Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Luke 19:28-40.
The ancient royal city is visited by a Prince of Peace it will not accept.
Note: The Revised Common Lectionary has two sets of readings for this Sunday, the “Liturgy of the Palms” and the “Liturgy of the Passion.” My practice is to treat these separately, doing the “Palms” on this Sunday, and saving the “Passion” until Good Friday, when the entire Passion Narrative in Luke will be listened to.
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29.
The Liturgy of the Palms has only two readings, a Psalm and a Gospel, the two virtually mirror images of each other.
The Psalm reading is a portion of the long Psalm 118. This entire psalm contains a sequence of liturgical actions that in reality forms a profound background to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The central figure of the action – the king who fights and suffers for the destiny of the realm and its people – emerges from a desperate struggle with evil forces to ascend now to the holy temple of the great God who has made this great victory possible.
The selected verses of our reading focus on the Coming One who seeks entry into the temple.
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his steadfast love endures forever!
Let Israel say,
“His steadfast love endures forever.”
Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them,
and give thanks to the Lord. (Verses 1-2, 19, NRSV.)
There is a summons to praise the Lord – and someone calls out, “Let me in, so I can do that!” Who is this speaker?
Earlier he has said, “Out of my distress I called on the Lord; / the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place” (verse 5).
The speaker is one who has already been saved and has come to the temple to give thanks for that deliverance. He was besieged by “all nations,” fought them off, and survived by the Lord’s help (verses 10-13, not in our reading). His escape was hailed in “the tents of the righteous” as a great victory, and he comes to the temple because, “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord” (verse 17).
The Christian use of only verses 19-29 for Palm Sunday has in fact reversed the liturgical structure of the old Israelite cult drama. In the old ritual, the triumphal entry into the city and temple was the climax after all the struggle, a struggle that indeed took the speaker to the threshold of death (verses 13 and 17). In the Christian drama, however, Jesus makes a triumphal entry into the temple before the great struggle with the powers of death – to which, indeed, he succumbs, is killed, and can attain victory only by recovering from death.
Thus Palm Sunday is always ironic. It appears to be something that it turns out not to be. The declaration about the great reversal – “The stone that the builders rejected / has become the chief cornerstone” (verse 22) – means that the “apparent” victory of the moment is really a token of a more ultimate victory on the other side of the struggle with death.
When the speaker has actually entered the temple, the people cry out, “Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!” (Verse 25. This “save us” is the hosh‘iah na’ in Hebrew that becomes the “Hosanna” of the Gospels.) With this cry the hopeful people receive the victorious royal figure: “Blessed in the name of the Lord is the one who comes!” (Verse 26. The NRSV margin is correct for the Hebrew; the quotations in the Gospels change the order of the phrases.) The people process to the altar, waving “branches” to celebrate the salvation signified by the arrival of this Coming One.
The coda: standing in the center of the temple court, and presumably facing the holy of holies inside the temple building, the royal speaker declares, “You are my God, I will extol you.” And the liturgy ends with a final summons to all to give thanks for God’s steadfast love.
The Eastern Gate of the city as seen from the KidronValley,
with the Mount of Olives behind the viewer. This is
approximately where Palm Sunday occurred. The present
structure was built by Suleiman the Magnificent in the early
16th century CE. The gate was sealed shut as ordered by
the Lord in Ezekiel 44:2. (Photo by Jay Wilcoxen.)
When the Gospel According to Luke is read only in its own terms (without harmonizing it with the other Gospels), it becomes evident that Luke does not in fact have a “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem. What he has instead is a parade on the Mount of Olives, across the deep valley from the city walls of Jerusalem (as in verses 35-40).
After the parade is over, Jesus has still not reached the city: “As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it,” and Luke gives Jesus’ long lament over the coming destruction of the unfaithful city (Luke 19:41-44).
Only then does Jesus finally enter the temple – and immediately drive out the merchants without thinking it over for a day, as Mark has it (Mark 11:11, 15-17). (Hans Conzelmann points out that in Luke Jesus actually “occupies” the temple for several days, though he ignores the rest of the city until its time to do the Passover, The Theology of St. Luke, pp. 75-76.)
(For more on the city in Luke-Acts, see below the Special Note on Jerusalem in Luke-Acts.)
Back to the beginning of our reading.
As in Mark, Luke gives special attention to securing the animal on which Jesus will ride in the parade (verses 29-34). The action is located on the east side of the Mount of Olives, where Jesus stayed while in the Jerusalem area. There is a clandestine air about the instructions to the disciples on how to find and justify themselves in getting this animal. “The Lord needs it,” is all one needs to say!
In any case, riding this animal is a highly symbolic act. We learn the power of the symbolism from Zechariah 9:9.
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion…
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. (NRSV)
The prophet continues that the work of this king will be to end war and establish peace:
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;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth. (Zechariah 9:10)
What the enthusiastic disciples at the parade shouted and sang was Psalm 118, which came out, in their version,
Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven! (verse 38)
(This was a sort of combination of Psalm 118:26 and Zechariah 9:10.)
The disciples make such a clamor that good law-abiding Pharisees urge Jesus to quiet them down. At this moment, however, they can’t be quiet, says Jesus, or else the stones themselves would cry out.
This is the high celebrative moment which must be allowed its full expression!
Unlike the great psalm, however, this is not the last note. In Jesus’ drama the cost of the intense battle for salvation is yet to come.
Special Note on Jerusalem in Luke-Acts
The Issue. Jerusalem has a radically different meaning in Luke-Acts than it does in Mark and Matthew. There were clearly different takes on Jerusalem by different circles of Christians in the second generation after Jesus’ death. (John, probably the latest Gospel, agrees with Luke on this issue.)
In Mark and Matthew, Jerusalem is the city of death. Jesus goes there by divine direction to confront the powers of the establishment and die in God’s cause. His followers return to Galilee for the revelation of the risen Lord and their mission to the nations. (See Mark 14:28; 16:7; Matthew 26:32; 28:7,16-20.) There is no place in Mark and Matthew for a return to Jerusalem after the resurrection or for a leadership role for Jesus’ family. Nothing in those Gospels prepares for a Jerusalemchurch of Jesus followers – especially one led by James the brother of Jesus.
By contrast, in Luke (and Acts), the disciples are never to return to Galilee. By direct and precise instructions from Jesus, they are told to stay in Jerusalem and begin their conquest of the world from there. The risen Jesus says, “I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). “While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father.... ‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’” (Acts 1:4 and 8).
Luke’s relation to Jerusalem. Acts makes clear that in his early years Luke had been to Jerusalem, precisely in the years when James the Brother was the head of the church there (the “we” passage in Acts 21:15-19). That was around the year 58, maybe twenty-eight years after Jesus’ death. For two more years (58-60 CE) Paul was in Roman custody in Caesarea, the Hellenized coastal city where the Roman governor resided. Luke was still with Paul at the end of that two years (Acts 27:1), so presumably he had learned much in that time about the Jesus groups in both Jerusalem and the coastal cities of Palestine. On the other hand, Luke seems to know Galilee and its Jesus movements only from Mark’s Gospel, and the Galilee followers are never mentioned in Acts. (Acts 9:31 is simply an exception that proves the rule: Galilee is mentioned but nothing is said about it.)
Paul himself seems to have viewed the Jerusalem church as a primary authority for the early Jesus tradition, though making clear that his own revelation was independent of it (Galatians 1:13-24). This may be the source of Luke’s sustained and consistent Jerusalem orientation for the beginning of the Jesus movement in both the Gospel and Acts.
Jerusalem in the Gospel. Jerusalem is clearly of great symbolic importance in the Gospel. Besides being the city of the Messiah’s death, it is the goal of his mission through much of the earlier work.
The whole middle block of traditions gathered in the “travel narrative” (9:51-19:44) is presented as a journey to Jerusalem. That block begins with a very solemn declaration by the narrator: “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51). “Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem” (13:33).
Jerusalem had long been the object of a great eschatological future. Anyone who had seriously pondered the scroll of Isaiah from beginning to end would recognize that the great temple-city was to become a spectacular sanctuary and oracle for nations far and wide. The prophet indicted the faithful city that had become a whore but knew that she was scheduled to be restored to justice and faithfulness (1:21-26). That restoration would make Zion a beacon to the nations where divine instruction and justice could be found that would produce international peace (2:2-4).
This scenario of the future restoration of the world-centered sanctuary city is carried throughout Isaiah, particularly in Isaiah 40:1-11; 49:8-23; 54; 60; and 62. In several of these passages, the Anointed One is the agent or companion of the restored mother city (49:1-8; 61). And, these visions in Isaiah emphasized that the scattered people of Israel would come back to Zion as the main highlight of that great restoration.
That Luke understood Jesus in terms of the prophesies of Isaiah is clear from such pivotal quotations from that scroll as Luke 3:4-6; 4:18-19; 8:10; 19:45; and 22:37. Luke understood the importance of Jesus going to Jerusalem in Isaiah’s terms – with one vast caveat. When Jesus reached Jerusalem, he was rejected.
In Luke’s rather mature view of those events, not only was the prophetic Jesus rejected by Jerusalem, the risen Jesus was also rejected – as related at length in Acts. Thus, the prophetic Jesus had foreseen that Jerusalem had in reality been doomed all along. While still on his way there, Jesus laments over Jerusalem as already abandoned (13:34-35), and just as he stands on the threshold of the city, he delivers an even more devastating lament over its coming destruction by enemy armies, “because you did not recognize the time of your visitation” (19:41-44).
By the time Luke was composing his two-volume work, Jerusalem had long been destroyed in the war of 66-73 CE. No Jerusalem church descended from the family of Jesus was any longer at the head of the movement. Some radical re-thinking was required of the Jesus followers – now beginning to be called Christians – about the relation of the rapidly growing Jesus movement to the sacred heritage of Israel and its scriptures. Some Christian groups would reject the whole Israelite heritage (Marcion, around 140 CE), but the main line of non-Jewish churches would insist that that heritage was carried on, by the authority of the Holy Spirit, in the life of the new communities that had spread throughout the Roman provinces, even to Rome itself.
By then, the only Jerusalem that mattered was a heavenly one – which Luke left for John to describe in the book of Revelation.