Palm Sunday (Year A)

April 17, 2011

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Matthew 21:1-11


The Revised Common Lectionary splits the traditional Palm Sunday in two, one liturgy for the Palms and one for the Passion. For a couple of times through the Lectionary cycle I followed that arrangement, but my own church follows the old separate services, and the Lectionary’s arrangement has seemed over-loaded to me. The Passion should not be in the same service with the triumphal entry. In recent years, therefore, I have kept this Sunday exclusively for the palm-waving entry into Jerusalem and moved the long Passion liturgy to Good Friday. Not a perfect arrangement, but at least its closer to what the Gospels themselves do!

Note: All scripture quotations in these readings are from the New International Version (NIV, 1983 text) unless specified otherwise.

The Liturgy of the Palms in the Lectionary contains only two readings, the Psalm and the Gospel. The two are hand in glove: the Psalm excerpts are from an old liturgical drama in which the king enacts a salvation brought to anxious worshipers in the Jerusalem temple. This destiny-making figure has survived great dangers by God’s help and his arrival at the temple gates signals that salvation for all has arrived.

The Gospel reading, the basics of which are common to all four Gospels, presents Jesus in his own time re-enacting that ancient liturgy, being acclaimed by his disciples and popular followers as was the ancient king by the worshipers in the procession and in the temple.

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

The Psalm reading is the call to worship (verses 1-2) and the last half (verses 19-29) of the psalm that ends the Egyptian Hallel, the group of praise psalms (113-118) used at major festivals in Jerusalem, Passover in the spring and Succoth (Tents, “Tabernacles”) in the autumn. In the Gospel stories of Jesus’ entry, this psalm is quoted by the people greeting the coming Jesus. Those Gospel-hearers were thus invited to envision Jesus as the royal speaker in the psalm.

Following the call to worship, the reading skips to the point at which the king is approaching the east gate into the temple. In the following exchanges, the people (and priests) reply from inside the city. The king speaks.

Open for me the gates of righteousness;
     I will enter and give thanks to the Lord.

The gatekeepers reply.

This is the gate of the Lord
     through which [only] the righteous may enter.

The king speaks his thanksgiving to God, showing that he is among the righteous.

I will give you thanks [O Lord], for you answered me;
     you have become my salvation.

The people inside declare the significance of this occasion, leading up to the prayer pronounced, “Hosanna!”

The stone the builders rejected
     has become the capstone;
the Lord has done this,
     and it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day the Lord has made;
     let us rejoice and be glad in it.
O Lord, save us [hōshī’ānnā];
     O Lord, grant us success.

The answer to the people’s cry for deliverance is the king’s actual passage through the gates. (These gates are in fact a large building, with a passageway over twenty-five feet long, with chambers opening off the insides; see Ezekiel 40:6-16.)

The passage through the gate leads into the outer court of the temple. As the king passes through this entry, he is proclaimed by those who accompany him:

Blessed in the name of the Lord is he who enters! [my translation]

The priests and worshippers inside the temple respond, and go on to declare that this coming signifies that God’s light has shined on the people.

From the house of the Lord we bless you [plural; the king’s followers].

The Lord is God [literally, “Yahweh is El”],
     and he has made his light shine upon us.
Bind the festival with ropes [my literal translation],
     up to the horns of the altar. [The precise meaning is uncertain.]

The king figure has now reached the inner court of the sanctuary where the altar of animal sacrifice stood. There he makes a final declaration of his thanksgiving for deliverance.

You are my God, and I will give you thanks;
     you are my God, I will exalt you.

This thanksgiving concludes the liturgical action of the psalm, and the singer repeats the opening summons, calling on all to “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good…”

Matthew 21:1-11

The narrative of the triumphal entry in Matthew is presented in two parts, the preparation and the actual event, the latter with acclamations that interpret the event.

The East Gate of the temple area, as rebuilt in the 1530s by Suleiman the Magnificent. (The Gate is sealed because in Ezekiel’s vision Yahweh had entered through it and ordered it permanently shut, Ezekiel 44:2. Photo by Jay Wilcoxen.)

The geography of the event is quite clear. Jesus mounts the animal(s) on the Mount of Olives, which is to the east of Jerusalem, and rides down into the Kidron Valley and up the steep hill to the east gate of the city—which leads into the temple. Even if the first hearers of the present Gospel (probably living in Syria) were not familiar with the topography of Jerusalem (which had been destroyed by the time this Gospel was written), they were familiar with what was said about it in the Scriptures.

Some hearers would have recalled that the original “son of David” had ridden a mule when he was anointed king and made a triumphant entry into Jerusalem.

So Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet, Benaiah son of Jehoiada, the Kerethites and the Pelethites [David’s personal body guards] went down and put Solomon on King David’s mule and escorted him to Gihon [a spring in the Kidron Valley]. Zadok the priest took the horn of oil from the sacred tent and anointed Solomon. Then they sounded the trumpet and all the people shouted, “Long live King Solomon!” And all the people went up after him [out of the Kidron back into the city], playing flutes and rejoicing greatly, so that the ground shook with the sound” (I Kings 1:38-40, NIV).

In the Gospel Jesus sends two disciples to get a donkey and a colt (there are two animals only in Matthew), which they will find tied, as if waiting for them. If bystanders ask about the disciples taking the animals, they are to say that “the Lord needs them.” In the Gospel’s view, there are people out there ready to do the Lord’s bidding without question, without any explanations about secret plans, such as we might wish for.

A prophecy of the event. Between Jesus’ instructions and the disciples’ carrying them out, Matthew makes a point of saying that this business with the donkeys is fulfillment of prophecy. He quotes the prophecy in question, though his quotation is a bit odd. The first clause—“Say to the Daughter of Zion”—either is not a quote, or it is a little fragment from Isaiah 62:11. The rest, “See, your king comes to you…” is from Zechariah 9:9, except that it only quotes a fragment of the verse, and it does not follow either the Hebrew or the Greek texts (as these are known to modern scholars) in exact wording. (Such text variations reinforce the view that oral recitation was the mode of transmission of such much-discussed texts.)

The point of the prophecy as presented, however, is that the prophets announced that Jerusalem’s king is coming to her, and he is coming in a humble manner, riding on a donkey, “and on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (verse 5). (The “humble” note may have been ironic for some: Solomon, the first son of David, rode on a simple mule – but he became the mightiest king!)

Two animals? Someone in the milieu of Matthew’s Gospel thought it was important that two animals are (or seem to be) mentioned in the prophecy—the mother donkey and its colt, the little he-donkey. Therefore, in Matthew’s story, and his story only, Jesus rides two donkeys in the triumphal procession. The Christian scribe quoting the prophecy probably did not bother his head much about how to visualize that riding. The scripture said two donkeys, and so there were two. (The movie version of Jesus Christ Superstar [1973 release] has Jesus standing up as he rides, with the camera angles such that the animals are not shown! Can’t prove it either way by them! Some later Greek manuscripts of Matthew change “they put their garments on them,” to “put their garments on it,” thus harmonizing the passage with Mark, which has only one animal.)

Aside on Zechariah 9-14. The prophecy quoted about the donkeys is from a section of Zechariah (chapters 9-14) that plays a large part in interpreting the events of Jesus’ last days. Other references or quotes from this section of prophecy concern Judas’ thirty pieces of silver (Matthew 26:15, referring to Zechariah 11:12-13), the dispersal of the disciples when Jesus is arrested (Matthew 26:31, referring to Zechariah 13:7), and perhaps the reference to “blood of the covenant” spoken by Jesus over the wine at the last supper (Matthew 26:28, referring to Zechariah 9:11). This whole section of Zechariah, as a background for the drama in Jerusalem, is strongly colored by apocalyptic expectations. The final drama of God’s judgment is elaborated in powerful symbols and dramatic events (see especially Zechariah 14), which early Christians clearly understood to have found some fulfillment in the last days of Jesus in Jerusalem.

The event of the ride into the city is accompanied by the spreading of garments ahead of the donkeys, as if the red carpet were being rolled out. The way is also adorned with tree branches (“palms” are mentioned only in John 12:13). At the beginning we hear about “a very large crowd” (verse 8), but as things go forward, we hear of “the crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed…” (verse 9). It is a large popular demonstration, as Matthew presents it.

And these crowds are shouting the “Hosanna!”—the cry for salvation that is the climax of “the Egyptian Hallel” (Psalms 113-118; the Hosanna is in Psalm 118:25).

Except—as Matthew’s community retold the event, the crowds were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” The psalm does not refer to David (by name), though all the other Gospels make clear, each in different words, that the Jesus who enters Jerusalem is a king (see Mark 11:10; Luke 19:38; and John 12:13). This was a major point from which the Jesus confessors of Matthew’s time could begin their discussions with their Jewish neighbors and relatives—that Jesus was the son of David and the hoped for Messiah. The Matthew narrative proclaims this royalty publicly and joyously in this entry scene.

The impact. When Jesus has made his entry, the whole city is in “turmoil”—more literally, it is “shaken” (the Greek verb is the source of our word “seismic”). Who is this man acclaimed as king? The happy crowds reply, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee” (verse 11). In the procession he was acclaimed as king, and as he reaches his destination he is called a prophet. His next move—to immediately cleanse the temple of its mercenary corruption (21:12-13)—demonstrates his prophetic calling and action.

The paradox of Jesus’ kingly status has yet to be manifested, and will become clear only through the full course of the passion narrative.

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