Palm Sunday: Welcoming the King

Today I will be examining the account of Jesus’ entry in Jerusalem in Luke 19 from two perspectives--as both an ironic reference to Isaiah 52 and also as a harbinger of God’s judgement of Jerusalem because it rejected Jesus.

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem raises difficult questions about how we as a community welcome Jesus and embody discipleship authentically. Jesus laments Jerusalem’s inability to recognise or welcome the things that make for peace. Do we ourselves fail to recognise or welcome Jesus?

In Isaiah 52 the prophet speaks about Jerusalem’s deliverance and the exaltation of the servant of the Lord, who is to be lifted up very high--startling the nations and silencing kings. Isaiah declares that Zion is restored and her sanctity is assured; God has comforted His people and shown to the ends of the earth Jerusalem’s redemption as a sign of God’s salvation.

But where Isaiah speaks about Jerusalem’s restoration, Luke 19 speaks of Jerusalem’s hardened spiritual state, hostility to God and, ultimately, its demise. More explicitly than Mark or Matthew Luke makes clear that Jerusalem’s destruction is precisely because it failed to recognise and welcome Jesus at his coming.

Brent Kinman talks about Jesus’ entry narrative in Luke 19  in the context of celebratory welcomes in the ancient world.

Power relationships in the Graeco-Roman world of Luke were characterised by elaborate, often onerous performances of deference and hospitality. Celebratory welcomes were a prime example of this. They were spectacular, often involving hundreds if not thousands of people, and intended to dazzle, placate and flatter.

Kinman remarks “The arrival of a royal or other dignitary was an occasion for an ostentatious display designed to court the favor and/or placate the wrath of the visiting celebrity… At the approach of the dignitary, a band of municipal officials and other cit­izens, including the social, religious, and political elite, would proceed some distance from the city in order to meet the celebrity well in advance of the city walls.”

And what if a city failed to show due deference to a visiting ruler?

Kinman remarks “Examples of a city’s failure to welcome its distinguished guests are rare, and with good reason. A city’s failure to render the customary regard could have grave consequences and thus was to be avoided.”

Interestingly, Kinman uses the example of Pontius Pilate himself to illustrate the importance of appropriate celebratory welcomes--an example that forms an interesting contrast with Jesus’ entry in Jerusalem.

Pontius Pilate came to Jerusalem at the time of the Passover not only to conduct trials but also ensure order in the city at a time when anti-Roman sentiment would naturally have been heightened. Pilate was not only a symbol of Roman oppression in Judea, he was also a man with a record of insensitivity, if not disdain, towards Jewish religious law. Nonetheless, given his rank as prefect, Pilate would have been greeted splendidly, if insincerely, by Jerusalem’s religious elite who would have had a vested interest in keeping Pilate on side. The welcome cavalcade would have been sizeable in proportion to his importance, and consisted of both local dignitaries and a mobile cavalry that flanked him.

Kinman remarks: “Given the massive increase in Jerusalem’s population during the festivals, the Jews’ prior record of inciting troubles at festivals, the Romans’ intention to maintain order, and the analogy of troops required to put down both previous and later disturbances, it is not unlikely that something of the order of one thousand troops would have been with Pilate.”

So much for Pilate’s entry into Jerusalem. What about Jesus’? How do the same religious authorities who placated and flattered Pilate treat the visitation of their God? Unlike in Mark and Matthew’s account, in Luke 19 Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is a poignant anti-climax--and an appalling insult within the framework of ancient celebratory welcomes.

At the time of the Passover, Jerusalem’s population would have been greatly increased with the addition of thousands of visitors. In the midst of this multitude, Jesus’ entry would hardly have made a stir. In fact, Luke’s slightly hyperbolas reference to the “whole multitude of disciples” who hailed Jesus at his coming, works only to delimit the size of Jesus’ welcome party by clearly identifying all or most of them as his disciples. Although the textual evidence in the Gospels indicates that Jesus had many followers, the numbers who greeted him in Jerusalem, in addition to those who travelled with him, would have been significantly surpassed by the numbers of seasonal visitors who were already there.

And here the absence of references in the Gospel says even more than what is explicit. Jesus’ retinue does not appear to have been sufficiently large to attract Roman attention let alone intervention. In fact, other than the approving cries of his sympathetic home crowd, the only response Jesus’ entrance receives is a rebuke from some disgruntled Pharisees who urge Jesus to shut his disciples up. And the religious elite of Jerusalem is nowhere to be seen.

Not only is Jesus’ reception insulting, but Luke adds further insult to the injury by stressing the kingly nature of Jesus’ coming and, by contrast, Jerusalem’s lack of appropriate welcome. In Luke, Jesus’ kingship is manifest. Jerusalem ought to have known better.

And how does Luke’s Gospel stress the context of Jesus’ kingship?

As well as reinforcing Jesus’ Davidic lineage in some of the key healing narratives, Jesus’ use of a colt in Luke 19:30 has parallels with Zechariah 9:9 “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” as well as 1 King 1 where Solomon is placed on a mule so that he can be taken to Gihon, there to be anointed King by Nathan and Zadock.

The fact that colt has never been ridden also suggests that it was set aside for royal use, in addition to the exchange between the disciples and the colt’s former custodian, which suggests Jesus had an absolute right to the animal. The disciples’ reference to Psalm 118 at Jesus’ coming “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” further reinforces the kingly tone of Jesus’ entry.

All of these signs aside, is it possible, perhaps, that Jerusalem’s religious authorities were unaware of Jesus’ ministry?

The evidence suggests that Jerusalem was well aware of Jesus’ ministry, as in both Luke 5 and Luke 6 large crowds--in Luke’s words “a great multitude”--from various places, including Jerusalem, come to Jesus to see him heal and to be healed by him. Given the nature of the miracles attributed to Jesus and the number of his followers, it seems unlikely the Jerusalem authorities were unaware of Jesus’ intended visitation.

Yet when Jesus arrives in Jerusalem the religious elite are nowhere to be seen, and in fact appear only in verse 47 of chapter 19, by which stage Jesus is already teaching in the temple and the chief priests, scribes, and Temple leaders are busily looking for a way to kill him. This is a far cry from Isaiah 52. In fact, it is difficult to think of a more ironic juxtaposition. Far from being liberated from its bondage, Jerusalem is spiritually hardened, alternating between indifference and hostility--so caught up in the politicking of empire that if fails to welcome or even recognise God at his coming.

While today’s portion of Luke 19 stops at verse 40, the entire episode of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem properly concludes with Jesus’ weeping for the city’s destruction. By positioning Jesus’s lament right next to the triumphant entrance that wasn’t, Luke makes it clear that Jerusalem’s rejection of Jesus will result in God’s devastating judgement.

“They will crush you to the ground” Jesus cries, “You and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognise the time of your visitation from God.”

Today’s Gospel asks us to undertake a difficult process of self-examination, particularly we journey towards the Triduum services and Easter Day.

Like Jerusalem, are we at times spiritually hardened? Do we welcome Jesus not only with palms but also in the recesses of our hearts? Does our treatment of the poor and the outcast reflect our recognition of Jesus’ kingship? Does our love for one another demonstrate to the world that we are disciples of Jesus?

These are painful questions, but they are essential ones.

But the glimmer of hope is that our celebratory welcome of Jesus this morning with our palms and songs of praise supplies the defect of Jerusalem’s indifference. That we have gathered today to welcome Jesus at his coming shows that we are, despite our internal doubts, disagreements and controversies, his disciples.

Alae Taule'alo