Triumphal Entries

Palm Sunday is a hard one liturgically.  You get 7 minutes or so on the triumphal entry and then get whisked all the way to Good Friday with the reading of the Passion.  The general consensus is that most people who show up on Palm Sunday won’t make the return trip for Maundy Thursday or Good Friday, so if you want to preach about the crucifixion, you’d better do it on Palm Sunday.

In spite of this collective wisdom, I did more with the triumphal entry this year.  I’ve always been struck by Matthew’s rendering of it, so it caught my fancy.

And I hope you’ll be attending church this week for Holy Week.  This is an amazing journey for us, and one that is not to be missed.

Palm Sunday—Matthew 21:1-11

I’ve always been fascinated by Matthew’s retelling of the Triumphal Entry, simply because of the great detail he goes into regarding the donkey and the colt those two disciples are to find.  Matthew, unlike the other  Gospel writers, informs his readers that there is both a donkey and a colt that the disciples are to find for Jesus.  Mark, Luke and John all say that it is a solitary animal.  And I can’t help but be amused at the seemingly odd description when Matthew tells us that once the donkey and the colt arrived, some of the bystanders threw their cloaks on those animals, and Jesus sat on both of them.  It’s almost comical, and I’ve always chalked it up to the way Matthew plays with numbers and numerology throughout his gospel when compared to the other writers; he seems to say, if one is good, two is better.

I clung to the amusement, that is, until I read a comment about that verse this past week.  John Dominic Crossan writes that Matthew “wants two animals, a donkey with her little colt beside her, and that Jesus rides ‘them’ in the sense of having them both as part of his demonstration’s highly visible symbolism. In other words, Jesus does not ride a stallion or a mare, a mule or a male donkey, and not even a female donkey. He rides the most unmilitary mount imaginable: a female nursing donkey with her little colt trotting along beside her.”[1]  Military leaders would often ride into their cities in a display of power—which is hinted at in the reference to the prophet Zechariah that Matthew records.  The entire context from the prophet is this: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!  Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations.” (Zech 9:9-10)  Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, would come not in a display of power, but in humility.  He would come to bring peace to the nations while the Romans would continue to ride in on their chariots with their military might blazing, bringing anything but peace.

And we know what happens when people come in humbly promoting non-violent peace.  We have a tendency to kill those people.  We heard it this morning in the Passion, and we’ve seen it in stories we know like the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., Ghandi, and Archbishop Romero.  But it’s also in the lesser known stories, like Brother Roger of the Taize community killed during a service at that ecumenical community in France, or Rachel Corrie who was killed by a bulldozer while simply standing in front of a home trying to stop the bulldozer from destroying that house in a refugee camp in Ramalah.  Jesus came exemplifying peace, he rode in on a mother donkey that had yet to wean her foal with that little one trailing alongside, and he was ultimately crucified.

He was crucified because when he came preaching about love, about transformation, about peace, about new life and the forgiveness of sins, people got anxious and did away with him.  We joined with the crowd this morning on both ends: we yelled out “Hosanna!” which means “Save us!” and we also cried out “Crucify him!”  What they didn’t notice then, and which we often don’t see even today, is that the two shouts are inescapably linked.  Jesus saves us through his crucifixion and the resurrection that is to come.  He brings about salvation and peace and offers it to us and to any who are willing to accept it.

But we, along with the rest of the world, often do away with those who bring peace.  You might be hesitant to accept this as true for yourself, but I certainly know it in my own life.  I see the struggle that sometimes takes place when, although I am drowning in the circumstances of my life—be they the chances and challenges of the world or sins of my own devices—I often refuse to grab hold of the life preserver offered to me either by those who love me or in the life offered by Christ.  I’ve seen it in others who are dealing with addictions and can’t take it upon themselves to follow through and get support.  I’ve watched it unfold in married couples who are heading down the road toward divorce and can’t bring themselves to seek out help.  I’ve seen teens get further and further disconnected from those they love rather than take the hand that is held out to them.  I’ve noticed it in those who are widowed and cannot imagine a new life so they shrink away into lives of quiet disappointment.

And I want to say to us all that Jesus comes wanting to bring peace to the tumult and chaos of our lives.  He entered into Jerusalem that day in humility, and a few days later was ultimately killed, so that he could bring us life.  While we are inclined to reject him, to push him away, to even kill his presence in our lives, he is triumphant and victorious, as the prophet, Zechariah declares it.  He was betrayed, and beaten and killed for us, so that when he completed his work in the world and on the cross, he might bring us peace and hope.

As we wait this week for that work to be completed, as we walk these last days with Christ and place him gently in that tomb, I hope that we will ultimately see that he is the Prince of Peace and he so desperately wants to share that peace with each one of us in order that we may experience transformation.  Hosanna, dear Christ.  Save us.


[1] Qtd in http://www.patheos.com/community/carlgregg/2011/04/08/lectionary-commentary-%E2%80%9Cjesus-a-donkey-and-jon-stewart%E2%80%99s-rally-for-sanity%E2%80%9D-for-palm-sunday-april-17-2011/  Accessed 4/12/11