Imagine the scene. It's the week of Passover: pilgrims and tourists flock of the cobbled streets of ancient Jerusalem. From the west, a parade marches in. The hero of the hour rides in majestically, as onlookers cheer his entrance in a mix of awe and fear. His mighty warhorse makes civilians shudder with each step. Gold adorns his armor, his cloak, the eagle standards leading his parade. His followers in polished leather and cold steel, march the precisely perfect formations every dictator ever after would imitate, with trumpets and war drums announcing their dread approach. Local rebels destined for crucifixion are dragged in chains, with the spoils of war behind them alongside the legion's local conscripts. The Jewish Passover is here. And though Roman governor Pontius Pilate permits Jewish locals their religious rites celebrating the defeat of Egypt long ago, his war parade today reminds Jew and Gentile alike that, whatever the Lord did back then, Rome is your master now. Governor Pilate's parade—like all parades even to this day—is a display of power and solidarity: Roman power, Roman solidarity... and Jerusalem's submission. And way across town—entering from the eastern gate instead—a vastly different parade takes place. Like Pilate's procession of military might, this second parade too was a sign of power, grandeur, and honor. Yet it was also something else entirely.
They had followed Jesus for years now. They were once fishermen, tax collectors, and the like, back what feels like a lifetime ago, until Jesus called them to follow. The disciples had seen much since they first accepted that call, things they would never have believed: the hungry miraculously fed, the sick and broken healed, the outcasts welcomed home. And today—the day they're entering Jerusalem together for Passover—Jesus sent two of them ahead to borrow a donkey colt for him to ride. “Does Rabbi Jesus know what he's doing?” the pair wonder as they bring the donkey back, “Everything was just as he predicted. But to ride a young donkey, at this time of Passover: all of Jerusalem will know he's pointing to the prophet Zechariah, who said our king would come to us mighty in victory but humble on a donkey. Jesus must know what he's doing: he always does. But this donkey business... he's presenting himself as messiah-king, and the locals will know it. What will happen?” As Jesus and his disciples enter the city, while Pilate's march across town strikes dread and awe in the minds of Jerusalem's people, the humble and peaceful parade of Jesus evokes hope and joy. In a whir of excitement, a local tosses her cloak on the ground for Jesus to ride across. Then another does the same, and another. Jesus soon gets a red carpet treatment reserved for only triumphant kings, something Jerusalem hasn't had in centuries—cannot have now without angering Roman overlords. While Rome's legions wave golden eagle standards and blood red banners as they walk in, the crowds following Jesus wave branches of palm as rebellious signs of hoped-for victory. Though Roman trumpets and drums can be heard from across town, a shout emerges from the east as Jesus' crowd enters, as disciples and locals alike sing a Psalm of King David to celebrate Jesus with a cry of, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” The disciples—who have given up everything to follow him—are close to realizing Jesus is not only a rabbi but their king of kings, their true high priest, the long-awaited Messiah.
But not everyone is joyous over this local parade. Some—not all but still a sizable faction—some of the Pharisees watch Jesus' parade with horror. Politely, one of them approaches Jesus with the request, “Rabbi, order your disciples to stop this parading.” Perhaps these unhappy onlookers were selfish for their own power. “We're the religious leaders of the city, not this upstart nobody teacher from some backwater. If the rest of the city sees this, they may get the wrong ideas about God, about us, about our teachings. We must stop this rival rabbi before he goes too far.” We all know the temptations of thinking we know best, that we alone know what's good for others, of clinging onto power. Or perhaps the Pharisees feared what Pilate would say when word of this got back to him. “The people of this city were butchered by foreign empires long ago and again in recent memory. If this Jesus' parade sparks a rebellion—if Pilate even suspects it might cause rebellion—how many innocents will die? Better to silence the parade now, lest Roman legions hear of it and crush our people once more under their boots.” Then as today, too much goodness is often sacrificed at the altars of fear. Or perhaps the Pharisees even agreed with Jesus' ideas but simply took issue with the parade because it was too much change, too radical, too bold to stomach at this time. Or perhaps they grumbled simply because the palm-waving and Psalm-singing ruined an afternoon nap.
All Lent we have been looking at different ways the Bible understands wickedness, so that we might better escape sin's temptation, resist evil's oppression, and give thanks for Easter's deliverance from both. In our Presbyterian tradition, one classic idea is sin-as-faithlessness. In ancient times, the lines between spirituality and political loyalty were blurred: kings were often called living gods, while human wars were seen as the manifestation of spiritual squabbles among deities. Ancient Israel was unique among ancient nations in believing that its God—Yahweh, the Lord—its God chose to make a covenant with them, a formal treaty or agreement that was a blend of international affairs, family adoption, and religious vow. So when God's people in the Bible sinned—from the Hebrews in Genesis all the way to the Christians in Revelation—it's often seen like a breach of contract, a violation of a treaty, a breaking of promises, disloyalty when the going gets tough. Sin as faithlessness highlights that any evil we do or must endure is done as part of our wider relationship with God: that my moral or immoral behavior doesn't only affect me or those around me but impinges on the honor of God Almighty.
Sin as faithlessness means that not only is idolatry breaking faith with God: so too is cruelty, injustice, lust, and every other foul thing. I imagine too the Pharisees in today's scripture have many reasons to demand the parade be quiet, just as I imagine we all have our reasons to break faith. But whatever the cause, the effect of sin means our faithful relationship with God suffers.
Jesus goes on parade in today's scripture, in a story we know well already. But the scene is made more striking, more beautiful, if you know what comes just prior. Right before marching into Jerusalem, Jesus tells his disciples a parable, a small story used to teach big ideas. In the parable, a nobleman goes to a far off land to be confirmed as king over his estates, entrusts his servants with money to invest while he's away, and finds a rival delegation of unhappy subjects has also gone to the far-off land to oppose the noble's kingship. The majority of the parable is about the king settling accounts: with faithful servants who wisely invested the money now rewarded with power over many cities, faithless servants who fearfully hid the money now rewarded with nothing, and the faithless subjects who rejected the new king now dealt with as rebels. Right after that story, without stating its intended lesson, our Bibles say: “After Jesus said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.” It's no accident Luke records a parable of a king returning home... and then immediately has Jesus orchestrate a royal parade into Jerusalem. While the parable can be read as pointing to final judgment, I think it also speaks to Palm Sunday. Jesus tells of a king coming home to settle accounts, and then Jesus does the same.
For immediately after this Palm Sunday event, the parade next leads up a hill overlooking the rest of the city. There Jesus weeps over the sad fate of Jerusalem. The parade finally ends at the Temple—the holiest place in all Israel—where Jesus drives out the merchants who polluted the Lord's shrine with greed and corruption and begins to teach about God instead. The king gets his homecoming parade, and now he's putting things back in order. But rather than starting a war, Jesus instead weeps that Jerusalem never learned the ways of peace, laments that she forsook at the chances God gave her, and grows angry at how Jerusalem corrupted her Temple with avarice and abuse. Jesus weeps and rages... because God's people were not being faithful with the things God gave them. The Lord gave gifts like a wealthy king—gave freedom, a homeland, prophets, priests, and more—yet still everyone failed to do what God asked in return. Jesus has come to Jerusalem to settle accounts, and he's saddened to find the ledger looking rather grim, for the people have been faithless and broken all agreements. And lest we pride ourselves as being one of the good ones, remember too in just a few days' time all of Jesus' disciples will abandon or betray him, even after swearing oaths never to leave his side. It's been four months since New Year's resolutions were made: just as many of those fell by the wayside, likewise do we all prove faithless in every wrong we do, in every good we leave undone, in all the evils of this world.
But in the midst of the faithless fears of Pharisees calling for silence... amid a giddy crowd celebrating their faith today only to faithlessly abandon Jesus later that same week... amid a holy Temple profaned by greed's faithlessly putting dollars before devotion... with the sounds of uncaring Roman jackboots of oppression still marching their own ghastly parade in the distance... and with us readers today likewise struggling to stay on the narrow path, to love our neighbors, to withstand temptation and overcome evil's oppression... amid and above all these woes... Jesus speaks. Jesus answered the Pharisees—and our own anxieties—saying, “Truly I tell you, if these people were silent, the very stones would shout out.”
Jesus is saying that, even if you Pharisees shamed my followers into silence or if Rome's legions forced them to be quiet, even then the very earth beneath our feet would cry out in celebration. In the end, even should truth and justice be silenced for the moment... good will win. Even should fear or guilt stop the parade of disciples for a moment, forgiveness and love will carry the day. For Jesus is the king at last coming home to reign. But where Pilate governs with death and fear, Jesus is the Prince of Peace, riding on a donkey of simple farmers instead of a warhorse of battle, entering not with gold and troops but with palm branches and the ordinary folk of the land. And this king, though the crowds will indeed desert him later this week, though even his closest disciples will abandon or betray him... still this Lord Jesus is faithful to his people, still will he choose to love, still will he choose to die for them. Even should we prove faithless, even then the stones would still shout out with joy for the work God has done. Should fears break our resolve or tyranny crush our souls, still the work of justice and mercy will ultimately be revealed in Christ. Even should we fail to praise the Lord, the stones of creation itself would pick up the song. And when we are faithless, still the Lord who made heaven and earth remains faithful. May we embrace that joyful reality and so pick up the marching tune of praise. For Jesus, the King of Kings, is coming home: to Jerusalem, to our hearts, and one day to this world when at last all unity will be restored. Praise be to God. Amen.