Superman isn’t swooping in. The heavens aren’t opening and the army of angels are not going to ride in here in front of you and slaughter all of our enemies.
The Triumphal Entry and the incarnating of GOD’s dream
Palm Sunday C | Luke 19:28-40
As most of you know, our tradition, beginning in the middle of the 20th Century, has us read the Passion on Palm Sunday. I’ve made no secret that I find this to be a strange custom and which leads to even stranger associations.
We at St. Stephen’s are again using the pattern we started last year, which is to celebrate Holy Week according to Jesus’s last week. We celebrate the palms today, will mark the days with morning prayer and on Thursday, we will remember Jesus’ last night with his followers. We will celebrate Good Friday with a single dramatic reading of the Passion. And we will mark the end of Lent and the coming of Easter with the Great Vigil on Saturday night.This parable seems to support the idea of investment, unless we read all the stuff around it. Click To Tweet
We do this because the story cannot be contained in two Sundays. The depth and power of these parts of the story are beyond the scope of our traditions. And the whole story, if read from one gospel at a time, lets us hear the story as fresh and poignantly.
This is the week ahead, but I want to speak to the moments before the palm gospel, before Jesus’s triumphal entry. Before Jesus mocks Rome, not riding on a warhorse, not surrounded by armed guards, not imposing his will upon them.
A moment in which Jesus tells a really, really weird parable.
Jesus’s idea of a revolution
They are in Jericho, which is not too far from Jerusalem, and there is this short little dude, named Zacchaeus. He is wealthy and powerful. And yet he doesn’t seem to be acting like one who is powerful. He climbs this tree so that he can see over the much taller heads–he wanted to see who Jesus was. And Jesus, looking up into the tree, calls him to come down and invites himself over to Zacchaeus’ house.
The people following Jesus don’t like this idea. Why would they? This man represents everything they are looking to fight against. They are looking to wage war with Rome and that any day, GOD’s mighty army is going to come down and smite the bad guys. AND of course all those complicit with Rome. So all the people hate Zacchaeus.
Don’t go to his house. Don’t hang with him. He is the enemy. They think.
Of course he’s not actually. This is made obvious by his willingness to get rid of his wealth and change his ways. This is what Jesus says he is here to do, to come retrieve the lost. Lost people like Zacchaeus. He all but said this 4 chapters earlier when telling the 3 “Lost” parables which includes the Prodigal Sons.
So then Jesus tells this parable which we might call the Parable of the Ten Pounds. This one sounds a lot like Matthew’s more infamous parable of the talents. In this parable, Jesus tells of a power-seeking nobleman who was going away and leaving some slaves in charge of some money. Ten slaves and ten pounds.
When the nobleman comes back, he finds one of the slaves has turned one pound into ten. He is rewarded with ten cities. Another has turned one pound into five. He is rewarded with five cities. One slave talks back to his master, saying that he knowns the nobleman is not an honest man and he was afraid, so he didn’t invest his pound while the nobleman was gone: he protected it. That slave was punished.
This parable seems to support the idea of investment and giving of ourselves to GOD. Unless we read all the stuff around it. When we read how the people of the community didn’t want this nobleman to be their king. That, indeed, he is cruel and vengeful, and nothing like the Father who comes to his son or Jesus who comes to retrieve the lost.
And the end of the parable has the nobleman calling his slaves to round up all of his enemies and slaughter them. This is the last thing Jesus says before the Triumphal Entry. This is the parable he tells, as Luke points out
because he was near Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.
Jesus’s Triumphal Entry
The hearers of Luke’s gospel then are given these vivid opposites: of a Jesus who saves even Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector, hated as an enemy, who then tells a story of a usurper king who slaughters his neighbors and steals from them cruelly. And he tells this story to his followers who have been thinking that Jesus is about to invite them to do the same.
This is Jesus’s set up for his counter-triumphal entry. This is how Jesus prepares his followers to see what they really will encounter in Jerusalem.
He has told them what will happen when they get there and yet they don’t understand.
He has tried to show them what living a kingdom life is like: where real power comes from (hint: not the sword). But they still have trouble comprehending it.
This is Jesus’s big show, the big teaching to the disciples about power and liberation. Superman isn’t swooping in. The heavens aren’t opening and the army of angels are not going to ride in here in front of you and slaughter all of our enemies.
If you think that, you’ve got your mind set on Rome. That’s what they do. They show off their might in big parades, riding tall horses and carrying banners so high in the air, you have to look up. They are above you, they will overpower you, dominate you, and oppress you. And they come in and kill your neighbors and steal your land. That is Rome’s way.
GOD’s way is different. You don’t have to look up. There is no mighty army, there is just you. This is what we have. That and Jesus. This is all we need to build the kingdom.
But don’t think you’ll build a kingdom by enslaving your enemies. Don’t think you’ll protect a young kingdom with weapons and lust for slaughter. That’ll build a human empire, not GOD’s different world.
A Different World
For us, the anti-Triumphal Entry of Jesus as the anti-king, coming to usher in the anti-empire is as challenging an idea for us to hear in 2016 as it would have been to witness.
Many of us are not interested in this type of political street theater in our own city: from shutting down busy streets to massive “die-ins,” today’s protests are met with shouts of “get a job” and scorn for not being effective enough. Our generation is full of armchair quarterbacks for team revolution.
And in our churches, it seems we value our being safe spaces for all people more than we value honoring the challenge of a gospel which not only challenges imperialism, but wealth, power, consumerism, and all those things we value as markers of success and freedoms we take for granted.
The Triumphal Entry is a challenge to the establishment: to Rome and its allies in Jewish leadership. It is a confrontation with a status quo which protects the powerful and exploits the weak.
We need to hear this challenge to our church; to our own wealth and status and our comfortable collusion with the powerful. With our own fears of rocking the boat and our own missed opportunities to serve our community.
But the Triumphal Entry is not just an expression of opposition, it is the positive expression of GOD’s dream for humanity. It is not only an anti-empire, but a pro-mutual community moment.
Jesus gives us the positive examples of humility and persistence; of challenging injustice and supporting mercy. And through it, he reveals that our very understanding of GOD has been limited by Roman paradigms of power and aggression. That, as Diana Butler Bass argues, GOD is not vertical: up there, interacting with us through a divine elevator. GOD is horizontal. Not on a warhorse above us, but at eye level, compelling us to work together, not fight each other; love, not hate; encourage, not reject.
This is the vision we have given our lives for. A dream we’re empowered to realize right here. A life far beyond the scope of ourselves and a blessed community that surpasses our vision for it.
This vision was revealed in that singular moment, but it is realized in our making it happen. Starting today.
May we know the mercy Jesus shares with us. May we share that mercy with one another. And may our work build up that dream GOD has for that more perfect world. Amen.