Meditation on Matthew 21:1-11
First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, NY
Palm Sunday: April 2, 2023
Pastor Karen Crawford
Audio of Pastor sharing her message:
Today—another first for me with my flock here in Smithtown. We entered our worship today in a procession from the parish hall, carrying our palm branches, singing a song of praise to the Lord.
I worried a little, not having done this before—anywhere. Not just with you. I was a little out of my comfort zone.
I wondered what it would feel like, moving from our routine of sitting in our appropriate places—the liturgist and me walking in during the prelude. I have my chair up front. You have your favorite pew.
We are Presbyterian, after all, and like things decently and in order.
Our entire congregation joined in with the procession—all ages participating.
Palm frond waving, just as the crowd did for the procession long ago. Palms not bought from a florist but quickly cut from trees growing along the road.
Today is a day to raise our voices. Today is NOT a day for silence! We sang,
“All glory, laud, and honor
to you, Redeemer, King,
to whom the lips of children
made sweet hosannas ring.
You are the King of Israel
and David’s royal Son,
now in the Lord’s name coming,
the King and Blessed One.“
We had no donkey for our procession. Have you ever had a donkey on Palm Sunday?
Pastor Heidi Neumark of Trinity Lutheran Church in Manhattan tells the story of serving a church in the Bronx and beginning a tradition of getting a real donkey for Palm Sunday. For the donkey is the most important symbol of the day. Palm Sunday is named for the palms that we wave, but it’s all about the donkey.
“A child would put on their Jesus crown,” she says, “and ride a donkey named Baby around the block as we followed, waving palms and singing.” Everything went smoothly, she says, “until the year it didn’t, the day Baby refused to budge. Finally, with difficulty, we forced her back into her trailer. After that, we made do with a pony.”
A pony wasn’t available for Jesus on the day he entered Jerusalem—and a pony wouldn’t have the same meaning to the pilgrims in Jerusalem who had come for the Passover. Pontius Pilate would enter the city on a great steed, but he was a ruler of this world. Jesus has planned his arrival down to the smallest detail—even arranging with a local man to have a donkey and colt ready for him to ride at this stage of the journey. Up to now, he and his disciples have traveled on foot, like everyone else.
The man in the village is waiting for the secret phrase Jesus gives to the two disciples sent on the errand. “The Lord needs them,” Jesus tells them to say.
The Lord has stayed away from Jerusalem until this time, the time of the Passover. The law required every Jewish adult male living within 20 miles of the Holy City to come to Jerusalem for the Passover. Most of the people walked, and some came long distances. This was the greatest of their national festivals.
Jesus could not have chosen a more dramatic time for his entrance. And this was undoubtably a choice.
He rode on the back of a donkey—or two—fulfilling the prophecy for the Messiah for whom everyone was waiting. He rode into a city overflowing with perhaps 2 million pilgrims, surging with religious expectation.
Riding the colt of a donkey never ridden means that the animal is suitable for sacred purposes. Christ is making a deliberate Messianic claim fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9, as Matthew points out. The verse is:
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! 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.”
But Matthew leaves out “triumphant and victorious is he” to emphasize Christ’s humility.
The crowds receive him as their king. We know because they spread their cloaks down so that he would ride over them and be spared the dirt from the road. It’s worth noting that the people spreading their cloaks probably owned just one. Many who are waving branches for Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee, would have recalled the story of Simon Maccabbaeus being greeted with shouts of joy and the waving of palm branches as he entered Jerusalem in 1 Maccabees 13:51:
“On the twenty-third day of the second month, in the one hundred and seventy-first year, the Jews entered the citadel with shouts of praise, the waving of palm branches, the playing of harps and cymbals and lyres, and the singing of hymns and canticles, because a great enemy of Israel had been crushed.”
The crowds greet him as they would have greeted a pilgrim coming for the Passover, using a phrase from Psalm 118:26, “Blessed be he who enters in the name of the Lord!” Only they also shout, “Hosanna!” Hebrew for, “Save us, now!”
William Barclay, Scottish New Testament scholar, explains that this would have been “a cry for help which a people in distress addressed to their king or their god.” It is a cry for “deliverance and for help in the day of their trouble; it is an oppressed people’s cry to their savior and their king.” (239)
Barclay asks, What can be said about Jesus from his entry into Jerusalem?
- He is courageous. He knows he is entering a hostile city. While the crowds of ordinary people are celebrating him, the religious authorities have already declared their hatred and have sworn to kill him. Jesus knows this. He knows what’s going to happen.
- He is claiming to be God’s Messiah, God’s Anointed One, who has come to cleanse the temple. He will reveal this further in the passage that immediately follows this one. He will enter the temple and cast out all who are buying and selling—turning over the tables of those selling doves. “It is written,” he will say, “My house shall be called a house of prayer, and you are making it a den of thieves.” And then he will heal the blind and the lame.
- It says something about his appeal. “It was not the kingship of the throne which he claimed; it was the kingship of the heart. He came humbly,” riding a donkey, not the despised beast that it is in the west, but a noble beast of the east. “The horse was a mount of war; the (donkey) was a mount of peace. He showed that he came not to destroy, but to love; not to condemn, but to help; not in the might of arms, but in the strength of love.”
Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem on this day doesn’t, however, bring peace. Matthew tells us, “The whole city is in a turmoil.” They are asking, “Who is this? Who is this?”
And saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
I always have mixed feelings about Palm Sunday. We start out so joyfully, celebrating with the crowd on Passover that our Messiah has truly come. It’s a day full of good memories from childhood.
But a shadow is forever cast on this day, which is now called both Palm and Passion Sunday in many congregations. We are ALL more than a little out of our comfort zone, no matter what we do—procession or no procession, donkey or no donkey—when we retell this story.
Jesus knew what was going to happen. And we, who have read the rest of the story, know what’s going to happen, too. Something in us wants to cry out, “Jesus, no! Don’t ride the donkey to Jerusalem! We don’t want you to suffer for our sakes! Couldn’t there be another way to save us?”
We know the cross looms in the road ahead. And that Jesus, the humble king, who came to serve and not be served, is riding on to die.
A shudder passes through me when I think of the people laying their cloaks in the road. Waving palm branches. Shouting a royal welcome, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”
The same voices will soon be shouting for freedom for a criminal named Barabbas.
And for the one who rode the donkey, they will shout, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
Let us pray.
Loving and Gracious God, thank you for the courage of your Son, who publicly proclaimed his identity, fulfilling the words of the prophet Zechariah, when he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. He knew those who were laying down their cloaks and waving their palm fronds would betray him in the end. Thank you for the suffering work that he courageously did for a world you still love—and for our calling to remember and retell the story to all the generations, until everyone knows the good news: Jesus Christ is our Messiah, Savior, and Lord. In His precious name we pray. Amen.