The Politics of Palms

Bible Text: Luke 19: 28-40 | Preacher: Rev. Jenn Geddes

For as long as humanity has been writing songs and for as long as people have disagreed with one another there have been protest songs. Sometimes those songs are timeless and speak to the human condition and sometimes they speak to a specific moment in history. Sometimes the songs receive protests in return. I can remember when Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A Changing”, which was initially written as an anthem for change in 1964 was later used in an 1994 ad for an accounting firm and followed by a commercial for the Bank of Montreal. For various reasons the 1960s was the golden age of protest songs, I know you likely know that better than I. One such song was Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son”. It was one of the many protest songs that were a little more subtle than others. Writer John Fogerty served in the American Reserves during the Vietnam war and was drafted like so many young men at that time and while the song does not explicitly touch upon war it does deal with how he saw the American elite and their children- who were not being sent off to war- and how we can been distracted by celebrity culture rather than addressing real issues. It also had to do with the timely wedding of David Eisenhower (grandson of President Eisenhower) to Julie Nixon (daughter of President Nixon). It apparently took him only 20 minutes to write. The chorus is pretty simple, “It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no senator’s son, son. It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate one, no.” I’m no John Fogerty and I’m not going to use the pulpit to talk politics but I will say that we need to be praying for our brothers and sisters in the United States as they deal with some difficult and distracting politics. Interestingly enough, today is all about a fortunate or perhaps unfortunate son and the politics of palm Sunday. Jesus’ behaviour was a rather major protest and very revolutionary. The crowd’s words are meant to be in direct opposition of the political party in power at the time. This is one big protest followed by song.

While Passover may not have been the biggest festival within the Jewish tradition at the time, if one could make and afford the journey one would make every effort to spend passover in Jerusalem. It was also, however, the most political and volatile of all the Jewish festivals. This is in part because of what it represents. The Passover festival celebrates the liberation of the Hebrews from the oppressive rule of the Egyptian pharaoh. The festival celebrates that lamb’s blood painted on the doorpost saved them from the death that killed all first born males within Egypt. The festival celebrates that they were finally allowed to go free and begin the exodus journey to the Holy lands- what would eventually become Jerusalem. The festival not only celebrates that God was with the Israelite people but also that the Israelite people were free-no longer living under oppression. But during Jesus’ day they are not living as free people. They are under the rule of the Roman Empire. They are living as subjects of the misnamed Pax Romana. While the passover festival celebrates the diving act of liberation for the Hebrew people from the rule of Pharaoh there is the heavy shadow of the Roman emperor and empire looming about the festivities. It is the reason why Pontius Pilate is also in Jerusalem at the same time as Jesus. He and his soldiers are there to make sure that Pax Romana is maintained. They are there to observe and make sure there is no uprising.

The sad timeless truth is that crowds can be dangerous. There is no doubt that the mob mentality exists and the Romans are concerned that this many Hebrews in Jerusalem over passover could cause problems. In fact, a Roman magistrate around that time, Pliny the Younger , wrote, “When people gather together for a common purpose—whatever name we may give them and whatever function we may assign them– they soon become political groups.” Meaning, that given enough time factions will establish and ideologies will create political divisions. This is a very real concern over this passover festival.

We know that Jesus heads to Jerusalem because he knows that it is in Jerusalem where he must be crucified. A month ago we touched upon Jesus’ comment that, “He must be on his way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem. (Luke 13: 33)” An unfortunate son indeed. So Jesus is very aware of what is going to happen. But Jesus must also knows that his presence is going to cause a political shift and certainly Jesus plays into this reality by his actions. While it may seem harmless, or it may not appear to mean much- Jesus riding in on a colt (as described in Luke’s version), and having people throw their cloaks on the road while they rejoice and call Jesus, King. This is making a pretty big statement to the Roman empire. Theologian and historian Robert Cornwall says, “If you read the story closely it does appear that Jesus was trying to trigger a reaction from the crowd streaming into Jerusalem. It’s not like he didn’t know what was going to occur when he decided to ride a colt into Jerusalem. It is a rather apocalyptic moment that draws upon biblical imagery and unsettled political conditions… Many within the religious leadership in Jerusalem would have also been aware of the effects of provocative actions. It was in their best interest to keep things under control, especially when this was one of the biggest pilgrimage events of the year.”

Jesus riding in on a colt or donkey is a direct reflection of Zechariah 9:9 in which it states, “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.” It is in this very moment as Jesus enters the city that we realize he has chosen to take on his role as King- as sitting at the right hand of the Father, as the Messiah. Zechariah was writing during the post-exilic period of history. The Israelites had returned from exile and were awaiting the re-installation of the monarchy. Jesus is personifying this image by choosing to enter the city in this way.

But this is not your average protest march. While Luke is the only one to describe Jesus riding on a colt, rather than a donkey, the image implies the same. That although this is called a triumphant entry into Jerusalem it is also a humble one. Instead of Jesus riding in on a great stag- as likely many of the Roman soldiers had at their disposal. Jesus not only rides a colt but a borrowed colt. Jesus is definitely different. He enters the city not with a large fanfare but with humility and people in the crowd notice this imagery and begin to sing their songs of praise.

We already know that Jesus is different. This is a peace and peaceful protest. But Jesus is not only different in the way he enters the city but also in the way he leaves. Jesus humbles himself and is obedient to God until the very end. Christ lays aside his divine nature and even before the passion story begins Jesus removes his dignity and rides a colt. His dignity will be stripped from him and his friends will foresake him and his body will be broken in the coming week. This is a significantly different kind of protest- God came to us in Jesus and died on our account with humility and love. My social justice side tells me that this is a march I can join. This is a political action I can say we need to get involved in. We need to join the crowds that welcomed Jesus as he entered Jerusalem. We need to join the chorus of disciples that said, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven.” We need to offer our lives to him in service and praise. While Jesus is the unfortunate one to be heading to the cross we are the fortunate ones, the fortunate sons and daughters who have inherited the grace of God! Hosanna in the highest! Amen