April 14, 2019
There’s something missing from the passage that introduces the Palm Procession this time. Luke doesn’t mention palm branches. For that matter, he doesn’t have the crowd shouting “Hosanna!” either. Yet, we still call it Palm Sunday, and we still sing “Hosanna.”
It’s easy to get distracted by our traditions, isn’t it? It seems we only have to do something twice before it becomes, “the way we’ve always done it.” And we forget to actually pay attention to the story we’re hearing, because we already have in our heads the story we know.
Luke is giving us a different take on that story, and it’s probably a good idea to set aside the one we think we know for a moment, so we can listen to Jesus with fresh ears.
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” (Luke 19:39-44)
Those Pharisees are at it again! In the 1970 rock opera, “Jesus Christ Superstar” we hear them complaining to Jesus:
“Tell the rabble to be quiet, we anticipate a riot
This common crowd is much too loud
Tell the mob who sing your song
That they are fools and they are wrong
They are a curse, they should disperse.”
While Andrew Lloyd Webber’s version might make us think the Pharisees are simply turning up their noses at the crowd, it’s also possible that the Pharisees were afraid – maybe of the Romans, maybe because they saw Jesus as a threat to their comfortable position as religious leaders. And maybe they were worried for Jesus’ safety – after all, just a few chapters ago, it was a group of Pharisees who warned him that Herod was looking for him and wanted to kill him (Luke 13:31).
Whatever we might think about the Pharisees, we have to realize that Luke does not treat them the same way the other gospel writers do. While Mark has the Pharisees plotting to kill Jesus by his third chapter, Luke’s Pharisees stay close to Jesus. They invite him to dinner three different times (7:3650; 11:37 54; 14:124). Luke describes hostility between the Pharisees and Jesus in only one of these encounters. Greg Carey writes:
“Luke’s Pharisees seek to keep Jesus in check rather than oppose him outright. They want Jesus to keep his teaching and activities ‘safe.’ They want him to suppress the radical challenge his ministry poses to the rich and powerful (16:1417). … In Luke, … the Pharisees disappear after Jesus’ entrance into the city. Having asked Jesus to silence his disciples, they never make another entrance.”
Luke’s Pharisees aren’t the problem. At least, they are only a small part of the problem. The real problem is that, after three years of teaching, healing, driving out demons, and even raising people from the dead, Jesus has only convinced a handful of people that the Kingdom of God they’ve been waiting for is here. It’s now. And he’s running out of time. Jesus has every right to feel frustrated.
Remember that Jesus could see the oasis of Jericho from the Mount of Temptation throughout his 40 day fast, while he was being tempted in the wilderness. And now he can see Jerusalem throughout his trip down the hillside from the Mount of Olives toward the Beautiful Gate. Once the procession reaches the top of the Mount of Olives, Jerusalem is in full view.
It’s approximately the same distance, about 2 km from the top of the Mount of Temptation to the palm trees of Jericho, about 2km from Bethany to the entrance to the temple. But unlike his 40-day view of the lush valley around Jericho, where he could see food growing as he fasted, this view of the city of Jerusalem is not out of reach. He’s on his way, and the crowd with him is ready for a triumphal parade.
The procession goes past the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus will return with his disciples to pray in just a few days. It travels alongside ancient graveyards, and the tombs of kings like Solomon and his father David. Maybe the irony is lost on the crowd, but it isn’t lost on Jesus.
The people may be calling him ‘king’ and remembering all the Old Testament prophecies about a new king from David’s line who will rise up to save Israel. They may be thinking that finally, in Jesus, the prophecy is fulfilled. And they are right. But Jesus knows what happens to Israel’s kings. They all die. Their tombs are in view as we make our way down the hillside into the Kidron Valley.
This is the valley where King Jehoshaphat defeated Israel’s enemies. It is the valley King David used as an escape route during Absalom’s rebellion. This is the valley where Old Testament prophecies say Elijah will return, and Messiah will pass through to enter the Temple when Israel is restored. It is the valley where the battle of Gog and Magog will signal the final day of judgment. All the history of Israel’s kings, and all the promise of God’s final redemption, is here in this valley.
The parade winds its way through the Kidron Valley, and Luke’s version of this procession is significantly different from the other gospel writers. Instead of crying out “hosanna, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” Luke’s crowds shout, “Blessed is the KING who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
Not only do they name Jesus as “King,” this crowd echoes what we heard the angels say to the shepherds back in Luke 2: “Glory to God in the highest.” Only, instead of “peace on earth” we hear “peace in heaven.”
And while the crowds are shouting “Peace,” Jesus is weeping. While they are shouting for joy, their king is wailing in anguish.
This is not the kind of Palm Sunday procession we like to think about. It isn’t the tradition we’ve grown to love – little children laughing and dancing and waving palm fronds, people cheering and spreading brightly colored cloaks on the roadway, Jesus waving and smiling to the crowds like someone on a parade float – this is not that kind of procession at all.
Yes, the people are cheering. They are yelling for peace. Do you catch the paradox? Luke makes it even sharper. In all the noise, no one seems to notice that Jesus is wailing with grief. Jesus is weeping.
This weeping that Jesus does here is not the same as his weeping at Lazarus’ tomb. That was a tear trickling down Jesus’ cheek. This is loud lament. This is the kind of weeping Lazarus’ sisters had done before Jesus arrived. This is the kind of weeping Peter will do after he realizes he has denied Jesus three times. This is the kind of weeping that works its way up into the throat as a loud wail that cannot be stifled. This is scream-into-your-pillow-so-you-won’t-wake-the-neighbors weeping.
Jesus weeps over Jerusalem as he rides down from the Mount of Olives toward the Beautiful Gate, the place where Messiah is supposed to enter the Temple and make everything right. This is not a party procession – it is a funeral procession. Only the mourners haven’t figured it out yet.
“Peace in heaven,” they shout. “How I wish you had accepted the peace I bring!” Jesus weeps. “But you missed it. If only you had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. … because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”
We’ve been listening to Jesus through this season of Lent, a season named for the lengthening of days. It’s a season that anticipates new life, growth, and transformation. How has it changed you? How have you heard the voice of Jesus speak into your life, and how have you responded to his call to follow him?
As you have been listening to him, how has Jesus upended your assumptions? How has your thinking shifted? What have you surrendered to Christ? What grudges and hurts have you let go? Who have you noticed that you didn’t see before? Where do you see new hope? If you’ve been listening to Jesus, Jesus has been re-forming you to be more and more like him.
Yet, just as Christ lamented over the blind eyes and hardened hearts of Jerusalem, he continues to weep over you right now, wishing you would turn to him and be healed. Jesus loves you so much. He wants so much for you. It grieves him when you can’t see it or won’t accept it. He wants to fill you with his peace.
In his first sermon to the people of Nazareth, Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19a) He went on to tell his hometown friends, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (4:21) In your hearing.
Now Isaiah is silent. Everything that needs to be said has been said. Jesus has healed the sick and raised the dead, brought release to the captive and proclaimed the day of the Lord’s favor.
We are entering Holy Week. Jesus will gather his closest friends around him and give them a new commandment to love each other. One of those friends will betray him, and perhaps some of those same voices who were shouting “Blessed is the King … Peace in highest heaven!” will soon shout “Crucify him!” One of his closest friends will deny ever knowing him. All of them will run away. Only the women will stay, and they will stay at a distance.
He’s going to suffer. He’s going to do it for you. You might be thinking, “Can’t we just skip all this and get to the Easter candy?” No. To get to Resurrection, you have to go through that last supper, you have to go through Good Friday. Luke gets it right. The paradox matters. We may want to crown him King, but Jesus is weeping through it all. He is weeping for you.