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Palm Sunday

BLESSED IS HE Zechariah 9:9-12; Matthew 21:1-13

A friend of mine, earlier on in his working life, was employed in car financing. Being a junior he had a very modest model of car. I recall him telling me how, when he visited car dealerships, he had to leave his car round the corner from the main entrance so as not to show the firm up! I understand also that employees of Mercedes-Benz who don’t own or drive a vehicle with the right badge on it, are obliged to park in a different place to all the gleaming models of that particular company. I can understand the need for loyalty and pride in your own product, and I can also see that creating a certain impression on customers is part of the idea.

Jesus’ arrival
If motor cars were around in Jesus’ day, I wonder what sort of make and model he would have chosen to arrive in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday? What would the modern equivalent of a donkey be? The point is that Jesus’ actions were deliberate. He chose to make a special entry into Jerusalem in a way that sent out messages in the days leading up to his arrest, trial and crucifixion. The crucial question is in verse 10: “the whole city was…asking, ‘Who is this?’” We are concentrating just on this particular portion of the gospel, but if you read the whole book, you realise that this is the crucial question which Matthew is posing throughout: Who is this? Throughout, Matthew gradually builds up a picture, giving hints, helping the reader realise as the story unfolds, that our response to the identity of Jesus is the reason why he recorded these things and this man.

Reactions to Jesus’ arrival
There are different reactions to Jesus’ arrival in the holy city. The very first reaction may elude us because it is so subtle, but it drops an important clue. The first reaction in the story is that of the disciples and the owners of the donkey. Their reaction is one of co-operation with the plan. It is a plan, too! On a previous visit, Jesus must have spoken with the owners and set up the arrangement. It was the first century equivalent of booking your hire car in advance of arriving at your holiday or business destination. Jesus was now ready to put the plan into action – his arrival in Jerusalem for this final visit, was to be in a noticeable and public way. Matthew tells us that there was, in fact, a bigger plan. Not only did Jesus make arrangements in advance, but there was a prophecy centuries earlier from Zechariah. Matthew means us to realise that there was a divine plan made much longer ago which is about to be fulfilled. The owners recognise the password: “The Lord needs it!” and the disciples do as Jesus had bid them. So the first reaction is co-operation from those who accepted and followed the Lord and trusted in the divine plan.

The second reaction is the obvious one. A very large crowd welcome Jesus and their actions in response to this deliberately staged entrance into Jerusalem draw a great deal of attention to the figure in the centre of it all. The crowds shouted, they put cloaks and branches down as the equivalent of a red carpet. Their reactions to Jesus’ arrival are ones of celebration and welcome, and their large numbers and noise help to make Jesus’ arrival unmistakable. The whole city is in turmoil, the whole city notices. Jesus had been to Jerusalem before, had entered this city with his disciples and had taught and disputed, but this time he enters in a way that demands the response of the whole city. The city asks: “Who is this?” and the crowds that are celebrating respond: “This is the prophet Jesus of Nazareth in Galilee.” Matthew shows us how Jesus was popularly perceived at that point: Jesus is a prophet and he comes from a town in the northern province. Perhaps many had heard of him and now they can see him for themselves. But is that the full picture? Does that really answer the question, “Who is this?” Is he just a remarkable prophet?

The third reaction is less happy. The procession has an aim, a goal. At first it may seem just to be an entrance with crowds, a triumphal entry. But Matthew makes it clear that Jesus was heading for the Temple where he had a mission in mind. On previous visits he had noticed the way in which the Temple precincts had been abused and how visitors to the Temple had been taken advantage of. Now is the time to make a further statement: he drives out the traders, he overturns the money changers’ stalls and he makes a statement: “you have turned this house of prayer into a den of thieves!” Although today’s reading ends there, if you read on, you realise that this provoked a hostile response from the chief priests and scribes, made angry by the celebratory shouts of the children. As the story of Jesus’ last visit to Jerusalem unfolds further, we realise that this opposition to Jesus grows. Those who have vested interests and hold on to power are less happy with this threat to their position. The poor and the ordinary welcome him with open arms – perhaps they see him as a liberator, as someone who comes in peace. Arriving on a donkey rather than a warrior’s horse makes this statement: to be carried by a beast of burden sends out the message that the rider is important, but the humbler beast sends out the message that the rider comes in peace and like his ancestor, King David.

The Meaning of Jesus’ arrival
We commonly reflect on the way the crowds changed their tune from Palm Sunday to Good Friday. They welcomed Jesus at first and then turned against him later, and we sometimes draw the lesson from that about how crowds or we as individuals can be so changeable in our response to Jesus. One of the things Matthew says is that the chief priests and scribes persuaded the crowd to shout for Barabbas when given the choice by Pilate about who to release. Bar-abbas literally means son of a father. Perhaps the crowds were deliberately confused into shouting for the Son of the Father, thinking they were choosing Jesus. What I think is more important is to ask what the meaning of Jesus special arrival in Jerusalem is all about. One way of answering that is to look at this question of who Jesus is and what the different groups in the story see in Jesus.

The crowds see a hero of peace, a champion of the poor, they welcome a figure who has a reputation for accepting and helping those in need. They welcome someone they can identify with. The leaders of the people see an affront to their vested interests, a threat to their hold on power. The effect of Jesus’ special arrival and his cleansing of the Temple is that their resolve to do away with him is strengthened.

But Matthew sees all of this as part of Jesus’ identity statement. And this particular occasion is part of the wider picture or story of who Jesus is and why he came. The clues are in the cries of the crowd on Palm Sunday: “Hosanna to the Son of David!” ties in with the beginning of Matthew’s gospel where he records Jesus’ family tree, his genealogy. He is a descendent of the royal house of David – therefore part of God’s promises to honour David and bless his people through his descendents. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” points to the way in which the ordinary people received his ministry during his life – Jesus was the genuine thing, come from the Lord. “Hosanna in the highest heaven!” connects with Jesus’ ultimate origin and destiny which is made plain at the conclusion of Matthew’s story when he tells us about the resurrection.

Matthew is gradually unfolding his story about who Jesus is. As we recall the events of Jesus’ suffering through the coming week we will see other answers to the question. Pilate asks Jesus, “are you the king of the Jews?” The jeering people at the foot of the cross throw at him, “if you are the Son of God!” Then when he dies the Centurion exclaims, “truly you are the Son of God!” So the gospel challenges us: Who is Jesus? Who do you think he is? We, with our palms and our worship with the crowds who welcomed him into the holy city that day, know that he can be our king and saviour only because he went all the way to the cross and then rose again. Let this Holy Week and Easter deepen our faith in Jesus and our open hearted welcome to him!

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith




True and humble king,
hailed by the crowd as Messiah:
grant us the faith to know you and love you,
that we may be found beside you
on the way of the cross,
which is the path of glory.