Palm Sunday: The Indignant Re-entry
In the Pennyroyal Caxton Bible illustrator Barry Moser provides hundreds of haunting images to accompany various Bible passages. His engraving for the Triumphal Entry captures something of this story’s essence. In the picture we see Jesus astride a little donkey colt. Jesus looks a little ridiculous riding on such a small animal–one of his bare feet dangles so far over the side of the donkey that it nearly reaches the ground. Jesus’ face, though mostly in the shadows, looks somber, not triumphant. In the background is the crowd, though with one exception these people are just a gray blur. Moser clearly wants Jesus to be the focus of attention. The only face in the crowd that is even vaguely discernible looks to be of a Pharisee-type person bearing a rather disapproving scowl.
In short, as Moser has sketched it, this scene looks anything but triumphant! Instead it looks rather somber–the emotions as hardscrabble as the gravel over which the donkey is plodding. Portraying the so-called “triumphal” entry non-triumphantly creates irony. But Mark does the same thing. Jerusalem, after all, was the key city for the Jewish faith and the Roman seat of power in Palestine. Herod, Pontius Pilate, and a bevy of other Roman higher-ups lived there. Like Washington D.C. and other cities of power, Jerusalem was accustomed to a fair amount of pomp and circumstance.
Many of us have seen the way a formal state visit is conducted at the White House. A military band and honor guard flank the driveway. As the row of shiny black limousines pulls up, trumpets blare, flags flutter, and everything is formally festive. The president greets his guests and grandly escorts them down the plush red carpet into the Executive Mansion. That evening a lavishly elegant state dinner is held.
Years ago Nelson Mandela visited the White House for just such an occasion when Mandela was the President of South Africa. The preparation for that state dinner took two months. Once the guest list was drawn up, three in-house calligraphers meticulously engraved the invitations and place cards, using a big magnifying glass to ensure quality right down to the dots over the “i’s.” The White House florist began planning the elaborate centerpieces, each of which consisted of dozens of pink Candia and Osiana roses in full bloom. Each six-piece place setting had to be just so, with the official White House vermeil flatware and fine bone china laid out in a stunning array which included crystal finger bowls with floating scented-geranium leaves.
Meanwhile, then-Chef Walter Scheib created a menu which included a timbale of late-summer vegetables in a lemongrass and red curry sauce, sesame-crusted halibut in a carrot juice broth, and a dessert of white chocolate and raspberries with spun-sugar roses and also a chocolate box containing an assortment of South African cookies and bourbon truffles.
Compared to that kind of event Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem looks a little sad. He’s riding on a donkey, not a white stallion, with people’s coats paving the way, not some red carpet. There is no formal greeting by any dignitaries. Instead Jesus hobbles in on this little colt, takes a look around and then wordlessly leaves the city to go back to his hotel.
But in the shadow of Jerusalem’s wealth and prestige, this entry looks anything but triumphal. It would be like declaring that you were going to throw your own state dinner but then picking up the guest of honor in a Yugo and escorting him to your basement where you’d eat Stouffer’s lasagna off paper plates while sitting on folding chairs around card tables. Stylish it would not be!
Jesus’ self-chosen mode of getting into Jerusalem is ironic. It is meant to be humble, is purposely different from the way society defines a grand entrance. The people, of course, are hoping that Jesus will be a new leader who will lift the yoke of Roman oppression. There is something a little edgy about their cries of “Hosanna!”–a cry that literally means “Save us!” They are pleading for help, hungry for liberation. They maybe sense that coats in the street are no match for red carpet on palace steps, but they hope that Jesus will change that; hope that the man who turned water into wine would transform their jackets into plush carpeting and their cries for help into the rallying slogan of a new revolution.
But he doesn’t. No sooner is Jesus in the city and he leaves again. The next day he comes back, but this time things are very different. But now we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Because there is one tiny detail in Mark 11 which I want us to ponder. It comes in verse 11 which tells us that after the hoopla died down, Jesus wandered over to the Temple. Then Mark writes that Jesus took a good look around, inspected “everything,” but then because it was late he left. And it is this moment that I want us to think about.
What did Jesus see? Presumably the same things he would see the next day. He saw a Temple in which the place set aside for Gentiles to pray was clogged with merchants. The sound of commerce, not prayer, filled a part of the Temple near and dear to Jesus’ heart. Jesus sees all this that Sunday, takes it all in, but then does nothing about it. It must have made him angry already then. Yet he waits.
By the next morning when Jesus re-enters Jerusalem, not only is there no fanfare this time around, but Jesus seems to have a full head of steam built up, too. On the way into the city he curses a fig tree for not having any figs. Then, upon getting back to Jerusalem, Jesus marches straight into the Temple and wrecks havoc. He hurls a damning indictment against the people, borrowing a phrase from Jeremiah to condemn the people as a band of robbers.
What a difference a day can make! But if it were not for verse 11 we might not recognize the vital link between Sunday and Monday. Because verse 11 lets us know that Jesus thought long and hard about what he had seen Sunday evening. The cursing of the fig tree and the expulsion of the moneychangers were not some sudden outburst of temper. No, Jesus had been thinking about this for a while. He’d slept on it. Or maybe he didn’t get much sleep but instead prayed. By morning he knew what he had to do. He may be angry, he may be in a bad mood, but it is a righteous anger, a well-thought-out mood. He has weighed this issue and bathed it in prayer. And so he acts.
Throughout church history this driving out of the moneychangers has sometimes been interpreted as though the bottom line is that God and money, sanctuary and adding machines, just don’t mix. That was not the problem, however. If it were, we could never have an offering here at church even yet today.
But we can and must do those things, even as in Jesus’ day it was necessary for the people to have access to things like doves and pigeons so that they could offer up sacrifices in the Temple, as the Law of God demanded. Buying a pigeon before worship was every bit as normal then as when you dropped your money into the collection plate a few minutes ago. It was not the presence of pigeon-retailers that was the problem but where they were selling these things. They had set up shop in the very place which was supposed to be reserved for non-Jews to come and pray to God.
But to turn God’s house into an exclusive Members Only club profaned the Temple. That’s why Jesus reaches to Jeremiah 7 for the “den of robbers” image. In Jeremiah’s time the people abused the poor and bowed down to idols. Even still, however, they had the gall to come to the Temple as though nothing were wrong. They turned the temple into a “den of robbers” in the sense of making it a spiritual hideout. You could do whatever you wanted six days a week but so long as you put in the requisite “Temple time” on the Sabbath, you were all set. They used the Temple the way that suited them best instead of letting the God of the Temple transform them in ways that suited God.
Now Jesus says the same thing. The people had forgotten that God wants to call everyone to himself. They had forgotten that the doorway to the Temple was supposed to keep getting wider. Instead they kept narrowing the door. They blatantly degraded outsiders as greasy “sinners.” They were very good at assuming a superior moral posture from which to look down their noses at all the people who failed to make the grade.
The door of the Temple kept getting narrower. So not surprisingly, after a while no outsider came in anymore such that the whole focus of faith became spiritual maintenance. That’s why they began using the Gentile Court to sell the stuff needed for sacrifice–those were the items you needed to stay in and since staying in was what it was all about, they had no problem with setting up shop there. They didn’t need it for anything else, after all!
On the very spot where they were supposed to be making available the medicine of grace for the sick and dying of the world, they instead sold the spiritual equivalent of diet pills and breath mints for those already cured. It would be like the world’s worst hospital. Just imagine an ambulance screeching up to the doors of an E.R. The medics haul out a stretcher holding a badly wounded car accident victim, only to find that there was no place for them to go in the E.R. since all of the trauma rooms had been converted into massage parlors and fitness centers for the already-healthy. “But this is supposed to be a hospital!” a stunned paramedic might cry. “And hospitals are for the sick!” So imagine how much greater the shock would be if a doctor replied, “Oh no, we’re more into health care maintenance. The sick really don’t fit in here. Come to think of it, you may be introducing some blood-borne pathogens and germs right now. Please remove that stretcher before any of our own people catch some hideous disease of the streets!”
“This is supposed to be a house of prayer for everybody in the world,” Jesus cried, “but you’ve turned it into a hideout from the world.” So there you have it: a tale of two entries. The first entry is touted as triumphal, but it really wasn’t. It was not rich with glitz as the world knows it, and the enigmatic man at the center of it all seems strangely unmoved by the shouts that briefly engulf him. A very short while after this entry he storms back out of the city, his heart heavy, his mind already plotting the condemning words and bracing acts he would speak and perform the next day.
At his first entry the people welcome Jesus in. At his second entry Jesus chases some people out. At his first entry the people wave branches. At his second entry Jesus withers a fig tree’s branches. At his first entry the people shout, “Save us!” At his second entry Jesus pleads for the salvation of others. At his first entry the people shout blessings. At his second entry Jesus issues curses.
But verse 11 reminds us that you cannot pick and choose between these two entries. They are yoked. They belong together. And if the second entry retroactively introduces a note of somberness into the first entry, you get the feeling that just this was Mark’s intention.
The people wanted blessing and salvation, but they’d have to learn first that there is a wideness in God’s mercy to reach all kinds of different people. When the next morning Jesus curses the fig tree, the symbolism seems to be that this tree is like Israel: Jesus came to the heart of the faith hoping to see some good fruit of justice, love, mercy, and righteousness but instead all he saw was the outer trappings of verdant faith but no fruit.
Mark 11 is the tale of two entries, and you can’t have the one without the other. Maybe we’d like it on this Palm Sunday if, as insiders, we could number ourselves among the happy “Hosanna” shouters of the first entry but distance ourselves from the “den of robbers” of the second entry. We like to be included in the hoopla of the first entry and would frankly rather end with that. We’d like to white out verse 11 and what follows.
But Mark will not let us off the hook so easily. He ends Palm Sunday with verse 11 so that we’re forced to see what happens after Jesus’ long night of reflection. We’re forced to tag along on also the second entry and so ponder where we fit in that picture.
We could scarcely encounter a more poignant Palm Sunday question than for each of us to ask ourselves, “When was the last time I was concerned with how well we welcome outsiders?” How often do we share our Lord’s passion to be with those different from us? Most of us spend at least some time thinking about church, church work, church services. Now and again we also find things that upset us or worry us. We can have some pretty intense discussions about the church but how many of those discussions center on our being a welcoming place for all who may be seeking God?
It seems like much of the time we focus on how to maintain ourselves. How excited do we get about the prospect of this being a place that welcomes the homeless, that embraces with Jesus’ love teenaged mothers who need to know they are loved despite their mistakes? How much do we even know about the ministries we are engaged in after the Sunday services are done? Do we ever find that unless something directly benefits those of us already in the church that we maybe do not get terribly enthused about it?
Jesus came into Jerusalem dragging the world in behind him. He’d spent most of his ministry with what the Pharisees regarded as all the wrong people in all the wrong places. He’d befriended women of dubious reputations, touched lepers, dined with tax collectors, done favors for despised Roman soldiers, held up Samaritans as heroes even as he turned Pharisees into villains. When Jesus entered Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, he had all of these folks in tow. But when he got to the Temple, he found no place for his new friends. So he left. He pondered. He prayed. And he returned–he came back to make room.
He does the same today. We welcome Jesus with the palm branches of our hearts all aflutter, crying out the “Hosannas” of our souls. We hail him as our Lord and King and that is exactly right. But Palm Sunday is not just about this first entry. We need to wonder what Jesus sees when he gets here and looks around at everything.
Of course, we want and need to be concerned about one another. We need nurture, guidance, and an ever-deepening knowledge of God’s Word. It wasn’t the pigeons or the selling of them that bothered Jesus but instead where it was taking place and what, or who, was getting pushed out as a result. So today we need our worship services and Bible studies, our family visits and general fund offerings. Those are not a problem. They are, in fact, a grand blessing! But we also need that broad courtyard and wide door through which those who are at a vastly different place in life can enter and find room.
We could all wish this were easier. The fact is that this is desperately hard. Individually and collectively we always fall short of being the kind of people and community God desires. It’s not easy to follow Jesus, not on Palm Sunday and not on Fig Tree Monday.
Come to think of it, following Jesus in the week ahead will finally wind us up at a place called Skull Hill where a cross will be sunk into the flesh of the earth like a dagger through God’s heart; like a dagger through all our hearts. That will be Jesus’ ultimate solution to helping bring you, me, and as many people as possible to God.
So we follow this week. We follow. We watch. We weep. We repent. And when it’s all over and the worst has happened, we sit quietly for a couple days fearing that maybe death is the end only to find out come Easter that Jesus is not finished yet. He’ll arise. He’ll keep going. And he’ll call us to keep following, dragging the world behind us and praying we’ll find room for them to pray, too. Amen.
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