Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 28th of Third Month, 2021
Speaker: Brian Young
Scripture: Mark 11:1–11, NRSV
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve. “Hosanna!”
Good morning, Friends!
“Hosanna” is the call of this day, known to the church as Palm Sunday.
“Hosanna” is an ancient cry, already established in Jesus’ day as a refrain for pilgrims, as they went up to Jerusalem at festival time. It comes from Psalm 118:25, where in translation we read, “Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!” The “save us” portion is “hosanna,” so it was originally a cry for aid, it was originally a cry for help, for salvation. It was the cry of somebody stuck in the mud when they need to be pulled out. While directed to God in the psalm, at least two other places in the Hebrew Bible, it is used when someone calls upon a king of Israel for help. By Jesus’ time, it had become a more general exclamation of praise, as we still use it today; and in Jesus’ time it could also be used as a greeting for a respected teacher or other revered figure. So in any crowd of pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem, one would have heard this cry, whether it was directed at a particular person, or a more general utterance of praise. I would imagine that the closer one got to the city gates, the more “Hosannas!” one would have heard.
“Hosanna!” In many churches on this Sunday, the story is re-enacted, with hearty cries and energetic waving of palm branches. In recent years we have also done so here at West Richmond Friends. This year we decided against it, since we continue to meet online and it’s hard to make something like that work on Zoom—it just doesn’t look as good when you’re waving a palm branch in front of a webcam... But I think also with that kind of re-enactment, we can miss something, if we aren’t careful to remember the tremendous irony that is shot all through this story. I’m only going to enumerate a few—I can imagine you can enumerate others.
The first irony actually lies outside the story itself, in the label often applied to it: “Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem”. While the moment of the procession certainly appears to be a triumph, it is not so by the standards of the day. If Jesus is trying to enact the entry of a conquering king coming into the city his army has just vanquished, he seems to be going about it all wrong. In all the preparation described in the first part of the passage, shouldn’t he have arranged for a chariot pulled by warhorses? Shouldn’t his disciples at least have carried swords or spears? More importantly, what kind of triumph is it going to be for him to be arrested, beaten, tried, and crucified? He has already told his disciples three times of this; and yet, they don’t seem to be clear on his destiny. In fact, reading v9, it seems that they are leading the chants of “Hosanna” and “blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” (We assume that they are the ones who go before and walk behind the donkey, as they cry “Hosanna” and “blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”)
And in that last slogan, this irony is underlined: the coming kingdom is not in fact the kingdom of David—David the ancestor. If we had read the passage just previous to this , at the end of chapter 10, where Jesus give Bartimaeus his sight outside Jericho, we would remember—when Jesus turns towards the blind man, it is because Bartimaeus has cried out to the “Son of David”—the Son of David. We might just as well read, “the Son of Man”. Remember, from one of my other recent messages, about Jesus’ preference for those titles, the ones that emphasize his own humanity and his connectedness to all humanity—so the Messiah role that Jesus is enacting is not one of conquest, but of willing sacrifice.
Another irony of the story is in the reactions of the crowd. First, it’s possible that very few in the crowd actually understood who Jesus was or what he meant to do. As I’ve mentioned, “hosanna” was often a generalized exclamation of praise for these pilgrims; so it may be that many of them were simply giving voice to their excitement, and they didn’t know what to make of the guy on the donkey. At the same time, it is supremely ironic that the one to whom the crowd cries, “hosanna” is the very same one about whom they cry, “crucify him” a few short days later.
Another irony of the story is in the way it ends: v11 seems to be a supreme anticlimax: “Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” Shouldn’t he be… pounding on the doors of the temple? Shouldn’t he be... calling out to those to whom he is opposed, to call them on the carpet?
In the words of Ched Myers, “nothing happens,” after all that. So this is neither about liberating the Temple, nor is it about conquering the Romans with force of arms; it’s not about calling anybody on the carpet, at least not yet. In fact, it’s about casing the place! You’ve heard me say this before, so forgive me if I’m repeating myself: any act of civil disobedience, such as what Jesus was planning for the Temple, should be planned out carefully ahead of time. You have to case the place to know where you’re going to stand, where you’re going to march, where you’re going to sing; which tables you’re going to overturn first. So this was a necessary step in the actions that Jesus had planned out, at the beginning of his entry into Jerusalem. It was not the time to conquer, but the time to case the place.
None of this irony subverts or denies the symbolic power of what Jesus does as he enters Jerusalem. For much of the first part of the Passion story—the entry into the city, his cursing of the fruitless fig tree, and the purging of the Temple of the moneylenders and animal sellers (these things, if you read further on into chapter 11, you will encounter)—each of these three things is primarily a symbolic act, an enacted parable. Even when Jesus disrupts the commerce in the Temple, he does so only for a few hours. He doesn’t put a stop to things permanently. And none of these symbolic acts are in and of themselves a victory; rather, they are to put the powers on notice of his presence; and the powers, of course, respond with deadly force, as Jesus has told his followers they will do. So: a series of symbolic actions that challenge the powers, and are only conquest in a very certain sense.
So there are some of the things in this story that I think are ironic. Standing outside the story as we do, we understand all these ironies that are contained within it; this is always the benefit of our perspective as readers of the Gospels—as people who know how the story ends. But that does not mean that we are immune to irony ourselves. Are we aware of the ironies of our present situation, as pilgrims on the way that Jesus forged? There are a few that I can dimly perceive (and perhaps there are others that you do):
Irony: that we, a professed people of simplicity, living in the richest nation in the history of the world, can use more resources in one day than many in the developing world would in half a year...
Irony: that we, a professed people of peace, live within a culture addicted to victory at all costs, so that we ourselves want to win no matter the contest, no matter the opponent...
Irony: that we, a professed people of justice, live within a system that daily sacrifices the basic humanity of people of color on an altar of whiteness.
What other unexamined ironies are there in our stories, our collective story, that we can’t perceive, but that someone standing outside of it could? We trust that God both accompanies us in our collective story—that God is in the midst of our stories—and also stands outside of them; and in this can reveal to us the ironies to which we are blind. When we receive these revelations, can we then cry, “Hosanna,” in the truest sense of the word?
“Save us, we beseech you!” “Save us, O Lord!” “Hosanna!”
New Revised Standard Version Bible (NRSV), copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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