We don’t tend to associate Jesus with words like ‘strategy, planning, aims and objectives’ but on Palm Sunday there had been planning involved for sure. Networking, contacts, messages sent: a time and place agreed and a request made: ‘Your donkey, I need it.’
The time set for his action was obvious. The run up to the Passover. A lot of people in one place, Jerusalem, a party atmosphere: a time for celebration and national unity, a time freighted with meaning – the deliverance of the people of God from Egypt accomplished under Moses all those years ago. ‘Freedom’ was in the air even if Pontius Pilate and his Chiefs of staff were busy taking up residence in the barracks that overlooked the Temple Courts.
The place: It had to be Jerusalem. For three years Jesus had been criss-crossing Galilee in the north of the country with his message of the coming of the Kingdom of God but he knew full well he would have to head up to the capital city.
And why…? What was his purpose? Some say that the whole point of his entry into Jerusalem was to bring about a great uprising of the people against the ruling authorities of the time – Jewish (yes) and Roman. If that was the case then Jesus clearly failed. The hymn says ‘Sometimes they strew his way and sweet praises sing, resounding all the day hosannas to their King; then ‘crucify’ is all their breath, and for his death they thirst and cry.’ The crowds will be supportive whilst the going is easy…but then they will turn on him. Scattered, his followers will go to ground, hiding from the terror exercised by Rome and the lethal power of the Jewish High Priests and courts.
No, Jesus knew he was going to die. He knew the fate of most of Israel’s prophets and holy men: his cousin (John the Baptist) had been beheaded in prison just 2 years previously. Jesus knew full well who wielded power in the city and their likely response to his message. He knew the hearts of his closest followers – their weakness and fear alongside their professions of loyalty – and yet still he rode down the Mount of Olives and up into the streets of Jerusalem. This is not naivety on his part, it is courage.
So again, why? Why did he do it? What did he achieve? This is the moment when two totally different ideas of what it is to be human lock horns and fight to the death. Jesus provokes a reaction to his message from those in power. In Galilee they could ignore him, they could deal with him through their proxies – get the Herodians, the Scribes & Pharisees, the Sadducees to joust with him, to trip him up in what he said and taught – but here they cannot ignore his presence. The man on the donkey might look harmless but he knows what he is doing. His entry into Jerusalem would be followed by the cleansing of the Temple which, in turn will give way to some of his most trenchant criticism of the religious leaders right under their noses in the temple courts. Eventually they must act, they must show themselves – and what they do tells us who they are.
As we experience now through Covid-19 in a crisis we see what matters most to people.
For the Jewish leaders it was power. Their power relied on their birth, inheritance, nationality, wealth. They spoke the language of community and togetherness but they were a people set apart from the ‘people of the land’, those they dismissed for their lack of knowledge of the things of God, their ritual uncleanness, poverty and ignorance. What they will do to Jesus lays all this bare before our eyes – their violence, greed, self-interest and corruption – they will all find a way onstage in Holy Week and be judged. Judged not by us, (heavens no, none of us come out well in this story – even the most fervent disciple denies him) – but by God who, through Jesus, shows us that real power- the power associated with the kingdom of God- is found amongst those who serve others; in the love of God and the love of neighbour; in going the extra mile and turning the other cheek, dying that we might live.
It seems a joke, like a king on a donkey (‘is it at all possible to ride a donkey and look dignified?’) but God has the last laugh on Easter Day when the one who gave everything (even his last breath) for others is exalted to the highest heaven so that ‘at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow (in heaven and under the heavens) and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father.’
His then is the way that we follow. It doesn’t always come naturally, but as we see the outpouring of care and creativity in the building up of networks of support for those in need at this time isn’t it clear that Jesus’ way makes sense, is the right one and we can follow? His words and teaching (unacknowledged perhaps for many years) have shaped our responses and through all the current difficulties we can see something of what the kingdom of God might be like here on earth as in heaven. Long may that continue.
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