Sunday, March 16, 2008

What happened on Palm Sunday?

It's Palm Sunday. I've found preparing a sermon for today really difficult. There is just so much to say about what happened that I have not been able to reduce my jumble of thoughts to a manageable presentation - hopefully I will this morning.

We're in Matthew this Easter and one the things that intrigues me about Matthew's telling of the story is the numbers of pairs he refers to. Scholars endlessly debate the two donkeys, some suggesting that Matthew was somewhat dim to read the Zechariah 9 prophecy to mean that the king came riding on two animals!

I wonder if Matthew draws attention to pairs in order to draw us to the heart of the story. Two disciples are sent to get two donkeys at the beginning of a narrative that concerns two crowds, two views of Jesus and two testimonies about him from outsiders. Let's unpack that.

Matthew is the only gospel writer to distinguish between the crowd accompanying Jesus and the crowd already in Jerusalem. The latter is puzzled about the commotion and ask 'who is this?' (10 - everything so far in the story has happened outside Jerusalem); the former answer that 'Jesus is the prophet from Nazareth' (11), the northern crowd and telling southern enquirers that the messiah is one of theirs!

The Jerusalem crowd gives way to the Jerusalem leaders - the chief priests and teachers of the Law - who object to the singing of the children in the temple because of what they are singing to and about Jesus (not because they are against kids choirs in the temple!). They have a view of Jesus at odds with the one Matthew has been unfolding to us through his narrative. To them Jesus is at best an interesting if maverick preacher, at worst someone who will bring the wrath of Rome down on them. They certainly believe he has no business saying the things he's reputed to have said and accepting the praises of the children.

All these pairs lead to the most crucial pair - that of the two testimonies about who Jesus is - at the heart of Matthew's story. The two testimonies come from 'outsiders' - the Galilean pilgrim crowd and the children - and concern who Jesus is.

The first identifies him as 'the prophet', a strong echo of Deuteronomy 18:15-19, which looks to the coming of the prophet like Moses, a text that informed Jewish messianic expectation in the first century. More than that, they have already suggested that he is the king foreseen by Zechariah (9:9), an echo of David's return to the city after Absolom's revolt (hence the strong emphasis on Jesus as Son of David in this section of the gospel?). Of course the crowd does not quote Zechariah, Matthew does. But the crowd's behaviour - the chanting of hosanna (from Psalm 118:25-26), the spreading of cloaks and branches on the road - point to the text in Matthew's mind: they clearly see him as God's prophet and king, the long-awaited messiah who will lead them to freedom in his Kingdom.

Having made his demonstration in the temple, the children sing and Jesus responds to his critics by citing Psalm 8:2. It all looks so innocent and the focus appears to be on Jesus and his enemies. But if we miss the detail, we miss what the temple authorities were so grieved about.

Jesus' demonstration in the temple consists of two actions - turning over the tables of a few money changers and dove sellers (probably his action was not big enough to arouse the interest of the Romans or the temple police - unlike what happened in Acts 21:27-35; this was a small-scale making of a point) and the healing of those barred from access to the temple (the blind and lame - their access was not officially barred but their lack of welcome stems from the time David took the city as narrated in 2 Samuel 5:6-8).

It was these two actions together that drew the attention of the priests and the children (and no doubt others who were amazed at what was happening). The children sing hosanna as the crowd leading Jesus into the city had done (thus tying the two halves of the story very closely together). But when the priests object, Jesus quotes Psalm 8:2, a verse that applies the singing of children to the praise of God. What is Jesus claiming here? As Dick France suggests in his excellent commentary on Matthew 'Jesus was not averse to taking upon himself what in the OT was said of Yahweh...unless he is here setting himself in the place of Yahweh, the argument is a non-sequitur' (quoting his own much earlier study on Jesus and the Old Testament).

The priests are left gagging as Jesus leaves for the day. It's only when he returns to the temple the following day that they have found their voice again and ask where he gets his authority from (23)

1 comment:

Mrs_Tiggy said...

HI Simon, thanks for this interesting view of Palm Sunday. I really enjoyed reading it. It is interesting to see what different churches are doing on this day. We had a family service which was lead by the Sunday School leaders and where the children were very active. I wrote a little bit about it today on my blog.