The Passion

March 16, 2008

This Sunday – Palm Sunday – known as Passion Sunday in some traditions – we begin with a reading from Psalm 118 (verses 1-2 and 19-29):

O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!
Let Israel say, “His steadfast love endures forever.”
Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD.
This is the gate of the LORD; the righteous shall enter through it.
I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the LORD’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Save us, we beseech you, O LORD! O LORD, we beseech you, give us success!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD. We bless you from the house of the LORD.
The LORD is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar.
You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you.
O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.

And our Gospel passage is Matthew 21:1-17

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately. ” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.” The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’?” He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.

Today we begin Holy Week – the week that leads us towards Easter Sunday – and each day is associated with part of the narrative of the last days of Jesus:

• Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday – Entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem
• Holy Monday, Tuesday & Wednesday – Events in and around Jerusalem
• Maundy Thursday – The Last Supper
• Good Friday – The Crucifixion
• Holy Saturday – Jesus in the tomb

Today we ask the question of how, in just one week, we move from the celebratory entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem to the body of Jesus laying in a tomb. What brought about the extraordinary events of that week? What led to the Passion?

The story starts simply enough. It starts with a donkey, often described as the choice of Jesus to show his humility and lowly estate upon his entry into Jerusalem. A nice enough notion, but one that seems unlikely. In this account (the only record of Jesus ever riding anywhere) we see Jesus ride a donkey because of its symbolism. When a king approached a city in those days he would do it in one of two ways: on a horse if he intended to come for battle and on a donkey if he came in peace. Jesus riding a donkey is a sign of an approaching king – one coming in peace, not for war.

We read, “This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

And here the referent is Zechariah 9:9 “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.”

Note however, that the words “rejoice greatly” are omitted (elsewhere we read of Jesus crying as he approached Jerusalem) as are the words “triumphant and victorious”, perhaps an indicator that things would not proceed in a way that would be obviously triumphant or obviously victorious.

Next we read, “A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road…” and the image of Jehu from the history of Israel is conjured up:

2 Kings 9:12-13 [Jehu speaking]: “This is just what he said to me: ‘Thus says the LORD, I anoint you king over Israel.’” Then hurriedly they all took their cloaks and spread them for him on the bare steps; and they blew the trumpet, and proclaimed, “Jehu is king.”

And we read, “…others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road” which must surely have invoked the image of Simon Maccabaeus entering Jerusalem after his great victory in battle, as described in the apocryphal book, 1 Maccabees 13:51 “…the Jews entered … with praise and palm branches … because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel.”

In the context of the events to follow, it is especially noteworthy that Simon Maccabaeus restored the Temple after it was despoiled by Antiochus Epiphanes IV in ca. 175 BC.

Next, we read of the people, “…shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!””

Here we see Psalm 118 come into play: “Save us, we beseech you, O LORD! O LORD, we beseech you, give us success! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD.”

Given that Hosanna means, “Save us”, we are seeing a cry for deliverance made to God (Psalm 118) become a cry for deliverance made to Jesus!

Why would we expect to see a quote from Psalm 118?

• The last of the “Hallel (Praise) Psalms” (113-118)
• A “Messianic Psalm”
• Probably sung at Passover
• Dialog between the priest and the people as they enter the Temple
• The people approach the dwelling place of God
• Application to Jesus = recognition as Priest

In short order in this passage we have seem signs and symbols of Messiahship, Kingship, divinity, and priesthood associated with Jesus.
And we can add prophet to the list: “When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

When we read, “the whole city was in turmoil”, we might wonder what that means. Although we do not know with certainty, we do know that 30 years later it was recorded that around quarter of a million Passover lambs were sold in the vicinity of Jerusalem. Given that a Passover lamb was traditionally shared among 10 people, that means that a crowd of 2.5 million people might be reasonable!! Although that sounds like a very large number, the Temple and its environs were likely between 30 and 35 acres in size, so there was room for such a crowd.

When we read that Jesus entered the Temple, we might expect that something important is happening based upon the words of Malachi and Ezekiel:

Malachi 3:1 “Behold, I send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, behold, he comes, says the LORD of hosts.”

Ezekiel 9:6 [Describing the purification of Jerusalem] “…begin at my sanctuary”

We next encounter Jesus and his reaction to the activities in the Temple, “…and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.”

This passage is often read in terms of Jesus reacting to high exchange rates in the money changing practices of the Temple and to the inflated prices of doves used in sacrifice. While it seems that such things did in fact go on, the issue appears to be more complex.

We read: “He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.””

Here we see quotations from Isaiah 56:7b “…for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” And from Jeremiah 7:11 “Is this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I, even I, have seen it, says the LORD.”

The “robbers” referenced here are unlikely to be the money changers or dove sellers because the word employed is “lestes” – “one who robs with violence”. In 1st century use this meant a bandit or a revolutionary fighting against Rome. [Barabbas, whom the people eventually choose over Jesus, was “lestes”; so were the men crucified with Jesus] It seems that Jesus is critical of the Temple as a center of nationalism and violence against Rome and that it is this important issue that led to his reaction.

In understanding this narrative we recall that prophets act and speak symbolically. In the texts cited we see:

Isaiah 56 – Focus on the in-gathering of Gentiles into the people of God; critical of the current condition of the people of Israel

Jeremiah 7 – Part of a sermon denouncing the Temple (the focal point of nationalism in a time of threat) and predicting it will be destroyed

The critical issue for Jesus seems to be this question: how can the Temple welcome all nations and yet also be symbol of nationalism?

The brief disruption of Temple life is prophetic of judgment and destruction given the Temple’s stand on nationalism. This stand would be turned against it in punishment for failure to live out the mission of Israel.

Next we read, “The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them.” This is extraordinary given that such individuals were excluded from entry into the Temple! Again we are reminded of Isaiah’s words, “…for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” In these acts of healing, Jesus restores the people to their rightful place before God.

The reaction of the leaders in the Temple is accordingly very negative, “But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?””

We again reminded that “Hosanna”, which means “save us” is a cry for deliverance (uttered usually to God, now to Jesus) and that “Son of David” is a Messianic/Kingship title.

Jesus responds as follows: “Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’?” He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.”

Here Jesus cites Psalm 8:2 (A Messianic Psalm): “Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.” [this is actually quoted verbatim from the LXX: “Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings you have perfected praise…”].

And so when we survey this passage we can see what happened between Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday:

• The threat to the established order within Judaism (especially the Temple as a center of nationalism) was made apparent.
• The implied threat to Rome associated with “Kingship” was made public.

It was for these reasons that Jesus was arrested, turned over to the Romans, and crucified. By the end of Holy Week, as we remember Jesus in the tomb, we recall his mission, understood in three parts:

• Reconstituting “Israel” around himself
• Reestablishing the mission of the covenant people
• Proclaiming that the time had come

And that his whole purpose hung in the balance. Would it all end in the darkness of the tomb? Would the life of Jesus turn into a pointless footnote in the history of first-century Israel? The answer to these questions has to wait for another week. That is the week that begins with Easter Sunday!

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