Text: Luke 19:28-40 (RSV)
28 And when he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 29 When he drew near to Beth′phage and Bethany, at the mount that is called Olivet, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, “Go into the village opposite, where on entering you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever yet sat; untie it and bring it here. 31 If any one asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ you shall say this, ‘The Lord has need of it.’” 32 So those who were sent went away and found it as he had told them. 33 And as they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 And they said, “The Lord has need of it.” 35 And they brought it to Jesus, and throwing their garments on the colt they set Jesus upon it. 36 And as he rode along, they spread their garments on the road. 37 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, 38 saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” 39 And some of the Pharisees in the multitude said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”
In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.
It was a great, even awesome day! Imagine being there that day! There he is, Jesus of Nazareth, who many claim is a prophet as great as Elijah, who is rumored to have healed lepers, given sight to blind people, who some say had even raised a dead man back to life, a man some even claim was the long-awaited Messiah himself, right before your eyes! There he is, entering Jerusalem through that gate on a donkey, just as the prophet Zechariah had foretold! There was no better reason to wave a palm branch and shout “Hosanna”!
We don’t see the word “Hosanna” in today’s lesson, but it is recorded in the other three gospel accounts, so it’s pretty likely that people were shouting “Hosanna!” at the top of their lungs as Jesus came through that gate.
Here’s something significant about that word – we think it’s a word of praise, like “Halleluiah,” or “Hooray” – but it isn’t. The meaning of the word “Hosanna” is: “Help, save us!” So the people who greeted Jesus on that day were, at the same time they were lavishing praise and adoration on him, also calling upon him to save them! So it would seem that at least some of the people in that crowd believed that he was not just a great leader, not even just a King, but that this Jesus was indeed their Messiah.
And, boy did they ever need help! Palestine was a powder keg just waiting for someone to light its fuse. Tensions ran high. The crowds greeting Jesus were under the suspicious and watchful eyes of soldiers posted strategically along the walls. There were untold numbers of Roman spies interspersed throughout the throngs.
It’s hard to overestimate the condition people were in. The Romans were just the latest in long line of conquerors stretching back hundreds of years who marched in and took over; and although the Romans took a “hands off” approach to governing, preferring to leave local governments and leaders in place, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind as to who really called the shots or ran the show. That’s something that we just can’t imagine – having a foreign government controlling our daily lives from the shadows, running the government through puppets. As the website “My Jewish Learning” puts it: “Judea was ruled by a Roman procurator who managed its political, military, and fiscal affairs. Its governmental structure was reorganized by Gabinius, the Roman governor of Syria from 57 to 55 B.C.E., who divided the country into five synhedroi, or administrative districts.
“This arrangement was clearly intended to eliminate the age‑old system of toparchies (administrative districts made up of central towns and the
rural areas surrounding them), dating from the reign of Solomon, and taken over in turn by the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians, and then by the Ptolemies and Seleucids.
“The intent of this reorganization was to destabilize the nation and thus make certain that popular resistance would be impossible. Julius Caesar restored certain territories to Judea and appointed Hyrcanus II ethnarch (Greek for “ruler of the nation”). [Hyrcanus II was the son of Alexander Yannai, the Hasmonean King who ruled from 103-76 B.C.E.]”
The problem was that it didn’t work. There were all kinds of resistance groups at work during that time; and even though they might have differed in leadership and approach, the goal of every one of them was the same: Get rid of the Romans.
Among the many resistance groups were the Zealots and the Sicarians. They’re significant for us because two of Jesus’ own disciples were possibly members of these groups – Simon Zelotes (“Simon of the Zealots”) and the infamous Judas Iscariot (“Judas of the Sicarians”). Some scholars even say that James and John, the “Sons of Zebedee” had that name, not because they were the sons of a man named Zebedee, but rather because they were members of yet another resistance group called the Zebedaeans.
This is, of course, not to say by any stretch of the imagination that Jesus himself was some of radical, far from it – Jesus was no more a political revolutionary than he was a Wall Street banker! Jesus’ mission went far beyond any such consideration of who was ruling whom. But the point here is that some of his followers were members of this or that radical group; so, given that, we can see that all this may have been one more reason that Jesus and his followers were on the Romans’ radar screen.
Adding to the tension was the sheer number of people in Jerusalem for the Passover festival. The city of Jerusalem in the time of Jesus normally had a population of about 40,000. But – when it was Passover time, the population temporarily swelled to something like 250,000 people! That’s almost the population of St. Paul – and remember that Jerusalem straddles the backs of some narrow hills, so there’s really not a lot of real estate to go around. So the place was pretty crowded, and crowds can sometimes get out of hand, particularly when there are subversives among them sowing the seeds of discontent and revolt.
And there’s even more going on! Across town, another procession was entering Jerusalem! As David Ewart tells us in his “Holy Textures” blog regarding this passage:
“[W]hat the authors of the Bible take for granted and fail to mention is that while Jesus is parading in on a donkey through one of the back gates, on the other side of the city Pilate is parading in on a war horse accompanied by a squadron or two of battle-hardened Roman soldiers…You can bet that he too is being acclaimed by a crowd.” (David Ewart, HolyTextures.com)
But that crowd is most definitely not shouting “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” If Pilate and his thugs had gotten wind of what the crowd on the other side of town was shouting about Jesus, there would have been a crackdown and some executions for treason – executions on, you guessed it, a cross.
So, beneath the celebrations and the processions on this day there is an ominous undercurrent of danger. Jerusalem was a powder keg waiting for a spark to set it off.
Two processions – the one featuring Pilate, the other Jesus. The contrast could not be more stark. One symbolizing naked power, oppression, violence, ambition; and the other proclaiming that something new had come into the world. Something that would change, something that had changed, the world forever.
Against the backdrop of the deliberate destabilization of the nation, all kinds of revolutionary groups popping up like mushrooms, heavy taxation, grinding poverty, popular resentment against the invaders, a city full of people from all over the country in full fervor of the most sacred religious festival of the year – Jesus rides into town!
And he doesn’t just sneak into town, either. Even though he knows that the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Romans are out to get him, he courageously enters through that gate into Jerusalem. His entry is, with every intention, and plenty of planning beforehand, a royal procession, just like a procession of any other king, like King David, or King Solomon, for example. But – again – it’s not meant to stick a thumb in the collective eye of the authorities, but rather it’s meant to herald the coming of the Kingdom of God. Jesus uses the trappings of the old ways to herald the coming of a new way. As William Barclay writes, Jesus’ riding into Jerusalem in this way “was a deliberate claim to be a king, a deliberate fulfilling of the picture in Zechariah 9:9. But even in this Jesus underlined the kind of kingship which he claimed. The donkey in Palestine was not the lowly beast that it is in this country. It was noble. Only in war did kings ride upon a horse; when they came in peace they came upon a donkey. So Jesus by this action came as a king of love and peace, and not as the conquering military hero whom the tumultuous crowds expected and awaited.”
One of my favorite hymns starts like this:
“The King of love my shepherd is
Whose goodness faileth never.
I nothing lack if I am his,
And He is mine forever.”
When we say that “God is love,” I sometimes think that we don’t fully realize just how courageous, how far-reaching, how deep and abiding that love is. We don’t fully comprehend what a risk it was – even for Jesus – to live out that love by riding through the gates of Jerusalem that day. That’s why I thought we’d benefit from a bit of historical background this morning.
And I say “even for Jesus,” because we need to remember that Jesus was also fully human and as such he felt everything we feel, including feeling sadness, betrayal, and even fear. In a few days’ time, he will try to bargain with God – “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me”; but that lasts barely a breath, because he then says in the same sentence, “nevertheless, not my will, but thine, be done.” (Luke 22:42)
That’s not the kind of love we find in Hallmark cards. That’s the kind of love that changes the world. It is the love which surrounds us right now.
How do we respond to that kind of overwhelming love? Here’s a story – one I’ve used before – which illustrates a response:
“One evening during rush hour, a man was running to get in line for a bus. Suddenly, a large woman pushed in ahead of him, almost knocking him down. In mock apology he said, ‘Pardon me. I didn’t mean to smash into you like that.’ The woman did a double take and said, ‘I’m sorry! How can you be so kind to me after what I did?’ Now he did a double take – the woman actually thought he was sincere. He groped for a reply, saying something like, ‘It doesn’t hurt to be nice to people.’ Riding home, the man felt embarrassed and humbled by his pettiness and insincerity. ‘Lord,’ he prayed, ‘what are you telling me?’ Back came the reply: ‘I’m telling you what I’ve been trying to tell people for centuries: Love releases a chain reaction of love just as hate releases a chain reaction of hate.’”
The Pilates, the Herods, and the Caesars of the world are terrified by this kind of love. They are powerless to stop that chain reaction.
Pilate is now dust. Caiaphas is long gone. The Roman Empire itself is nothing but a chapter in history books or the subject of documentaries on the History Channel. Yet Jesus lives. We are still here. God still reigns.
There is no greater force in the Universe than the power of love.
Who is this Jesus? Love in the flesh.
So today, we need to ask ourselves the question: Which procession am I going to join? Am I going to parade with Pilate and march down the gloomy road that leads only to doom? Or am I going to walk with Jesus through the gates of Jerusalem and onward through the gates of Heaven itself?
Let us choose the path of life! Let us wave our palm branches and, along with that joyous crowd, sing “Hosanna!” at the top of our lungs!
In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.
 Barclay, William, The Gospel of Luke, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2001, p. 284
 Mark Link, S.J., Jesus: A Contemporary Walk with Jesus, Resources for Christian Living, Allen, TX, 1997