“Hosanna, Blessings” Colchester Federated Church, April 2, 2023, (Matthew 21:1-11) Palm Sunday

Holy Week begins with a parade.  On this day in our Christian tradition, we remember (and re-enact in our own CFC way) Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  In our Gospel story from the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus approaches Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives with some of his followers.  He gives two of them a strange and specific task.  Jesus tells them to go into the village.  As soon as they enter that village, they would find a donkey tied up and a colt with the donkey.  Jesus instructs them to untie these animals and say to anybody who questions their actions that the Lord needs them. 

Just imagine two people you don’t know showing up to your house and trying to borrow your car that’s sitting in your driveway.  When you ask them what in the world they’re doing—they tell you—oh, well the Lord needs this!  Apparently that was an acceptable thing to do back then when it came to Jesus, because the disciples return to the group with no problems (and with the colt and donkey in tow).

Jesus sat on the donkey and the colt.  Matthew tells the story as Jesus riding both the donkey and the colt at the same time.  Anyway, Jesus rode down the Mount of Olives and up into the Temple to fulfill what the prophet Zechariah had said about the king coming to the people, humble and riding on a donkey and colt.  This story tends to go over our heads (or we just see what’s happening on a surface level) because we don’t understand all the symbolism Jesus is using here.  We are not as familiar with images shared in 1 Kings and 2 Kings and from the prophet Zechariah.  Though we can read in the Old Testament Book of Zechariah, “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.”[1]  People back then would have understood what Jesus was saying without saying any words at all. 

Crowds gathered before Jesus shouting their “Hosannas” and “Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”[2]  Hosanna means “save us” or “save now.”  It’s a shout of praise and thanksgiving.  Though it’s also asking for help in a way.  Your average person did not live an easy life, dealing with the Romans and the occupation of their homeland on one side and their own political and religious leaders on the other side and the power struggles through it all.  Matthew tells us that the whole city is stirred up because of this Palm Sunday parade.  Some scholars will say that this is a political demonstration.  And when some people understandably question who’s doing all this the crowds answer, “It’s the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”[3]  The people see Jesus as a prophet who has come to make things right, to maybe even save them.

If we consider the details of this story that begins Holy Week, we can see the crowds and the palm branches.  We can see people spreading their clothes on the road and the parade down the Mount of Olives.  We can see the donkey and colt and Jesus and the disciples.  It’s a familiar cast of characters we may know by heart because we hear this story every year on Palm Sunday.  It’s a rich and visual story that invites us to place ourselves among the crowds.  To visualize with our heads and feel with our hearts what it would have been like to be there that day in Jerusalem.  To see the clothes placed on the path and the palm branches waving in the air.  To wave our own palms as we would have wanted to welcome Jesus.  To hear the shouts of “hosanna!”  To shout among the crowds ourselves.  To picture Jesus slowly making his way down the mountain as he was entering Jerusalem and entering the last days of his earthly life. 

Because by Friday, Jesus will be crucified on a Roman cross.  By Friday, his body will be placed inside a new tomb that had been carved out of rock.  It’s hard to consider how Holy Week progresses if we only focus on the joyful Palm Sunday parade.  This is just one part of the larger story of Jesus’ final week.  Though the rest of the story of this Holy Week doesn’t make any sense if we skip over the next part, the hard part.

Because what we don’t see in today’s joyful parade (but we will if we read a little further in the Gospel) is that Jesus dismounts from the colt and donkey right after the parade.  Matthew writes, “Then Jesus entered the temple.”[4]  He throws out everyone who is selling and buying there.  Jesus pushes over the tables used for currency exchange and the chairs of those who sold doves.  (Doves were the only animals that the poor were able to afford to buy to have sacrificed, so that’s an important detail since we know that Jesus came from humble origins in Galilee).  Jesus yells for all to hear that it’s written that God’s house will be a house of prayer, “but you’ve made it a hideout for crooks.”[5] 

Jesus makes this huge scene as Jerusalem is all stirred up and knocks over tables and passes prophetic judgment on the Temple sacrificial system which took advantage of the poor.  Though mostly Jesus is passing judgment on the leaders of the system—that the leaders are not focusing on the Temple as a house of prayer but have made it a hideout for crooks.  And then (in front of the chief priests and the legal experts and the Romans who were inevitably around because this is all happening near Passover) Jesus heals the blind and the lame inside the Temple.  Talk about making an entrance!  Once he’s railed against injustice, created a scene in the most holy place in all of Jerusalem, and heals the blind and lame, Jesus returns that night to Bethany to get some rest. 

Yet the message has been delivered.  It’s Jesus’ bold actions on Palm Sunday with the processional into the Holy City and causing a scene with his prophetic judgment in the Temple and healing people in front of those in power again inside the Temple that sealed his fate among the human authorities.  This man named Jesus—the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee as the crowds had just identified him—was dangerous and needed to be gone.  To keep the peace. 

So yes, Holy Week begins with a joyful parade.  And it should be joyful because Lord knows that joy (even when life is hard) is holy.  Though there will be some hard times ahead.  Anger and sadness.  Betrayal and desertion.  Violence and heartache.  A Passover meal shared with friends.  A new commandment given—to love one another as God has always loved us.  Praying in the garden.  An arrest and sham trials.  Jesus carrying a cross to a lonely hill.  The women staying through it all and weeping at the foot of that cross.  Jesus’ body laid in a tomb.  This is the week where we walk alongside Jesus and one another to glimpse the depth of God’s love for humanity.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Zechariah 9:9, NRSV.
[2] Matthew 21:9, CEB.
[3] Matthew 21:11, CEB.
[4] Matthew 21:12, NRSV.
[5] Matthew 21:13, CEB.

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash