Canberra Baptist Church -Rev. John Morrison
10.30am service (via ZOOM), 5 April 2020 (Palm Sunday)
Reading Matthew 21:1-11, 12-17 (NRSV)
Today’s Gospel reading covers two very significant events in the life of Jesus — his entry into Jerusalem on a donkey on what we call Palm Sunday, and his cleansing of the Temple.
Both these events are very dramatic and Jesus’ actions are full of symbolic meaning. They are what I would call “symbolic actions”.
There are numerous other examples of such symbolic action during Jesus’ ministry e.g.
- Turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana;
- When parents were bringing their children to Jesus for his blessing but the disciples were trying to turn them away. Jesus welcomes the children and takes them in his arms. A powerful symbolic statement on its own, apart from what he also says.
- Eating with the ostracised and outcast;
- When he touched lepers even though he could have healed them just by speaking;
- Washing the disciples’ feet at the Last Supper;
- Taking bread at that same meal and breaking it.
I’m sure you can think of others, but today we are going to deal in turn with these two in Mt 21.
Entry into Jerusalem
Jesus is nearing Jerusalem, after a long journey from up North in Galilee. Along the way he had been progressively revealing to his disciples what is going to happen to him there – arrested and killed.
They tried to talk him out of going there, but Jesus has “set his face” to go to Jerusalem. He is determined. He is resolute.
Jesus tells two of his disciples to go into a village just outside Jerusalem where they’ll find a donkey. They are to bring it to him so that he can rise it into Jerusalem. He no doubt had a prophecy from Zechariah in mind at this point.
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Rejoice greatly, 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.” (Zech 9:9)
As you know, that’s what happened — with pilgrims and local residents lining the way; laying coats on the road like a welcome mat; waving palm branches; and shouting out
“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Mt 21:9)
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey was charged with symbolism in two main ways.
- Firstly, in this symbolic action Jesus was saying to the people: “I am the Messiah. I am your King, the one prophesied by Zechariah, the one you’ve been waiting for.”
Some at least seemed to understand this, going on what they shouted.
* Hosanna literally means “save us” or “save now”.
* Son of David has Messianic overtones – the one from the line of King David who will re-establish the Kingdom and be its King.
* The phrase “the one who comes in the name of the Lord” probably had Messianic connotations too given the context, though probably to a lesser extent.
But many were confused, asking “Who is this?”, and others referred to him as a prophet.
What was obvious to everyone was that this was no ordinary pilgrim making the trip to Jerusalem for Passover and the holy days associated with it.
- Secondly, in this symbolic action, Jesus was saying to the people not only “I am the Messiah”, but also “I am not the kind of Messiah you expect”. The people had been expecting a great military and political leader – a Messiah who would deliver them from the tyranny of their Roman occupiers and re-establish the nation and Kingdom.
Many of those crying out Hosanna, save us, save now would have meant it in that way.
But Jesus came to them humbly, in gentleness, riding on an ass. Not on a war-horse or in a chariot as a mighty political or military deliverer would. But on an ass, as a servant, as a spiritual deliverer.
For the moment, that part of the message seemed to be lost on the enthusiastic crowd. But they were soon to realise that Jesus wasn’t the kind of Messiah they expected or wanted. Within a week, many would be so disillusioned that they would cry out “Crucify him!”
This symbolic action of Jesus poses a crucial question for us today, just as it did for those who were there 2,000 years ago. “Who is this?”
A good man? A wandering Rabi with some wise things to teach? A prophet from Nazareth, or even a prophet from God?
Jesus was claiming much more than that as he rode into Jerusalem. He was claiming to be the Messiah, God’s anointed one, a King forever of the line of King David, the King of a spiritual Kingdom without end that he would inaugurate through his sacrificial death.
Palm Sunday confronts each of us with that question – “Who is this?” What’s your answer today? Do you accept the claims Jesus made, not only in words, but through his symbolic actions?
Cleansing of the Temple
The culmination of a pilgrim’s journey to Jerusalem was to go to the Temple. There a pilgrim would offer sacrifices to God, would worship and would pray. So it was the customary, usual thing for Jesus to go to the Temple after finally arriving in Jerusalem. But what he does there was anything but normal. His actions are once again full of symbolism, delivering an unforgettable message in themselves.
At the Temple, Jesus comes face-to-face with people who were buying and selling and with money changers. The traders would have been buying and selling animals and birds that people could then offer as sacrifices. This was especially relevant to pilgrims who often preferred to purchase animals or birds on arrival rather than bringing them on the arduous journey with them. The trouble was the inflated and unfair prices the traders charged knowing that the faithful had no alternative but to buy animals and birds from them so they could offer the sacrifices required by the Law.
The moneychangers were also involved in unfair practices. The official currency was the Jewish Shekel. Anyone coming with foreign currency, including Roman coins, had to first change it into Shekels before they could buy their sacrifices. There was also a Temple tax that had to be paid in Shekels, so foreign currency needed to be changed for that too. Unfortunately, the moneychangers were robbing people by applying exorbitant exchange rates.
Confronted with such injustice, Jesus drives out the traders and overturns the tables of the moneychangers. As he does so, he quotes Scripture (Isaiah 56:7, Jeremiah 7:11).
“My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers.” (Mt 21:13 NRSV)
Jesus was making it clear here, through symbolic action as well as words, that the new Kingdom he was inaugurating, a spiritual Kingdom, would be one of justice and righteousness and that he would be its just and righteous ruler.
But there is even more significance to Jesus’ actions here.
- It’s specifically mentioned that he overturned the seats of those who sold doves. The Law stipulated that the poor who couldn’t afford an animal sacrifice could offer doves instead. Jesus’ actions especially illustrate his support for the poor.
- We are also told, succinctly, that “The blind and lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them.” (v14)
Again, a pointer to the nature of the coming Kingdom.
- It’s also important to note that all this took place in one of the outer courts of the Temple, the Court of the Gentiles. It wasn’t called that because it was exclusively for Gentiles, but because it was the only part that Gentiles could enter. It was meant to be a place where pilgrims from any nation could come and pray to God. Jesus’ actions supported this and pointed to their inclusion in the Kingdom.
Jesus’ treatment of the traders and moneychangers was a shock to many of the Jews. As I said before, they were expecting a Messiah who would instigate an uprising that would expel the Romans. They thought that maybe Jesus was the one and that this was the time. But instead of attacking the Romans, he attacks their fellow-Jews.
It resulted in the loss of a considerable number of supporters and the addition of many enemies.
This part of the Palm Sunday story compels us to stop and think about the new Kingdom; the Kingdom of Heaven as Matthew calls it; the Kingdom of God as the other Gospels term it.
Jesus’ symbolic actions point to it being a Kingdom of justice and righteousness, where the poor are welcome, where there is wholeness for the broken, and where people from every nation are welcome.
The invitation to be part of that Kingdom extends to each one of us. It’s an invitation accepted by accepting Jesus as King and accepting the claims that Jesus made about himself, in words and through his symbolic actions.
Palm Sunday reminds us of that invitation and calls us to RSVP…today.