Palm Sunday (Year C)
14 April 2019
Almighty and everlasting God, who, of thy tender love towards mankind, hast sent thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ to take upon him our flesh, and to suffer death upon the cross, that all mankind should follow the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may both follow the example of his patience, and also be made partakers of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
The Passion according to Luke
On Palm Sunday we always get the whole drama of Holy Week in one package. Within the first half of the service we move from Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem in triumph, through the drama of the passion, and right down to the desolation of the cross, the tragedy of Jesus’ death. That is where we have just been left by the sweep of this morning’s narrative. I know that it is almost impossible for me to effectively suggest we all take a step back, forget what we have just heard, put aside the wrenching emotion of the hauntingly and beautifully chanted Passion Gospel, and return to a contemplation of that joyful parade. Yet that is exactly what I hope we can do.
My own cynical suspicion has always been that the Passion Gospel is proclaimed on Palm Sunday because the next time most people will turn up in Church is on Easter Day. Most people will not walk slowly in the way of the cross and mark the days, one-by-one that lead from today through Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, where we will again encounter Jesus’ death, into the darkness of the Easter Vigil and its magnificent proclamation of the consummation of the Paschal Mystery in Jesus’ resurrection. We, however, are a community that makes that pilgrimage, one step at a time, so I hope you will indulge me, wipe away your tears for a moment, and think back to your own experience of walking the streets of our neighbourhood, holding palms in your hand, and joyfully singing “All glory, laud, and honour.”
Now this year we have Luke’s version of the story, as this is Luke’s year in our three-year cycle. Over the past few months I have been trying to draw out some of the unique features of Luke’s version of the Gospel. We have found that his point of view is more worldly than either Mark or Matthew. Luke knows he is a citizen of a global empire that stretched to the bounds of the known world and he writes for this audience. He is more fond of telling stories than the other two and has a trove of narrative material unknown to the other evangelists, like the tales of the Forgiving Father and Lord of the Vineyard, which we heard over the past two weeks. On a larger scale, and this is something we will draw out as we move into Eastertide, the Gospel of Luke is just the first half of a two volume work that tells a more sweeping story of the birth and spread of the community that follows Jesus and who become Christian and the Church.
Each of the gospels, as we know, comes at Jesus’ life from its own perspective, but the three accounts of the inauguration of Jesus’ final ministry in Jerusalem are remarkably similar. There seems to be something essential about the Palm Sunday story that is central to understanding who Jesus is. As each version begins to differ, we see what each evangelist wishes to tease out. In the original account in Mark there is a pressing sense of urgency. When Matthew gets hold of Mark’s story, he, too, keeps the narrative very similar, but from the start adds a good deal of material showing how the events unfolding “took place to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet,” as was his wont.
When we look at Mark and Luke lined up side-by-side in the original, we see that as they begin to unfold they are very close, with only slight variation and little embellishment from Luke. Luke does remove some of Mark’s characteristic urgency by deleting the latter’s ubiquitous “immediatelys” from Jesus’ commands, but the sense is the same. It is only at the end that they diverge in a remarkable way, showing what is important to Luke and his readers.
Jesus and his band approach Jerusalem and, remaining outside the city, Jesus commands that two of his followers should “go into the village opposite, where on entering you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat; untie it and bring it here. If any one asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ you shall say this, “The Lord has need of it.” Matthew does not think that the untried nature of the horse is important and removes the reference, but this is a detail that Luke retains, perhaps suggesting Jesus’ mastery over the forces of nature and the cosmos, an important theme in Mark.
When they bring the colt to Jesus they threw their garments on the colt [and] they set Jesus upon it. And as he rode along, they spread their garments on the road. As he was now drawing near, at the descent of the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
Here Luke begins to edit his material, shaping it to his point of view. Mark, and with Matthew following him, specifically include the detail about how in addition to spreading their garments (as Luke also reports), “others spread leafy branches which they had cut from the field.” No palms for Luke. He has become more interested in what the people shout as Jesus goes past: “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” The first phrase is a reference to Psalm 118, and is reflected in all three versions. Mark adds, “Hosanna in the highest,” and is followed by Matthew. Luke, on the other hands uniquely has the people proclaim, “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” This sounds awfully like the Angels’ proclamation right at Jesus birth in Luke’s gospel, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased.” It is even an echo from Isaiah’s prophesy, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called ‘Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.’” The people recognise in Jesus not only a new kind of king, a monarch of a type never seen before, but the one who is uniquely suited to bring peace.
Now, in a tidbit only found in Luke, this all seems to be too much for the Pharisees who were watching the spectacle, and they demand of Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” But Jesus tells them, “If these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” Jesus chose his words carefully. It is a reference to Habakkuk’s rebuke to the wicked nation, in which the prophet singles out those “who get evil gain from your houses, setting your nest on high to be safe from the reach of harm! Who have devised shame for your house by cutting off many peoples; you have forfeited your life.” (2:9-10). We, who have walked in our own triumphal procession, and those who were there at the beginning, bursting with joy when they beheld Jesus on that colt, see what the Pharisees are unable or unwilling to see. We know that what is unfolding is a profound rebuke to the present, self-interested, corrupt leaders of the world. It is a direct contrast to the kind of kingship Jesus was offered over the known world by the devil at his temptation. It shows us a new kind of kingship, one faithful to God, one embodied in a peace maker.
On this Palm Sunday, Luke presents for us the new king, the one heralded at his birth as a peacemaker and again heralded as such as he enters Jerusalem for the culmination of his earthly ministry. This is the king who, through affliction, oppression, and human judgement (to use Isaiah’s language), vindicates love as supreme over death and its forces. Let us for today live into this image: the image of the king, riding the colt never before ridden, whose interest is not in his own glory or the amassing of power and riches, but who seeks for the world what God seeks: the reconciliation of all creation in peace with its God. Let us do this for today. We have all week to lead us down to the Cross, all week to contemplate the worst that humans can do. Today let us be the people able to recognise such a king, spontaneously throw down our garments as a carpet of honour, and who would shout, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
13 April 2019
© 2019 Andrew Charles Blume