Today is Palm Sunday in the Orthodox Church. It is a sign of our spiritual immaturity 2,000 years after the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem that we Orthodox prefer to stick to an antiquated, hopelessly out-of-sync calendar and thus pretend to have the genuine date for Easter and what comes before Easter. Total example of spiritual pride, even if the pride is totally delusional. But that’s the state of Christianity, Eastern-style.
The entry into Jerusalem is one of the few narratives that we find in all four Gospels – in addition, of course, to the passion and resurrection of the Lord. Today we read the narrative in John’s version (John 12:1-18). (The following is the prepared text for the sermon to be spoken at the Liturgy. The next two paragraphs were not included in the spoken sermon.)
Many people get disturbed when they realize that the four Gospels don’t always tell the same story in exactly the same way. Fundamentalists are desperate to find solutions to these discrepancies. After all, the Bible is inerrant and all those other words they like to say. I’m not a fundamentalist, so I never worry about things the same way. Liberal scholars on the other hand enjoy breaking down the Bible to a point where you can hardly recognize it any more. So, for example, even Paul’s short but beautiful letter to the Philippians from which we read today is broken down by some scholars into three or even four separate letters – which were then combined into one in a haphazard way. And when you look at how they reconstruct the original three or four letters, they bear no resemblance to the sequence that we read in our Bibles. A verse here stuck next to that verse there, with hardly any convincing logic. Well, when I read Paul’s letter to the Philippians I find nothing haphazard about it. It’s only when I read the scholars that I find a lot of haphazard thinking.
I’m neither a desperate fundamentalist nor a reckless liberal. How do I react when I see differences among the four Gospels? I get excited, because it gives me an opportunity to examine the many ways that the actions of Jesus were interpreted by the eyewitnesses of his time. Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell us that after Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey, he went to the Temple and drove out the sellers and money-changers who were doing business inside the courtyard of the Temple. But John tells us that he did this at the very beginning of his ministry, right after his first miracle. Who is right? Probably Matthew, Mark and Luke. But John had a more theological purpose for putting the story at the beginning rather than near the end of Jesus’ ministry. By putting the story at the beginning rather than near the end, John is able to emphasize Jesus’ words of his body becoming the new temple, the new meeting place of God and humanity. And that message becomes further developed in chapter 3 of John, where Jesus tells Nicodemus about a birth by the Spirit, rather than the normal physical birth. He tells Nicodemus that when he, Jesus, is lifted up on the Cross, he will draw all people to himself. And in the next chapter 4, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that there is no temple – not in Jerusalem, not in Samaria. Because God is spirit, and God should be worshipped in spirit and truth. Do you see from this brief example the mind of John working to develop one of the key themes of his Gospel? That’s why the Church calls him John the Theologian. We have no problem with John placing the clearing of the Temple at the beginning, because we understand that he had a point to make. Mt, Mk and Lk simply report the scene, so they had no need to change the time in which the event happened.
The Gospels are not video recordings. A 17-year old teenager recorded the 9 min and 29 sec of George Floyd’s murder – and justice was done. But there were no cameras and no smartphones when Jesus entered Jerusalem. So we have four somewhat different descriptions. In John’s Gospel, the entrance into Jerusalem follows from the raising of Lazarus, which we read yesterday. So it’s logical that the Church reads from John again today, especially since Lazarus and his sisters appear in today’s reading as well. Nice continuity from yesterday.
All four have a version of the crowds shouting: Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. John simply adds, The king of Israel. But Luke has Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Matthew has Hosanna to the son of David. Blessed is he who comes…. Mark has Blessed is he who comes…. Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David – εὐλογημένη ἡ ἐρχομένη βασιλεία τοῦ πατρὸς ἡμῶν Δαυίδ. Do you see the loaded references to a king and a kingdom of David? And yet, Jesus entered on a donkey – not a chariot, not a magnificent horse as would have been appropriate for a king – not in a bulletproof limousine if he were a king or president today. A donkey, a beast of burden. Because Jesus himself came with a burden – the burden of liberating us from our burdens. He took it all upon himself, just as a donkey meekly accepts the burden placed upon it. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Mt 11:28–30) Most kings and presidents don’t lessen the burden of people – except their own kind, the ones who don’t need any relief. Jesus told his disciples in our reading last week, “The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them. But it shall not be so with (among) you.” The contrast is palpable.
But let’s also hear how Jesus reacts to the way people are receiving him into Jerusalem. He accepts the praises of the people – even though he knew that they were placing a burden on him that he refused to accept, namely the burden of making him an earthly king. In John 6:15 we read: Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself. Ἰησοῦς οὖν γνοὺς ὅτι μέλλουσιν ἔρχεσθαι καὶ ἁρπάζειν αὐτὸν ἵνα ποιήσωσιν βασιλέα. Jesus knew how fickle people are, and he wanted nothing to do with their expectations and the hopes they were placing on him. So in come the priests and the scribes and the usual super-religious folks – who were really nothing but religious fascists. Here they come, challenging Jesus, how can he accept these tributes that people are shouting? In Matthew, Jesus responds to them, “Have you never read, ‘Out of the mouths of babies and nursing infants you brought forth praise’?” And he quotes from one of the Psalms. And in Luke’s version, Jesus replies: “Take my word for it: If the people were to keep quiet, the very stones would be shouting.”
Yes, indeed, infants, the stones, the earth itself, are shouting the praises of God. We easily become blasé about Palm Sunday. A nice day to go to church, especially as we get a palm cross to take home. Yes, it is a nice day. It’s a beautiful day to be at Liturgy and to worship the Lord. But can we hear the stones shouting out to God? Can we hear the earth and all the poor, burdened people of the world crying out to Christ? Can we indeed hear our own hearts and spirits crying out to God, to be liberated from the burdens that we impose on ourselves? Those are the questions I take away from today. And I pray they might be your questions as well. The Lord is good. May the Lord lift your burdens today, so you can shout Hosanna! Hosanna!!