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Stebbing, Great Dunmow, Essex, United Kingdom
The occasional blog of an Anglican priest in rural Essex

Monday, 29 March 2010

Palm Sunday at Little Saling

Readings for this were Psalm 118 and Luke 19 28-the end. I had some help from Rootsonthe web, and Phil Ritchie told me about the Borg & Crossnan stuff.

At the time of Jesus, Jewish people interpreted Psalm 118 as referring to the victory of the coming Messiah. So it was natural that the crowds should draw on it to acclaim Jesus as he approached Jerusalem (v. 26; Luke 19.38. Luke substitutes 'king' for 'one' in the psalm, making the identity of Jesus unambiguous for his readers.)

A fascinating insight into this triumphal entry is given by the scholars Borg and Crossan, with whom I normally take issue on a number of basic points, but who have by their research concluded that the procession of Jesus into Jerusalem humbly riding on a donkey would have been happening at the same time as a procession of Roman soldiers coming into the city with Pontius Pilate who apparently always like to be there for the Passover. So the welcome received by the true ruler’s humble procession would have been in stark contrast to the attitude of the Jews to the arrival of the occupying forces – in other words, no wonder everyone welcomed him, given the alternative.

And of course, Pilate and his forces would have a role to play in the events of the next few days of Jesus’ life and death, so today we mark the arrival on stage of the key players in the drama of the passion

Psalm 118 is a processional one, in which different figures speak out different sections. The opening and closing verses (vv. 1-4, 26-27, 29) are calls to worship by the priest(s) A central figure – perhaps originally the king – praises God for his deliverance in verses 5-18, as the procession approaches the Temple. Then comes the dramatic summons of verse 19. 'Open to me the gates of righteousness that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.' The procession has reached the Temple courts, and in verse 20, Temple officials respond to the king's summons. 'This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it.' The arrival in the Temple precincts is the ultimate, joyful sign that God has delivered his servants in their troubles, and verse 21 is another thanksgiving by the king, while verses 22-25 are words of celebration by the people, concluding with a petition for ongoing salvation (v. 25).

When the crowds use Psalm 118.26 to hail Jesus, they are saying 'In the name of the Lord our God you are blessed as you come'. This is what they would have said to the king in the old processions, and what they expected to say to the Messiah whenever he came. Matthew, Mark and John include an additional echo of the Psalm in their report of this incident, the word 'Hosanna', referring to Psalm 118.25, 'save us').

As we read the Gospel story through the lens of the Psalm and vice versa, profound depths of meaning open up.

First, the context for the whole event – as for the arrival of the king and his entourage in the psalm – is the praise of the Lord, Israel's God. As Jesus comes to Jerusalem, this is a fulfilment (the ultimate fulfilment, as we now recognise) of the 'steadfast love' of the Lord (Psalm 118.1-4). This is recognised by the praises of Jesus' contemporaries (Luke 19.37).

Second, the crowds around Jesus specifically link him to the central figure of the psalm, the one they had come to interpret as the Messiah-King they longed for. They not only praise God (v. 37), they bless Jesus in God's name (v. 38; cf. Psalm 118.26). The scandalous nature of this blessing is clearly seen in the reaction of the group of Pharisees (v. 39), but Jesus affirms the crowd's instincts (v. 40). Much is often said from pulpits like mine of how the disciples and the people didn’t get Jesus, didn’t appreciate or understand him for who he is, but here it seems corporately the people are led to acknowledge Jesus as their true king, as we have seen, perhaps in stark contrast to the ruler thrust upon them by the occupying forces of Rome.

Third, the Psalm helps us to enter a little way into Jesus' own thinking as he embarks on this fateful week. He will shortly enter the Temple (Luke 19.45) and we can imagine the summons of Psalm 118.19 in his heart, if not on his lips. He wants to go into the Temple and use it for its proper purpose, to 'give thanks to the LORD'. These are the 'gates of righteousness' – the place, as it were, where the righteous should be at home – but that is not what he will find there, as we see in Luke’s next episode, the cleansing of the Temple. Nevertheless, we can imagine him echoing the thanksgiving of Psalm 118.21 for God's rescue of him thus far. He will continue in faith, despite the sense of foreboding he has both for himself and for the nation (Luke 19.41-44).

Fourth, the events of Holy Week turned out to give a terrible twist to the traditional celebratory meaning of the psalm, used to rejoice in the Lord's reversal of the nation's fortunes. In the psalm they rejoiced that the nations, their enemies were 'cut off' (vv. 10 and11), while 'the stone [Israel/David] that the builders [the nations] rejected has become the chief cornerstone' (vv. 22). But in Luke 20, Jesus will use this very verse to point to the disaster coming on Israel (Luke 20.17). Now it is Israel's leaders who are the builders; Jesus himself is the stone they reject; and so the 'vineyard' Israel will be overrun by 'others', i.e. the nations (Luke 20.15 and16). It was a prophecy sadly fulfilled when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.

This psalm would be sung by Jesus and his disciples – as by all other Jews – at the end of their Passover meal in a few days' time (Mark 14.26). It is left to us to imagine the extraordinary mixture of faith and foreboding it would have expressed, and the hopes and fears it evoked, for both him and them.

For us, as we begin another Holy week, knowing what happens at the end, there is no fear, but may this slightly different take on palm Sunday increase our hope and strengthen our faith.

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