Sermon: “A Study in Contrasts”
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Matthew 21.1-11; Psalm 118.1-2, 19-29//Isaiah 50.4-9a; Psalm 31.9-16; Philippians 2.5-11; Matthew 26.14 – 27.66
Palm Sunday is a profound study in stark contrasts. The service begins with Jesus’ triumphal procession into Jerusalem. The crowds had spread their cloaks and palm branches on the road. “The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’” (Matthew 21.9; NRSV). In today’s terms, we would say the people rolled out the red carpet. Even so, many in Jerusalem did not recognized Jesus as King, for the city was in an uproar and people were asking, “Who is this?” Many answered, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee” (Matthew 21.10-11; NRSV).
Though the service begins with such praise and adulation, within 15 minutes, we are confronted by an angry mob, on the verge of rioting, demanding that Jesus be crucified. At the crowd’s request, Pilate had released Barabbas, rather than Jesus. Pilate then asked, “’What should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?’ All of them said, ‘Let him be crucified!’ Then Pilate asked, ‘Why, what evil has he done?’ But they shouted all the more, ‘Let him be crucified!’” (Matthew 27.22-23; NRSV).
How do we explain such a stark contrast? How could the crowd have changed so quickly? How might we have behaved had we been in Jerusalem? Might we have come to Jesus’ defense? Might we have understood things differently?
Jesus entered Jerusalem on Sunday but was not crucified until Friday, four days later. What intervening events might have led to this stark contrast in sentiment?
First, Matthew tells us, Jesus cleansed the temple by driving out all who were buying and selling; “he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, ’It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers’” (Matthew 21.12-13; NRSV).
Second, the blind and the lame came to Jesus in the temple and Jesus healed them. When the chief priests and the scribes saw the wondrous things Jesus was doing, they became angry, even more so when they heard the children crying out, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” Let’s face it, the chief priests and scribes were filled with envy. Jesus was a threat to their power and control.
Third, when Jesus returned to the temple the next day, the chief priests and the elders questioned his authority: “By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you this authority” (Matthew 21.23; NRSV). Jesus said he would answer provided they answered a question: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” The chief priests and elders recognized they faced the horns of a dilemma, for if they said from heaven, Jesus would ask why they ignored him, but if they said from human origin, the crowd would protest for they believed John the Baptist to have been a prophet (Matthew 21.23-27; NRSV). Hence, they would not answer, nor would Jesus.
Fourth, Jesus then told two parables: the parable of the two sons who were told to go work in the vineyard. The first son refused, but later went; the second son said he would go but did not. When Jesus asked the chief priests and elders which did the will of the father, they replied the first, to which Jesus responded: “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him” (Matthew 21.31-32; NRSV). Ouch! That stung!
The second parable was the parable of the wicked tenants wherein the tenants of the vineyard begin by killing those who came to collect the produce, and ultimately killed the owner’s son. Jesus reminded the chief priests and elders that “the Stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and concluded by saying, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls” (Matthew 21.43-44; NRSV). Matthew then tells us, “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet” (Matthew 21.45-46; NRSV).
And that only brings us to the close of chapter 21; the arrest, trial, and crucifixion take place in chapters 26-27. Throughout the next four chapters, Jesus continued to tell parables which demonstrated the sins of the religious authorities and called them to account.
The sentiment of those in power, the chief priest and elders, is clearly expressed in the gospel of John: “’If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.’ But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed’” (John 11.48-50; NRSV). John further informs us that Caiaphas did not say this on his own; I suspect satanic powers were at work, for, as John notes, from this day forward they planned to put Jesus to death.
The work of a mob, the impulse to lynch someone, reflects the fear of those in power and control. As strange as it may sound, mob action is a means of maintaining the status quo. Think of the mob actions employed in the struggle for civil rights; by hanging a few people, we can abate the threat.
Hence, if they kill Jesus, the popular uprising would be quelled, and the Romans would leave them alone. Pontius Pilate recognized the chief priests and the elders were acting out of jealousy, yet he knew the people were about to riot. Thus, he attempted to wash his hands of the whole affair while meeting the mob’s demands by turning Jesus over for crucifixion.
I suspect that many looked upon Jesus as the failed Messiah. They wanted, and expected, an earthly kingdom of power and might which would overthrow the Roman oppressors, but as Jesus told Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Here we see another contrast – the worldly kingdom versus the heavenly kingdom. The worldly kingdom was born through the Fall, through Adam and Eve desiring to be like God in knowing good and evil. The people were expecting a Messiah in terms of a worldly kingdom. But Jesus initiated a radically new kingdom – one that is not grounded in power and oppression but is grounded in love. Jesus’ sacrifice initiated the kingdom of heaven, a radical contrast to our worldly notion of a kingdom.
Jesus failed to meet their expectations. When their hopes were elevated, they welcomed Jesus with a triumphant procession. The people wanted another Barabbas, a zealot who would challenge the empire. When he did not deliver, it was easy to join the mob and to cry, “Crucify him!” It probably did not take much for the chief priests and elders to incite such sentiments.
The people failed to understand that God’s nature is love – a love so great that he sent his Son to live and die among us that we might learn what it is to love. Remember, people were asking, “Who is this?” They failed to recognize who Jesus was and is.
Let’s admit it – many of us still ask “Who is this?” Like the members of the mob, we expect God, and Jesus, to be the great avenger. Sometimes we are all too willing to make God in our image. We are loath to sacrifice our wealth, power, and prestige; we are loath to pour ourselves out in humility as did Jesus; we are loath to humbly pick up our cross and follow Jesus. But Jesus tells us, “I died for you. Take up your cross. Come die with me, in me, that you might work in God’s vineyard, in God’s kingdom, and have eternal life”