Summary: Palm Sunday helps us correctly understand humility in relationship to man and vocation in relationship to God.
“The Provocative Entry” -- Palm Sunday 2013 Luke 19:28-40
One of the most difficult and at the same time most exciting sermons to be preached occurs for me every year on Palm Sunday. It is more difficult for me to prepare the sermon for Psalm Sunday because it is, in my estimation, a bit “counter-culture”. There isn’t a consensus, a well-established path for me to follow in sermon preparation for Palm Sunday. I think that this is partly because many people misunderstand the concept of humility. This misunderstood concept of humility is always incorrectly, in my estimation, associated with Christ riding the little donkey rather than the great horse in the parade
We know that Jesus intends for us to be humble. But was his riding on a donkey a particularly humble thing for him to have done? I don’t think so. And there are more than a few bible scholars who agree. William Barclay, for example, made this statement: “Jesus entered Jerusalem in a way that deliberately set himself in the center of the stage and deliberately riveted every eye upon himself. All through his last days there is in his every action a kind of magnificent and sublime defiance; and here he begins the last act with a flinging down of the gauntlet, a deliberate challenge to the authorities to do their worst.”
Still, I’m sure there will be many sermons preached on humility this Sunday, and, after all, mine is too. My message this morning will, however, as you will see, not reinforce the usual interpretation of “humility”. If looked at carefully, there is a dissonance between our Master’s actions that day and our usual understanding of humility.
Many pastors seem to resolve some of the issues raised on Palm Sunday by skirting the provocative entry and jumping immediately to the passion narrative which follows. The emphasis of the sermon then becomes the innocence of Jesus, as pointed out in Isaiah and by Pilate himself, and how the life of an innocent was the only possible substitution for the life of we who are guilty. And of course all of this is true. What is lost, however, is the rich historical context, the original direct language of the evangelist in this matter, and, of course, the contrarian explanation of Christian humility that I will be advancing today.
Yes, Jesus was innocent from God’s prospective but was guilty from man’s. The triumphal entry is really a “provocative entry” meant to trigger the events of Good Friday. When Jesus told his disciples to fetch the donkey and when he allowed himself to be set upon it, this was a clear signal to the probably relatively small group of religious enthusiasts that accompanied him that he was prepared to take back the throne of Israel. He allowed them to think this because this was the trigger leading to his true purpose, Good Friday.
This is all very transparent to me because I’m an old guy who has read these passages many times. And obviously, it seems to me, it was transparent to Luke and the other evangelists, though it is very murky territory for most people today. To start with, the Psalm Sunday processional is thought of by most as the Triumphal Entry. I have referred to it today “Provocative Entry”. There was no triumph at the end of the day, no mass uprising, no successful revolution, no setting up of Christ’s kingdom. The result of the “Provocative Entry” was, instead, a religious hierarchy backed into a corner, and the opportunity presented to them to strike out against Jesus with the charge of treason against Rome.
It would seem that even Pilate, the Roman governor, saw it and had no appetite for it. It is obvious that he never believed for a moment that Jesus actually intended to raise a revolt against Roman rule. He tried to get Jesus off the hook by giving him the opportunity to disavow the whole thing, but the provocative entry had the potential of inciting revolt and thus Pilate himself was backed into a corner.
Why was the entry so provocative? It’s because of lowly donkey… this is how kings in the old kingdom of Israel entered Jerusalem to begin their reign as king. And the people knew it. And that is why they begin waving palm branches and strewing the road with their cloaks, and shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David”. This had been the traditional response of the people to the entry of the king riding on a donkey at the time of the king’s coronation.
Not everyone in Jerusalem knew this. Not everyone participated. But enough did to cause the Pharisees to speak out and rebuke Jesus for what he was allowing them to do. No doubt the religious leaders were afraid of a general uprising leading to war and suffering in Jerusalem. Jesus’ response was to permit the people to continue. “Let them do it”, he said, “if they were to be silenced even the cobblestones in the road would shout out.”