Summit Presbyterian Church
April 17, 2011
Psalm 118; Matthew 21: 1-11
The entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem was a big deal. Matthew says there were large crowds, both ahead of Jesus and behind. People were spreading their cloaks on the road, making a way for the donkey, the colt, and its rider; others were running before Jesus with newly cut branches, which they also placed on the road. Children were underfoot - they would later sing of Jesus in the temple - and the disciples must have enjoyed the attention and acclaim their teacher was receiving. The cloaks and the branches were signs of honor -- it was the way you greeted kings. Everyone knew Jesus was not a king like Herod or the Roman Emperor: he had no retinue, no army, no wealth; he rode on a donkey, not the stallion of a commander-in-chief. But they had hopes he was another kind of royalty, anointed by God, the Messiah who would save and redeem Israel. There were signs. He taught as one with authority (7:28); he cured many who were sick or blind; he even healed a girl everyone thought was dead (9:25). He had fed the people till they were full with only a few loaves. Zechariah had prophesied that God's Messiah would enter Jerusalem on a donkey; and everyone knew the Messiah would descend from the Mt. of Olives. So the people shouted: Hosanna! Blessed be the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
But this was not a simple celebration. This wasn't a royal wedding, it wasn't the inauguration of a newly elected president, it wasn't a ticker-tape parade for the Phillies. This was more like the arrival on the campaign trail of a candidate on whom people were placing their most fervent hopes and expectations: hopes and expectations that no ordinary human being could fulfill. Hopes that Israel would be freed from Roman rule and the house of David restored. As Evan pointed out, many assumed that required the sword; some were undoubtedly dreaming of vengeance. But the messianic hope of Israel was never just about national power. It was a hope for the healing of the world. That the eyes of the blind would be opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped; and the tongues of the speechless sing for joy (Is 35:5, ff.) It was a a hope for peace among the nations, when swords would turn into plowshares. It was a hope for justice, so that the poor would no longer be sold for a pair of sandals or the righteous for silver (Amos 5:24). It was even a hope for natural world: that the wilderness and dry land would be glad, the desert rejoice and blossom. This entrance was not a simple celebration and "Hosanna" was not a simple word of praise. It was also a cry for help: Hosanna means "Save us." (New Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 2). Those who greeted Jesus were longing for rescue; and when he rode in on that donkey and the colt it looked like he was the one sent by God to bring it.
But it didn't take them long for the people to lose their hope in Jesus. For a few days he astounded the crowds with his teaching, but as soon as it became clear the authorities were moving in, people began falling away. Judas was first, after a dinner at Simon's house. A woman had come in and poured an alabaster jar of costly ointment on his head; when the disciples protested, Jesus noted that she was preparing him for his burial. It was at this point -- when Jesus clearly was not going to be claiming victory - that Judas went to the chief priests for his 30 pieces of silver. On the night of his arrest, the other disciples began to lose heart. They couldn't stay awake with him as he prayed, and when the police came, they fled. Peter followed Jesus at a distance, but only to deny knowing him by anyone who asked. After the trials, by the time Pontius Pilate sentenced him to death, the crowd had also turned. They were no longer shouting "Hosanna." When Pilate asked them who he should free, Barrabas or Jesus, they told him to free Barrabas and crucify Jesus. Even the bandits crucified on either side of Jesus taunted him.
How, we wonder, could everyone have turned so quickly? How could the disciples who traveled, studied and shared meals with him leave him so unceremoniously in his hour of need? How could the crowd who met him with Hosannas on Monday turn on him by Friday? Our answers to those questions - I should say the church's answers over the years - have been loaded with judgment. Judas has become a symbol of greed that trumps loyalty or love: his name now means one who betrays another under the guise of friendship. Peter and the disciples have been condemned as weak and fearful, even as many Christians have identified with them. Historically, the church has been harshest on the crowds, following Matthew's portrayal of them, seeing them as eager for the death of Jesus, even bloodthirsty, with the power to intimidate Pilate. This judgement has been the most tragic, because the church, historically, has also identified "the crowds" with "the Jews" - not only the Jews of that time but of all time. Jews were blamed not only for the death of Jesus, but for just about everything else -- making Holy Week a very frightening time for Jews. The churches have repented from that teaching -- although it lingers. The church is now more faithful to the whole of scripture and to what happened historically - only the Romans had the power to kill Jesus and not all the Jews were even involved. But still - we judge the crowds as fickle.
But these judgements are Monday morning quarterbacking. They've been made after the Sunday resurrection, where with the eyes of faith we can see the faithfulness of Jesus. But on that Thursday evening and Friday morning, the crowd and disciples might have felt like they were the ones who had been betrayed. For if Jesus were truly God's anointed, he would not have been arrested. He wouldn't have stood before them, facing death. God would have protected him. God would have given him the power to overthrow the Roman tyrants, he could have saved himself from the cross. If Jesus were truly the prophet Moses foretold, he would have gathered the dispersed of Israel, restoring their homes and their fortunes, bringing peace and righteousness. Clearly that wasn't happening; the Romans were still in charge, the city was still in turmoil, the people were still suffering. Jesus was just one more person to raise their hopes and dash them, another "Messiah" who was either deluded or a pretender. Their cries for help, they must have thought, had fallen on deaf or duplicitous ears. No wonder they fled. No wonder they turned.
Yes, Jesus was betrayed by a disciple, deserted and denied by those he loved. Many in the crowd who supported him on Sunday withdrew their support by Friday. He was executed by the Roman state - one among many - and was unjustly condemned by the religious leadership. Jesus was born and died in a sinful world. But for those followers who turned form him were not merely greedy or hard-hearted; they were caught in sin born of ignorance, confusion, disappointment. Jesus had compassion on them. God responded with grace and hope, with the resurrection that we celebrate next Sunday and every Sunday.
As we reflect on the passion of Jesus this week, let's also look with compassion on those who betrayed or deserted him. On Judas -- who, according to Matthew, repented. As soon as the chief priests handed Jesus over to Pilate, Judas tried to return the silver and persuade them of Jesus' innocence -- and when he couldn't make restitution, hanged himself. On the disciples, who must have wondered if he was really sent from God. On the crowds: whose cries for help were not answered, as far as they could tell. And also - what kind of choice was that -- would it have been better if they had said to execute Barrabas. And on the men crucified with Jesus, who would have been in terrible pain and fear themselves.
And if we can learn compassion on those fearful disciples and fickle crowds, we may find more compassion for ourselves. For we, too, turn from God, especially when it seems that God has not answered prayer, or not answered in a way we can understand. We, too, betray Christ -- through small cruelties, through indifference to those in need, or lack of action. We neglect prayer, we stew in anger, especially when Christ seems to be absent, in the face of suffering we don't understand. We turn from God, But God does not turn form us. We desert Jesus, but Christ does not desert us. Christ has compassion on us, and offers forgiveness and new life So, we too, can join our voices with the crowd, saying "Hosanna! in the highest heaven."