Palm Sunday Sermon: What Kind of King Did You Expect?

If Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was triumphal on Palm Sunday, what went wrong less than a week later?  Why did the crowds who adored Jesus on Sunday, turn on him by Friday of that week?  And what choice does Palm Sunday present to us today?  In this sermon, I’ll try to answer those questions and explore the reasons the Roman empire, the Jewish religious leaders, and the common people all turn on Jesus after that glorious Sunday. 

What Kind of King Did You Expect?

Matthew 21:1-11

1 As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”

4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:

5 “Say to the Daughter of Zion,

‘See, your king comes to you,

gentle and riding on a donkey,

on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”

6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt, placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!”

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Hosanna in the highest!”

10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”

11 The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”

The Problem of Palm Sunday

Today is Palm Sunday, the day on which Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of a young donkey.  This day has been described by Christians for generations as the “triumphal entry into Jerusalem.”  But, have you ever asked yourself, “If this was a triumphal entry, then why did they crucify Jesus at the end of the week?”

Even the compilers of the revised common lectionary realize that this Sunday is a problem for us, because they give us two readings from the Gospels.  One reading is from this passage, and it is called the “palms reading.”  Not “palm reading,” but “palms” because of the palm fronds that those who greet Jesus line his way with.  The other reading is called the “passion reading” because the suffering of Christ at the end of this week is called “the passion of Christ.”  Mel Gibson made a movie with that title a few years ago, and it depicted his view of the last hours of Jesus.

So, we have a problem today that we need to address.  If this is such a glorious Sunday for all Christians, what goes wrong by Friday that Jesus will find himself betrayed by one of his own disciples, arrested by the high priest’s guard, accused by a coalition of religious leaders, tried by the Roman governor, and sentenced to die the death of a common criminal — death by crucifixion.

A Day of Two Processions

You might not know that Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem was not the only procession the city saw that day.  In the year 30 AD, Roman historians record that the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, led a procession of Roman cavalry and centurions into the city of Jerusalem.  (The Last Week, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, p.1)

Imagine the spectacle of that entry.  From the western side of the city, the opposite side from which Jesus enters, Pontius Pilate leads Roman soldiers on horseback and on foot. Each soldier was clad in leather armor polished to a high gloss.  On each centurion’s head, hammered helmets gleamed in the bright sunlight.  At their sides, sheathed in their scabbards, were swords crafted from the hardest steel; and, in their hands, each centurion carried a spear; or if he was an archer, a bow with a sling of arrows across his back.

Drummers beat out the cadence of march for this was no ordinary entry into Jerusalem.  Pilate, as governor of the region which included not only Judea, but Samaria, and Idumea, knew it was standard practice for the Roman governor of a foreign territory to be in its capital for religious celebrations.  It was the beginning of Passover, a strange Jewish festival that the Romans allowed.  However, the Romans must have been aware that this festival celebrated the liberation of the Jews from another empire, the empire of Egypt.

So, Pilate had to be in Jerusalem.  Since the Romans had occupied this land by defeating the Jews and deposing their king about 80 years before, uprisings were always in the air.  The last major uprising, long before Pilate’s time, had been after the death of Herod the Great in 4 BC.

The uprising started in Sepphoris, about 5 miles from Jesus’ boyhood home of Nazareth.  Before it was over the city of Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee, and the town of Emmaus had been destroyed by the Roman army.

After putting down the rebellion there, the Romans marched on Jerusalem.  After pacifying the city, they crucified over 2,000 Jews who were accused of being part of the rebellion.  The Romans had made their intolerance for rebellion well-known.  And so on this occasion, Pilate had traveled with a contingent of Rome’s finest from his preferred headquarters in Caesarea-by-the-Sea, to the stuffy, crowded, provincial capital of the Jews, Jerusalem.

The Temple would be the center of Passover activity.  Antonia’s Fortress, the Roman garrison built adjacent to the Temple compound, would serve as a good vantage point from which to keep an eye on the Jews.  Pilate’s entry into Jerusalem was meant to send a message to the Jews, and to those who might be plotting against the empire of Rome.  The spectacle was meant to remind the Jews of what had happened the last time of a wide-scale uprising.  And, it was meant to intimidate the citizens of Jerusalem themselves, who might think twice about joining such a rebellion if it was slated to fail.

But I said this was a day of two processions, so let’s get back to Jesus and his entry into Jerusalem.  If Pilate’s procession was meant as a show of military might and strength, Jesus’ procession was meant to show the opposite.  Both Matthew and Mark record Jesus’s own words, as he instructs his disciples to go in to the city and find a donkey tied up.  They are to ask the owner if they may use the donkey, and they are to say that “the Lord needs them.”

Then, Jesus quotes from Zechariah, the 9th chapter —

5 “Say to the Daughter of Zion,

‘See, your king comes to you,

gentle and riding on a donkey,

on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’

But, there is more to this passage than just a description of Jesus’ means of transportation for that day.  The prophet Zechariah is speaking to the nation.  In Zechariah 9, the prophet reassures the people of Judah, called Judea on the New Testament, that God has not forgotten them:

8 But I will defend my house

against marauding forces.

Never again will an oppressor overrun my people,

for now I am keeping watch.

9 Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion!

Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem!

See, your king comes to you, 

   righteous and having salvation, 

   gentle and riding on a donkey, 

   on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

10 I will take away the chariots from Ephraim

and the war-horses from Jerusalem,

and the battle bow will be broken.

He will proclaim peace to the nations.

His rule will extend from sea to sea

and from the River to the ends of the earth.

In other words, Jesus’ quote from the prophet Zechariah reminded those who heard him of the entire passage.  The message they heard was, “God will deliver the nation from the oppressor” — in this case, Rome!

But, the king they seek will come to them humbly, not on a steed of war, but on a slow-moving donkey, the symbol of a king who comes in peace, according to Zechariah.

The two processions could not be more different in the messages they convey.  Pilate, leading Roman centurions, asserts the power and might of the empire of Rome which crushes all who oppose it.

Jesus, riding on a young donkey, embodies the peace and tranquility that the shalom that God brings to His people.

Those who watch that day will make a choice.  They will either serve the god of this world, might and power; or they will choose to serve the king of a very different kind of kingdom, the kingdom of God.

The Problem of Leadership

But there is another problem.  In their book titled, Leadership on the Line, the authors Marty Linsky and Ron Heifetz define leadership this way:

“Leadership is about disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb.”  

So, Jesus has another problem.  Of course, his followers and others who get caught up in his entry into Jerusalem think they are choosing to follow Jesus.  But by the end of the week, Jesus will have disappointed the crowd at a rate faster than they can stand.  They will turn on him.  Even those closest to Jesus, the 12 disciples, will either betray him outright, or abandon him in confusion and fear.

It is interesting to note that the crowd on that Sunday, proclaimed, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”  In other words, they were placing their faith in Jesus that he would restore the glory of the nation to its splendor when David and his son, Solomon, ruled a united kingdom.

That’s what the Jews wanted, after all.  To be ruled by a man like David, a man so committed to God that the Old Testament prophets had proclaimed that the coming Messiah would sit on the throne of his father, David.  The Messiah would bring back the glory of Israel, would rid the nation of oppressors, would rule benevolently, and would be kind to the common people.

Jesus had challenged the rulers of Judea already.  Not the Roman rulers, but the local rulers.  He had said to them that the Temple was not the only way to find God’s forgiveness; and further, that the Temple would be destroyed, with not one stone left on another.

Of course, those who made their living from the Temple like the scribes; the chief priest and his priests; the ruling council of the Sanhedrin; and, the religious parties, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, would all lose their power and prestige if there was no Temple.  Or, even if the Temple was no longer the only place where one could be forgiven by God.

So, when Jesus miraculously saves the lame man by first saying, “Your sins are forgiven” and then healing him, he challenged the authority of the Temple system. And when Jesus drove the money-changers from the Temple, proclaiming that the Temple was to be a house of prayer for all nations, but that the religious leaders had made it a den of thieves, Jesus exposed the corruption of the Temple tax, the scandalous monetary exchange rate, and the dishonesty of those who sold animals for sacrifice.

Jesus had disappointed and alienated powerful people.  He did so because the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the chief priest, the scribes, most of the Levitical priests, and others who ruled on Rome’s behalf, were part of the same system of oppression and domination that Pilate was part of.

A Contrast of Kingdoms

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem may or may not have been planned to occur on the same day as Pilate’s procession through the western gate of the city.  Whether it was planned or not, the two processions provided a contrast that was unmistakable.

For, you see, Pilate served the Son of God, too.  The late emperor Augustus, who ruled from 31 BC to 14 AD, was said to have been fathered by the god, Apollo, and conceived by his mother, Atia.  Inscriptions referred to him as “son of God,” “lord,” and even, “savior.”  After his death, the legend had it that he was seen ascending into heaven, to take his place among the gods.

Augustus’ successors — Tiberias during Jesus’ life and ministry — also bore divine titles, until later in the first century the emperors would demand to not only be addressed as “God,” but to be worshipped as God also.

A contrast between kings and kingdoms was on display that day in Rome.  And, although many of the common people thought they sided with Jesus, they did so for the same reasons the Pharisees and others sided with Rome.  They thought Jesus could do for them what Rome had done for their rulers — make their lives better, deliver them from the oppressive system under which they lived and worked, and turn the tables on the Romans.

That’s why the crowd turns on Jesus by the end of the week.  They don’t think he’s going to do any of those things.  And, in addition, Jesus is going to make life worse for them, not better.  Their religious leaders, all of them, who never agree on anything, agree that Jesus is going to attract the attention of the Roman empire, especially during Passover, and Rome will come down fast and hard on the entire nation. (see Caiaphas’ speech in John 11:45-50)

So, when Jesus is accused, when he is brought by Pilate before the angry mobs, they want to be rid of him.  Jesus, in their minds, never did what they wanted him to do.  He never defeated the Romans, he never dissolved the unfair tax system, he never put common people in charge of the government, and furthermore, he never would.

To appease the crowds that swelled the city of Jerusalem, Pilate had the custom of releasing prisoners, many of whom were political prisoners.  But on this last week in the life of Jesus, Pilate offers the crowd a choice between Barabbas, a known robber, and Jesus, a failed Messiah.  Fearing that if Jesus were released, he would start all over again, the crowd begged for Barabbas to be released, and for Jesus to be executed.  And not just by any means, “Crucify him” was the cry.  Because crucifixion was the one form of capital punishment that would show Rome the Jews were completely loyal, and would humiliate Jesus, even in death.

But, I’m getting ahead of the story of this week, a story which we will conclude next Sunday.  But for one moment, ask yourself, “If I had been in Jerusalem that day, and had seen both processions passing by, which would I have chosen to follow?”

Because that is the choice we make each day.  To choose power and might over love.  To choose “the way things are done” over “they way God intends them to be.”   Two processions.  Two theologies. Two choices.  Which would you choose?  What kind of king do you expect?

5 thoughts on “Palm Sunday Sermon: What Kind of King Did You Expect?”

  1. Chuck, what a breath of fresh air for a minister / pastor (especially dare I say from a baptist denomination!!) to engage with Crossan’s works which so many ignore or are not even aware of with regard to the Jesus of history. You have managed to bring Jesus down to earth in a relevant and timely way. Well done to you for this superb sermon.

    1. Just saying Pilate entered Jerusalem in AD 30 does not mean he entered on the same day as the entry of Jesus.

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