Text: Matthew 21:1-17
I love Palm Sunday. It is fun and chaotic and it’s a little bit weird. Palm Sunday is actually one of the odder days of the church year, if you really think about it. I mean, looking at it from the outside, strange and funny things happen in church all the time. Almost every Sunday.
About once a month, at the end of the service, we all get a little piece of bread and a tiny cup of juice and we all eat and drink and call it a meal. We actually call it a supper. Kind of odd.
When a person wishes to profess their faith in Jesus, we dunk them in a tank of water. No kidding. It is very meaningful and baptism is full of rich imagery, but again, just to see it, it seems sort of strange.
There are all kinds of customs and traditions that come about that are at the very least quirky, if not bordering on bizarre. And I would count actually listening to somebody stand before the congregation and talk for 15 or 20 minutes, week after week, among the strange and amazing things that happen in church.
But Palm Sunday is different in its own way. It starts out as a really fun day. We all get these palm branches and parade around, waving them. How cool is that? I know that the Hammond family has parades all the time, for any kind of reason, but most of us don’t get to be in parades very often.
When it comes to the Palm Sunday parade, some years we have actually started outside, and I wanted to head down the hall, go outside by the library, and then come in the front door, but despite the fact that Palm Sunday will never fall on a later date, it is still kind of cold outside. But it worked anyway.
So it is kind of different, but it is a lot of fun, and I think it is great that so many take part in our Palm Procession. And the joy of the day was made a little greater for me by something I learned just in the last month or so.
I have learned a lot about the history of our church over the last year, and I am still learning things. I want to tell you about Rev. Robert Davidson. He came here as pastor in 1920. He was originally from Scotland. He was a graduate of the University of Chicago Divinity School and became pastor in Rockford, Illinois. In Rockford he was a key part of a group that began the first mutual hospital insurance association in the country. That is cool. From there he went to become pastor in Marshalltown, and he came here in 1920.
While he was pastor, the Roger Williams House was built, which was our college student center. That house is now the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority, just a couple of doors down. Rev. Davidson and his family lived on the top floor, the first floor was the student center, and the basement contained student apartments - the students fired the coal furnace and mowed the lawn in exchange for the room.
Rev. Davidson died suddenly at the Roger Williams House in 1936. Here is the part I recently learned. Dating back to his student days, Rev. Davidson sang “The Palms” on Palm Sunday every year for 48 years, with only two exceptions. He was a musician and while pastor he was also the choir director at our church.
Now when I came to this church and we sang this anthem called “The Palms,” I had never heard of it. But there was apparently a tradition of singing it here on Palm Sunday. While we don’t sing it every year, we have sung it a lot.
What I learned recently was that this tradition of singing “The Palms” goes back 99 years, to when Rev. Davidson introduced it in 1920. After his death, the tradition continued, in his memory at first, I would imagine - but over the years – over the decades - we had forgotten where the tradition came from. So, for me, this is a fun day not only because of the palm parade but because of singing that anthem, which I have sung many times, but this time I sang it knowing where it came from.
And then, it’s not exactly like Jesus entering Jerusalem, but today we have the great anticipation of Fellowship Time – of celebrating with Fred and Dianne Borgen on their 60 years of marriage. That is something to celebrate.
That is the fun part of Palm Sunday. But it is a strange day, like I said, because there comes this abrupt change in the tone and mood of the service. We begin with this great celebration, we begin with anticipation, but by the end we are heading toward the cross. And that makes this a strange day because we can suffer a sort of spiritual whiplash.
Jesus and his disciples arrived in Jerusalem for the Passover celebration. It was the biggest festival of the year. Jesus enters Jerusalem - the capital city, the center of culture and commerce – and the center of faith. A large crowd gathers. There was excitement and enthusiasm. There were great hopes and expectations that he was the Messiah they longed for, the one who would lead the nation to overthrow Roman rule. The crowd welcomed him as a king and shouted, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
Jesus arrives on a donkey, fulfilling the prophecy found in the prophet Zechariah. A donkey is significant. Horses were not used for agriculture or transportation. You would use an ox for agriculture and a donkey for transportation. Horses were used for war.
There was a pattern to receiving a conquering hero in the Greco-Roman world. A military general or the king would come to town, and as this hero approached, people came out to offer a welcome. They would come out beyond the city gates and escort the person into the city. Today we would call it “rolling out the red carpet.”
Jesus arrived as a hero. The crowd laid palm branches and cloaks on the road as he entered Jerusalem. There was cheering and celebration. There were shouts of “Hosanna!” But Jesus was a very different kind of messiah, a different kind of savior, a different kind of king. On a donkey and not on a war horse, he represented the way of peace.
The Roman governor Pilate would have been entering Jerusalem around this same time. But Pilate entered the city differently. He entered with an air of power and domination. He surely did not come riding a donkey. Pilate inspired fear. But Jesus came in humility.
As the week unfolded, it became clear how different Jesus was – how vastly different Jesus was than what people had expected.
Jesus’ entry into the city grabbed a lot of attention. We read that as Jesus entered Jerusalem, “the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?” And the crowds would say, “this is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth.”
Now if there was anything that the powers that be did not want, it was turmoil. It was uncertainty. It was celebration that got out of hand. There were crowds, out of town folks from everywhere in Jerusalem for Passover. Along with these large crowds, the city was filled with Roman soldiers sent to keep the peace, to keep the Pax Romana.
The religious leaders were already skeptical of Jesus. His popularity and message they found threatening. When you speak out for the powerless, you threaten the powerful. When you give hope to those on the margins, you irritate those at the center. His teaching called into question their authority. So the religious leaders took note of Jesus’ arrival and worried about possible repercussions. They were right to be worried, and their concern quickly escalated.
Jesus arrives in town, and the first thing he does is to head over to the temple. When you hear temple, don’t think big church building. The temple was an enormous complex. The most outlying part was an outside court, the Court of Gentiles. Anyone could go there. For a Gentile who was drawn to God, this was as close as one could get. Closer was the Court of Women. Closer still was the Court of Israelites—only the men could go there, and this was where worship took place. And then there was the Holy of Holies, where only the priests could go.
Jesus was observing what was going on in the Court of Gentiles. Everyone who came to worship had to pay the temple tax. People brought their Roman money with them – it was the coin of the realm. But a Roman coin, bearing the image of Caesar, was considered a graven image, and the temple tax had to be paid with temple currency. And so, as a public service, there were people who would exchange your money for temple money. The temple literally could not function without this service.
And then there were animal sellers. At Passover in particular, sacrifices were offered. You didn’t want to have to haul your sacrifice over a long distance, so a person could purchase a dove or lamb or other appropriate sacrifice. Again, this was a helpful service.
Some have speculated that Jesus was angered about the way sellers took advantage of those who had come for worship. The exchange rates on temple currency could be high, and then they would tack on that exorbitant processing fee, like trying to buy tickets from Ticketmaster. It’s galling, isn’t it?
And then, animals for sacrifice might sell for far more at the temple than they would in some private transaction. It could be like going to Hilton Coliseum. You can buy a coke for a dollar or two other places, but at Hilton it’s 5 or 6 bucks. And they know they’ve got you.
The money changers and animal sellers were using the worship of God as a chance to make a shekel. They were taking advantage of folks who had come to worship. This is a common explanation of why Jesus gets upset. But as you read the text, it doesn’t actually say that this is what got Jesus so worked up. I expect Jesus didn’t approve of shady business practices, if that was in fact going on, but that does appear to be the issue here.
It is a pretty big undertaking to singlehandedly drive out everyone selling and buying and then to overturn the tables of the moneychangers in the temple. I mean, who does that? This is a wild, dramatic, disruptive action. There is chaos and confusion in the temple court. The question is, what makes Jesus so angry?
Matthew’s telling of the story is pretty spare. Not a lot of details. Jesus just says, “‘It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.”
I’m not sure that the problem is deceptive business practices. Jesus’ concern had to do with the temple itself. The selling and moneychanging at the temple was actually a recent innovation. Jesus says that the temple is supposed to be a house of prayer. By saying that it had become a den of robbers, he was quoting from Jeremiah 7. He is not talking about the temple as a place where robbery occurs but as a “den” - where people take their gains and feel safe. Jesus is demonstrating against the secularization, against the commercialization and corporatization of the temple.
Remember, this was the only part of the temple where a Gentile could go, and this is what was happening. The temple had become a place where those who may have had little interest in worship could come to earn money. Nothing wrong with providing a needed service, nothing wrong with making money, but this was a place for prayer. Jesus is demonstrating what had become an entire system of temple worship.
Now, did you notice Jesus’ other action in the temple? “The blind and lame came to him, and he cured them.”
That part does not get as much attention, but it important, and it tells us about Jesus’ concern. Jesus is challenging the prevailing piety of the temple. He says that God’s purpose is to welcome and to heal the excluded, the marginalized, those who are hurting. The temple is not a place for monetizing faith. It is a place for receiving God’s gift, a place to experience God’s life-giving power.
Jesus stands against religion that is more about its system and tradition and practices than it is a living, breathing faith. He stands against those who put the needs of the institution and the commercialization of faith above the needs of the community and the movement of the Spirit.
The Cleansing of the Temple, as it is called, seems like the last straw as far as the religious leaders were concerned. And Jesus knew it. He knew it, but in his faithfulness to God and faithfulness to who he was, he did it anyway.
Jesus entered Jerusalem to such fanfare, such high hopes, but from here, things only go downhill.
This episode challenges all of us. As you think about your own life – what tables need to be overturned? What is it that needs to be changed? What allegiances are misplaced? What – or maybe who – are you ignoring as you focus attention on lesser matters? What priorities need to be rearranged?
And then, how do we as a community miss the bigger picture, while there are those in our midst, at our doorstep, in need of hope and welcome and healing?
Palm Sunday is a weird day. We began with a parade. We end with our eyes toward the cross. We will gather again on Thursday as we join Jesus and the disciples in the Upper Room.