Do We Hear the ‘Hosanna’s’? (Matthew 21:1-17)
Sunday, April 13, 2014 – Palm Sunday
Shane Claiborne is a writer, activist, speaker, and prophet who lives in an intentional community called the Simple Way in a Philadelphia neighborhood populated by addicts and dealers. Children often go unsupervised. There is violence. Claiborne writes that whenever a fight breaks out near his house, he runs outside with torches. He stands down the street from the rumble juggling the torches like clown. He writes, “Perhaps kids will lose interest in the noise of a good fight and move toward the other end of the block to watch the circus. I truly believe,” Claiborne says, “we can overcome the darkness of this world by shining something brighter and more beautiful.”[i]
Fights are so common where he lives that he has a ready-made response, a beautiful response. Give them something fun and whimsical to see instead of violence. Provide a happy alternative to the corruption.
I may not ever see two people beating each other with fists and sticks and knives on the street where I live, but the world is soaked in sin and sin always leads to violence and death. Cain always ends up killing Abel. Sometimes the pathway to violence is indirect. We don’t see the bloodshed but, the wage of sin is death, Romans 6:23. And sin is everywhere.
Claiborne’s attempt to divert attention away from the street fight by providing a circus shows in a playful way the serious alternative to a cycle of death that Jesus offered in the temple. Jesus declared there is another way, a way that’s different and better than the way of violence and death.
Every year on the Sunday before Easter, Palm Sunday, we see Jesus praised on his ride into Jerusalem. We watch him explode in righteous fury, driving animals out of the temple. Matthew’s version of these events describes four definite actions of Jesus. He rides into town as a king, passes judgment on the temple as a prophet, heals in a way that only God can, and receives worship, as only God should.
In the Old Testament, the book of 2nd Kings, chapter 9, Jehu is anointed by a prophet of God to be Israel’s next king. Jehu and his men must get rid of the wicked King Ahab. As he announces to his friends what God has said and what they must do, they hastily spread their cloaks before him, blow a trumpet, and shout “Jehu” is king (9:13).
The crowd in Matthew 21 remembers the cloaks laid before Jehu as they reenact the impromptu coronation, laying their cloaks before Jesus. The people hope he is will be the king of Israel. UCC minister Nancy Rockwell suggests more than simply declaring the reign of Jesus, this is revolutionary. It is an affront to King Herod the puppet monarch who answers to Rome.
More significantly, it is a blatant rejection of the Roman Emperor. Rockwell cites a book called The Last Week by Borg and Crossan[ii] that proposes that there was another procession the same day Jesus rode into Jerusalem. While he came into town to cries of “Hosanna,” while riding an animal of peace, a donkey, Roman Governor Pilate processed into another part of town with a legion of soldiers on horses for the sole purpose of making a show of Roman force. This was to discourage any potential rebellion. Pilate had no idea how mistaken he was. Even as he flexed the muscle of empire, the disciples acted out the kingship of Jesus.
Besides king, Jesus played the role of prophet. The whole temple incident of turning over tables was a declaration of judgment. In the Old Testament, the prophets do odd things to get their message across. Jeremiah had a jar of rotting undergarments that symbolized the way pride had ruined Judah (Jer. 13:9). Hosea had to marry a prostitute to illustrate how God would continuously take the nation back in spite of her infidelities. These are just a few of many examples of how prophets sometimes used bizarre behavior to communicate the word of God.
Jesus did not cleanse the temple as this incident is sometimes described. Something that’s be cleaned can be used again. He rendered judgment. The temple would no longer be the heart of God’s activity with people. It was a den of thieves. That phrase means that robbers – the religious establishment in Jesus eyes – felt like no harm would come to them in God’s temple. They could get rich through dishonest means there in the house of prayer where people met God. They felt their hold on the system made them safe. They did not fear God. Jesus’s violent acts, turning over tables, driving out animals, signaled the judgment that would be rendered when he died on the cross.
He came in as a king. He spoke as a prophet. And he received worship. The people cried, “Hosanna,” a phrase from Psalm 118, verse 25, and it literally means, “Save us now, O Lord.” We say this say to God when we are desperate. Pinched between corrupt priests, Pharisees who laid a heavy load of legalism, the evil of Herod, and the oppression of Rome, the people were powerless. They had nowhere to turn, so they turned to Jesus. They invoked royal Psalms and words reserved for God alone and lifted those words upon Jesus’ arrival.
And Jesus accepted it all. In this passage, our Palm Sunday reading, Jesus acted out what he truly was – prophet, king, and God. The highest roles for ancient Israelites were prophet, priest and king. Jesus was prophet and king, and the book of Hebrews over and over confirms what Matthew says implicitly – he was the supreme priest. A priest is to stand between a human, marked by the profanity of sin, and the most Holy God. Jesus was both fully human and fully God, so he was uniquely qualified to bring Heaven to Earth. As we see in Revelation, Heaven and earth are joined in Christ as intimately as a bride and groom (Rev. 21).
What does this look like, in practical terms? The Gospel of Matthew describes what Jesus did in the temple to show him to be who we believe him to be – Lord, Savior, King, God. To get a sense of this, we need to do two things – remember, and look around and listen.
First, remember. Specifically, we turn back in Matthew’s gospel to earlier in the story, chapter 11. Jesus’ cousin John, called John the Baptist, was a prophet. He called the nation of Israel to repentance. He baptized people to show that they were cleansed of their sins. He baptized Jesus.
John preached without a filter. So when Herod married his brother’s wife, John condemned the marriage. Herod, the king of the Jews received his power from the Roman governor. At any time, Pilate could oust Herod and have him killed. Compared to other Jews, Herod was powerful and wealthy, but he was a puppet on the end of a Roman string. Thus he was paranoid.
The fury and directness of John’s preaching infuriated the impotent monarch, so he had John imprisoned. And John wasted away in Herod’s prison many months. His energy waned. He could not preach. He did know what happened with Jesus after the baptism. He had done his part in God’s plan, but in prison, he fell into depression. So, his disciples, who were allowed to visit, came and he sent them to Jesus.
There question to Jesus from John was, “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?”
Jesus responded, “The blind receive their sight and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (11:3-5). The blind receive their sight. The lame are made able to walk.
These things would happen when the Messiah came. These things were happening. Jesus must be who John thought he was. Now it is Palm Sunday. A lot happened in Matthew’s gospel between that conversation with Jesus and John’s disciples, and the ride into Jerusalem that ended with disruption of temple money-changing tables. But Matthew wants us, the readers to remember. How can we know Jesus is from God? The blind receive their sight. The lame are made able to walk. The dead are raised.
Matthew tells about Jesus riding in as a king, judging as a prophet, and receiving worship as God. Then, in verse 14 it says, “The blind and lame came to him at the temple and he cured them.” God is acting in history, changing everything, and the gatekeepers, the temple leaders do not like it at all.
Matthew writes that they became angry. After the excitement of the procession and the turning over of tables, and after the healing miracles, a confrontation between Jesus and the priests ensued. There may have been 1000 adults in the temple area and they would be fascinated by an open confrontation between the high priest and the Galilean carpenter. They would do what you or I would do if two people in public began arguing. They would stop to gawk.
Someone forgot to tell the children in the temple’s out court that the party had ended. They kids kept singing the song – the song for Jesus. “Hosanna to the son of David.” Save us now, O Lord. And he was doing exactly that.
But the chief priests did not want to be saved. Remember, den of thieves, the place where the criminals feel safe? The temple leaders, like Herod, were under the heel of Rome, but they enjoyed status. They may have been enslaved by Rome, but they were the rich slaves. They did not need Jesus disrupting things, taking away their privileged position, bringing punishment on them. They had no faith that he was of God and could bring freedom and new life.
They saw the miracles and did not rejoice. They heard the singing and did not join in. “Do you hear what these [children] are saying?” The chief priests demanded (Mt. 21:16). Yes, said, Jesus. He quoted Psalm 8 to show that the children and anyone else who sang praise songs to him were the ones with understanding and the ones receiving the blessing God had sent.
We’re trying to see and understand who Jesus is – Lord, Savior, God, King. So we remember. We know it is the Messiah of God when the blind receive their sight. The lame are made able to walk. The dead are raised. Matthew tells of the healings in the temple that day. The final act would come a week later when Jesus left the grave behind.
I mentioned that we needed to do two things to understand Jesus. First, we needed to remember and we have looked back to John the Baptist and we have remembered. This Thursday, we will wash feet and take communion and we will remember. This Friday, we will tell the story of the cross and remember. Next Sunday, we will see the sun rise and joyously, victoriously remember.
The second thing we need to do is look around and listen. We see and hear Jesus when we hear the children singing “Hosanna – Lord, save us now.” The Hosanna cry comes from people who need to be saved. Who needs to be saved? Children in households where they are neglected and abused; they need Jesus. “Hosanna – Lord, save us now.” Who needs to be saved? Addicts – alcoholics, gambling addicts, porn addicts; you name it. Addiction cannot be overcome without God’s help. “Hosanna – Lord, save us now.” Who needs to be saved? People locked in poverty, trapped with no hope of escape. They go to bed each night not knowing if they will eat the next day; not knowing where they will sleep the next night. “Hosanna – Lord, save us now.” Who needs to be saved? People in the path of war need to be saved; Syrians, Iraqis, Pakistanis, Afghans. “Hosanna – Lord, save us now.”
Of course it is obvious that people in these situations need help. It appears unrelated to the events of Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday is supposed to take us into Holy Week and Holy Week culminates on Easter Sunday when we celebrate Jesus’ death for our sins and resurrection victory over death. This is supposed to be spiritual and triumphant. Why bring all these political and social justice matters into the conversation? Domestic violence, addiction, hunger and poverty, war – how do these thorny issues worm their way into a nice Palm Sunday celebration?
On that day, Jesus declared the end of a religious institution – temple worship. In the new way, the way of Jesus, People would come to him in order to come to God. On that day, Jesus upended hierarchical systems. In the new way, the way of Jesus, religious leaders are servants who walk with people instead of lording over them. On that day, Jesus healed diseases like blindness because he loves people and abhors our suffering and also because his healing was and is a sign of who he is – Lord, Savior, God, and king.
All of this is political. All of this is justice and compassion, especially for the most down and out around us. We hear the children’s song, the “Hosanna!” when we go to where the hurting people are.
We also hear it when we listen to brokenness in our own hearts and realize how desperately we need Jesus. Until we hear the children singing for us, we will not really see Jesus.
“Do you hear what these [children] are saying?” The chief priests asked it indignantly. We need to ask it innocently and humbly. Do we hear the children? Are we seeking Jesus, singing “Hosanna!” begging him to save us? He gives us a choice. We gather with the bloodthirsty crowd and watch the street fight and by watching and encouraging the combatants we are as guilty of the violence as they are.
Or, we can take the Jesus alternative, the one where blind people are healed, the broken mended, and the lame made able to walk. We can pray, “Hosanna! Lord save us.” We can pray it because God hears it and will answer and has answered in Jesus, his come, his death, and his resurrection. His is the way of life and beckons us to it.