Philippians 2:1-11 Matthew 21:1-17 Russell Eidmann-Hicks
Jesus’ march into the city of Jerusalem was a joyful expression of hope and community and faith. It was a way to affirm his follower’s faith in Jesus as messiah, and his vision of God’s new way of equality, caring and sharing. It was joyful. But it was also a protest. Jesus designed this parade as a prophetic portrayal of his ministry as an alternative to what was happening in Jerusalem at the time: intolerance, hatred, and violence. It was resistance – overturned tabled and confrontations with religious leaders.
Karl Barth wrote: “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world. ” Our faith lives are not only for our own benefit; our religious and spiritual practices change the world. In prayer, we protest the ‘disorder of the world.” We are called, like Jesus, to bear witness to what is wrong and goes against the ways of God and to change ourselves. We are called not only to look to our own morality, but also to morality around us.
Jesus came as a prophet: Prophets would often dramatize their messages with actions and objects. The prophet Jeremiah taught in a potter’s shed to show that God is the potter and we are the clay. Later he bought a large earthenware jug – and in front of a crowd he smashed it on a rock, showing destruction that was to come. Isaiah wore a yoke on his neck for a year to portray the exile that would come from rebellion. Amos took a plumb line and held it against a wall to show how God judges. He later held a bowl of summer fruit – going rotten – to show how rotten the ethics of his society had become, especially when the powerful exploited the poor.
Jesus in our scripture today does something similar and dramatic: He entered Jerusalem on a donkey – portraying himself as a humble king like David, and as a priest like Ezekiel, coming to cleanse the temple of its corruption, and as a prophet like Amos, showing the corruption and injustices within the city. This was not just a happy parade with palms, flowers and children’s voices; this was also a judgment upon the rulers and religious officials for their narrow dogma, lack of compassion, greed, and corrupted power.
A prophet speaks truth to power – unafraid to stand in front of a ruler to say to his face what God intends. Jesus had that kind of fearlessness – riding into the center of a city ruled by corrupt and selfish religious officials, backed up by the might of the Roman army.
Jesus entered as a priest. He knew he was walking into the lion’s mouth, but he did it to carry a message of God’s holy peace and compassion. His entry contrasted his sincere and sinless presence with that of the priests in the Temple, with their legalism and opulence and snobbery. Jesus’ anger was directed not to sinners in the streets, but to the corruption of religious leaders, who lined their pockets with the donations of the poor. Here are a few of his words to them:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! … Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matthew 23-27)
This goes on for a whole chapter in Matthew. Jesus called these religious leaders out as greedy liars and hypocrites. His entry into the city on a donkey that day was a drama to contrast his ministry with theirs.
Jesus entered Jerusalem as a priest – but he also came as a sacrifice. Jesus knew he was entering the city that would kill him. Priests in the Temple would sacrifice lambs and oxen who were pure and undefiled. Jesus came as the lamb of God – ready to offer his life for the healing of the world.
Jesus came as very different kind of king: a leader who practiced equality, justice, compassion and humility. His was a very different kind of rule: one that respects each person’s dignity as a child of God – even the poorest of the poor, even slaves, even the disabled, even those of different religions or ethnic groups. His is a radical vision of a nation at peace.
Jesus speaks out against what is wrong and cruel, and against God’s way. He teaches us to look with clear eyes at injustice and imbalance in the world. He asks us to consider alternatives to the normal, predictable cruelty, greed, and prejudice that the world dishes out day after day.
An example of this is a prophetic act done by a woman – later identified in the gospel of John as Mary, sister to Martha, brother to Lazarus. She acts out her own personal protest – a protest not only against sin and inequality, but even against death itself. The story goes like this:
“One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.
Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him— that she is a sinner.”
Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “speak.”
“A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair… You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”
Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Lk 7:36-50)
The woman with the alabaster jar acts as a prophet, showing her love for Jesus, but also predicting his unjust death at the hands of the rulers of the day. Through her tears, she demonstrates not only her repentance, but also against the cruelty of those who would soon be crucifying her teacher. Her act is a protest against their heartless violence, and their perverted religion that would crucify such a kind and wise holy man. Her tears were holy resistance. Jesus himself comes into the city of Jerusalem with a similar motive, to pour himself out – like oil from an alabaster jar – for healing and to show God’s boundless and eternal love.
So how do we bear prophetic witness in our own day? How would Jesus ride into our towns today? How would he ride into Holmdel, Freehold, Middletown or Red Bank? How would he ride into Trenton or New York? How would he ride into Washington DC? And how would he be greeted – with palms and children’s laughter and joy; or with derision, distrust and arrest? Would he be praised or would he be crucified?
- Would he be among immigrants, women, and minorities, or would he be calling out for more rule for the powerful and the power of money?
- Would he be calling for compassion for the undocumented, or for more deportations of parents and children?
- Would he be seeking to deny access to health care – or to protect the sick, suffering, and disabled?
- Would he be looking for more tax cuts for the wealthy and funds for the military, or for more care for children and elderly, and for living wages?
- Would he be speaking up for the care of earth and water and against climate change, or would he be calling for more pollution?
Ultimately, our faith calls us to transform ourselves to reflect what God intends for this world. We seek the heart of God – exemplified in Jesus. We deepen our love for others, and act with compassion toward the poor and the hurting, and strengthen our own center of calm and kindness and forgiveness. As we do this, we create kinder neighborhoods around ourselves, closer families, more just and caring communities, and raise up more clear-eyed and kind-hearted leaders. We create the kingdom of God here on earth.
In two weeks I will be at the Climate March in Washington DC – to peacefully and joyfully resist powers that threaten the health of this earth and that of my grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I will do this as a witness to the love I have for the beauty of nature and my hope for a sustainable, verdant future.
The great poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote: “But now that so much is changing, isn’t it time for us to change? Couldn’t we try to gradually develop and slowly take upon ourselves, little by little, our part in the great task of love?” Yes, we take upon ourselves our part in the great task of love. That is what the procession of palms was about, right? That is what Lent is about. That’s why Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem. That is what we are seeking, little by little in our faith communities, in our families, in our homes, in our nation, right? The great task of love….our part in the great task of love. Let it be so. Hosanna! Amen.