Broad Brook Congregational Church
April 13, 2014
“Who Is This?”
The year is 30. It is a spring day, the beginning the week of Passover. Two processions are entering Jerusalem. Down through the centuries, Christians have celebrated this day as Palm Sunday.
There is an imperial procession and a peasant procession. Entering through the West gate is Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Idumea, Judea, and Samaria. He rides a horse and leads a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers.
On the opposite side of the city, entering through the East gate, Jesus rides a donkey down the Mount of Olives. A crowd of adoring fans, lining the road with their cloaks and tree branches, accompanies him. “Jesus’ procession proclaimed the kingdom of God; Pilate’s proclaimed the power of empire. The two processions embody the central conflict of the week that led to Jesus’s crucifixion.”
Pilate’s procession illustrates both Roman imperial theology and Roman imperial power. Israel was very familiar with this type of military procession since it is common practice of the Roman governors to be in Jerusalem during major Jewish festivals. Trouble frequently erupted, especially at Passover, a festival that celebrated the Jews liberation from an earlier empire. The military Legion was there to “reinforce the Roman Garrison permanently stationed in the Fortress Antonia Lee overlooking the Jewish Temple and its courts.”
Imagine with me the imperial procession’s arrival in Jerusalem. “A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.”
The Roman procession also demonstrates imperial theology. Beginning with Emperor Augustus the Emperor was not only designated as ruler of Rome but also as the Son of God. Tiberius Emperor of Rome during the time of Jesus’ public ministry also bore the divine title. Thus, the Jewish population viewed Pilate’s procession as a rival theology as well as rival social order.
Now let’s join the scene on the east side of the city. Jesus tells two of his disciples to go to the nearby village. There they will find a donkey and her colt. The disciples return with both animals as instructed. The writer of Matthew, always punctuates Jesus’ story with words from the Hebrew Bible “so as to fulfill prophesy.” This narrative is no different. The author quotes from Zachariah 9: 9-10. The passage tells what kind of king to expect—what kind of Messiah God will provide.
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
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.
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;
And his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
And from the River to the ends of the earth.”
In Matthew’s account Jesus rides on two animals. It reminds me of the act in the circus where a rider stands with each foot on a different horse and rides around the ring. (It takes concentration to bring my mind back to Jesus’ royal procession into the Holy City). It matters not how many animals there are. What is important is that he rides and does not walk like the other sojourners. The act of sitting accentuates his status as king. Jesus’ followers are shouting “Hosanna! To the Son of David” Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!
The meaning of Jesus’ procession is clear. He stands in opposition to the Roman imperial theology and imperial power—the kingdom of God vs. the kingdom of Caesar—a confrontation that continues through the last week of Jesus’ life.
There are three types of crowds in our narrative. This gives rise to several questions: “Who are the adoring crowds? Who are the city crowds? Who are the crucifying crowds? To what crowd do you belong?” These seem like simple questions but the answers are anything but simple. The adoring crowd following Jesus appears to be those who have been following him all along; together with some who have joined along the way. Those who have heard Jesus teach, seen his miracles, spent time with him, are hungry for a word of hope, seeking an end to domination are the ones shouting Hosanna! Which means “save us.”
Then there is the crowd that Matthew’s account mentions near the end. “The city is in turmoil.” The residents of the city are reluctant to join the throng. They hang back and wonder and stare and ask, “what the heck is going on here?” “Who is this?”
So who makes up the crowd that will shout, “Let him be crucified” (27:22), several days later. We know that many of the faithful will flee and abandon Jesus as Scripture tells us. Does the majority of the third crowd, who cries out “crucify him,” come from those who were Jesus’s followers or those city residents who were confused and wondering who is this Jesus? Over the course of history the notion that political leaders with an agenda and people confused about their loyalties are a potentially dangerous combination.
The argument that the third crowd was made up of those who wanted a warrior Messiah does not seem to fit with the Matthean story. The author takes great pains to describe a peaceful humble Messiah. Moreover the crowd that has journeyed with Jesus already knows he is no warrior but rather a healer, teacher, a miracle making philosopher “whose only firepower is his compelling presence and word” (Feasting on the Gospels, Matthew, vol 2, pg 142).
Jerusalem is a major character in this narrative. It has a long history of being a holy city for Israel, too long in fact to go into here. But one thing is important to know in order to understand its role in the Passion narrative. During Jesus’s time Jerusalem had become more deeply embroiled in the domination system. Of major concern was the Temple’s role in the local domination system. While the domination system was not new what was new was that the Temple was now at the center of local collaboration with Rome. “As such, it owed “tribute” to the emperor, both loyalty and money, and was thus a tributary domination system.”
At the top of the local system where the Temple authorities namely the high priest and included members of aristocratic families. The task of the Temple authorities and the high priest was to make sure that the annual tribute to Rome was paid they were also in charge of maintaining peace and order locally. Rebellions would not be tolerated by Rome. They became the intermediaries between the Imperial domination system and the local domination system.
There’s wasn’t awkward position on the one hand they needed to keep Rome happy and on the other they had to keep their Jewish subjects happy. This is the Jerusalem that Jesus entered on that Palm Sunday with a message critical of the Temple and its role in the domination system.
Who is Jesus? The disciples have confessed in 16:16 “you are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” The crowds that have followed Jesus also proclaim him to be the Messiah. Matthew now asks that question of the people in Jerusalem and the crowd answers, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” (21:11)
Did the crowd give the right answer? Is Jesus a prophet? As expected, scholars differ on the matter. Some say Jesus is the Messiah not-for-profit; given Jesus’s ministry some say the title prophet is partially correct; and some say profit and Messiah are simply interchangeable titles for the Jewish people. For Matthew, Jesus as prophet offers the most comprehensive naming of the attributes Jesus possesses as the Messiah. Within Matthews Jewish context, during the time of the writing of the gospel, the term prophet meant more than simply one who addresses the oracle of God to the people. The title encompassed roles such as lawgiver like Moses, a visionary like Daniel, a charismatic miracle worker like Elijah and suffering servant, as many of the prophets were described.
Who is this? Is a question that is still asked today showed that question be answered only by ordained pastors and professionally trained preachers? I don’t think so. In our text Matthew asks the crowds rather then the disciples.
There are many reasons offered up by people as to why they follow Jesus. Jesus as the way the truth and the life has provided a roadmap for many on their journey through life. Others have witnessed God’s miraculous power in their lives. Thus, the answer to the question who is Jesus is typically based on their different experiences of Christ.
Who is Jesus is a conversation that should take place between the congregation and the pastor; a conversation in which all voices are heard and valued. It is a conversation I look forward to having with you over the coming years. In the meantime, look into your heart and decide who Jesus is for you.
As we move into Holy Week, try hearing the story as one of the characters in the narrative and think what it was like for the disciples, or the crowds, or the Temple authorities, in that week when all that was happening was new.
In the greatest of hope, Amen.