, it could be both.

Sometimes resistance works best when it is stimulated to action by daring laughter.  Sometimes it is the very outrageousness of the jokes that reminds people of what they actually could, and should, hope for.  Wouldn’t it be something if a bunch of goofy guys in their underwear, parading to songs of Hosanna, could actually be the vanguard of the healing of the world?  Perhaps the healing of the world, the keeping of the promises, the coming of the Reign of God can never be brought into reality by the clash of power.  Perhaps Wilfred Owen was correct, Owen, the poet of the trenches of WWI, wrote:

Now men will go content with what we spoiled,

Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.

They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.

None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.

We do love bloody battle (at least from the safe distance of our religious observances), and will march “as to war,” good Christian soldiers that we long to be, but perhaps all such imaginings only spoil the world and leave it broken and ready for the next conflict.

Perhaps the old hymn by Harry Emerson Fosdick (written in 1930, which turned out to be a good time for the prayer Fosdick wrote into the song:

Cure your children’s warring madness;
bend our pride to your control;
shame our wanton, selfish gladness,
rich in things and poor in soul.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
lest we miss your kingdom’s goal,
lest we miss your kingdom’s goal.

What if the pageant in the streets of Jerusalem that we remember at Palm Sunday is actually an embodied prayer that hopes that the coming of the Reign of God will cure our warring madness?  If so, then Hosanna is my prayer, too.  Hosanna.  God Whose Name is Mercy, save us.  Save us now.  We are in danger of spoiling it all.  Hosanna to the highest degree.


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