This Sunday’s Gospel reading is Matthew 21.1-11 – the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.
This passage has me thinking about the whole history and identity of Israel. It’s the beginning of course of the inevitable clash between Jesus and the authorities that will end (apparently) with his execution. At the same time, the Synoptic Gospels present this as the first of two prophetic actions that speak of the life and identity of Israel being redefined in and refocused on the person of Jesus.
First, a word about the second action that does not form a part of this passage but follows on from it – what is usually called the cleansing of the Temple but which I refer to simply as the Temple Action. Here Jesus is enacting judgement on the life of the Temple as it stood then. His movement can be described as a counter-Temple movement with the focus on him as the replacement for the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple that stood in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry is known as the Second Temple, having been built as a replacement for the one that was destroyed previously. However, its legitimacy is dubious. The restoration of the Temple and the return of YHWH’s glory to dwell there was linked by Ezekiel 43 to the return from exile. However, the experience of many Jews of the day was that of still being exile, albeit while physically back in the land of Israel. They were still oppressed by a foreign power, they were suffering under a puppet monarchy and YHWH’s glory had not returned to the Temple. In Jesus, the true Temple had arrived and YHWH’s glory dwelt within him. (For more on this view of Jesus’ ministry, see Jesus and the Victory of God by N.T. Wright.)
But, back to this passage, this action and the way in which it focuses the life of Israel on Jesus. Back, as well, to the puppet monarchy that ruled Israel at this time because it is the monarchy here that is refocused on Jesus.
On Palm Sunday, every year, churches across the world will in some way re-enact this event and with good cause. All too often though, the re-enactment will miss the point to some extent. It’s one of those Sundays of the year when “All-Age Worship” becomes the order of the day and that will often mean some degree of softening and of making the narrative “child-friendly.” So, there will be lots of palm leaves made from heavy green paper waved, there will be songs with actions sung and there will be Junior Church leaders grateful for a Sunday off. The danger though is that we focus too much on the palms to the detriment of the provocation. Entering the city in the way that Jesus did was a clear provocation to the authorities to do exactly what they did indeed do. Everything about the event is loaded with symbolism, from riding in on a donkey in fulfilment of prophecy about how Israel’s king would arrive to the declaration of the crowds that Jesus was descended from David and came in the name of YHWH. It is no wonder that Jesus’ actions were viewed as seditious and inevitable from this moment that he would be arrested and tried.
It is worth pointing out that Jesus was not the sort of King that the gathered crowd were expecting. Far from the military ruler who would raise an army to eject the Roman rulers, he came as the Prince of Peace and would advocate the paying of taxes to the Roman authorities. At the same time, he would continue to provoke the Jewish leaders – both de jure and self-appointed leaders – by his engagement with them. No wonder only a few days later, a crowd would, instead of welcoming the one who came in YHWH’s name, cry out “Crucify him!”
To focus on the impact of Jesus’ actions for the life and identity of Israel is not just an esoteric theological point though. It was a real impact on how those of us who are Gentiles (and the Undersea Monkey, like most followers of Israel’s Messiah is one) are able to live, move and have our being in Israel’s God. Israel’s call was always to be YHWH’s representatives to the other nations, to be the means by which they saw the light of his love. Jesus was and is the true Israelite as he was and is the one true human (and also was and is the one true God, incarnate). In him, we are able to be incorporated into the blessings of Abraham. It is because the identity of Israel is refocused on him and fulfilled in him that the only boundary marker of the people of YHWH now is faith and not the keeping of Torah. It is as the true King and true Temple that Jesus’ self-sacrifice on the cross brings about our reconciliation to God.
Are we prepared to speak of Jesus in these terms this Palm Sunday? Will we talk of the dangerous road he rode and the sheer determination born of his love for humanity that set in train the sequence of events that lead to a cross and to nails and a crown of thorns? Or will we settle for waving paper palms and singing action songs?