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Matthew's story of the Palm Sunday event is interesting in terms of its narrative connections. On the one hand, this story stands alone in Matthew. It is unique. There is little in Matthew's story that helps us set this passage in a broader narrative context. On the other hand, the Palm Sunday story is shot through with biblical references, most of them from the Old Testament. We will walk through the narrative citing some of the biblical references that help us to grasp the reality of what is going on here. By and large the references are not to stories which can be easily stitched together with the Palm Sunday story into a neatly packaged narrative sermon.
Jesus, at last, draws near to Jerusalem. Jesus' thrice spoken passion-resurrection prophecy now comes true: 16:21; 17:22-23; 20:17-19. It was in 19:1 that Jesus left Galilee and headed south. Robert Smith points out, however, that Jesus' connection to the city runs deeper than just these Matthean references. There are other references as well. "Jerusalem is the holy city (4:5), and Jesus has called it the city of the great King (5:35), and therefore it is his own royal city, for he is Son of David (9:27), Son of God (3:17), king of God's people (2:2)."1
We recognize Jesus' entry into Jerusalem as an act of great defiance. This is the city of his destiny. This is the city in which his enemies will rise up and kill him. Still he comes, comes to "give his life a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:28).
Having entered the city, Jesus deliberately moves to make his entry a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. He sends his disciples to secure the royal steed(s). The story of the coronation of Solomon in 1 Kings 1:32-40 is clearly the backdrop for Jesus' action. Zechariah has gone to school on 1 Kings and projects a vision of a future when a new king like Solomon will once again mount the royal steed and ride into Jerusalem enthroned on the shouts of the people: " 'Long live King Solomon!' And all the people went up following him, playing on pipes and rejoicing with great joy, so that the earth quaked at their noise" (1 Kings 1:39-40).
Zechariah's words are:
Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble and mounted on a donkey.
And on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Jesus makes it all happen, just as it was written. Jesus enacts a parable for all who have eyes to see. This is a moment of supreme revelation. (On revelation in Matthew see 11:25-30; 13:10-17, 34-35.)
Matthew has given us a few clues to enable us to grasp that Jesus is king. In 2:2 the Wise Ones from the east come looking for the one who has been born king of the Jews. Later, standing before the governor, Jesus acknowledges that he is king of the Jews: 27:11. The Palm Sunday story is the first place in Matthew's telling of the tale that the title "king" is actually associated with Jesus. Jesus' kingship, however, has been implied throughout the narrative. The One who brought the kingdom of heaven in word and deed must surely be the king.
Scholars have had a good laugh at the literalness with which Matthew attends prophetic fulfillment. In Zechariah's poetry both a donkey and a colt are mentioned. Sure enough, as Matthew tells the story, Jesus comes to town riding two animals: v. 7. Smith refutes the humor:
Has Matthew misunderstood poetic parallelism? Hardly. Playfully, insistently he portrays Jesus as the pluperfect fulfillment of prophecy. And he pictures Jesus the way ancient oriental gods and kings are frequently depicted: enthroned above a pair of animals. He comes meek but royal nonetheless.2
Hosannas ring out to the Son of David. Jesus is called Son of David as well in stories that immediately surround the Palm Sunday story: 20:30-31; 21:15. The promise in 2 Samuel 7 is clear that the Son of David will always reign in Jerusalem. His kingdom will be eternal. Only the Son of David has a right to enact the parable which Jesus enacted that day.
Jesus is Son of David. Jesus is the Messianic King. For that we, too, ought to raise shouts of joy that split the earth.
The parable was enacted. Some eyes were opened. Some eyes were closed. "Who is this?" many wondered (v. 10). "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee" (v. 11; see also 21:46). This is the same identity that the crowds were giving to Jesus back when Jesus asked his disciples who the people thought he was: 16:13-20. Acted parable or not, many minds had not changed. Or is there more to it than that? As Jesus proceeds to the temple, he acts there very much like a prophet of old, even quoting Jeremiah as justification for his temple cleansing: 21:12-13.
That bolt of lightning, Son of David, the prophet Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee, now crackles in Jerusalem. And the city -- with its lawyers and priests, its aristocrats and bureaucrats -- faces something new in this upstart teacher with his fresh talk of God and his unbounded care for outcasts. Is he also more than a prophet? How much more? In what way more? What do prophet and Son of David mean when applied to him?3
The most important narrative connections for the Palm Sunday text are the Old Testament stories of the promise of everlasting kingship given by God through Nathan the prophet to David the king (2 Samuel 7:8-16) and the story of the coronation of King Solomon which stands as a kind of foretaste or model of the Palm Sunday event (1 Kings 1:32-40). The prophecy of Zechariah quoted in the Matthew text grows out of these texts. These stories could certainly be told as the lead-in to this week's appointed text. We made similar Palm Sunday suggestions in our Preaching Mark's Gospel and Preaching Luke's Gospel.
We have demonstrated above that the Palm Sunday event can be linked to a variety of passages in Matthew's Gospel. You might find that one or another of these allusions opens up the possibility of biblical storytelling. It may simply be the case that in order to open up the meaning of the Palm Sunday account for our contemporaries we need to tell contemporary stories that could point to Palm Sunday as an event filled with hope for us moderns. There are many aspects of the Palm Sunday event that could open up meaning for us today.
The Revised Common Lectionary joins Palm Sunday and the Sunday of the Passion. As preachers, therefore, we have the opportunity to choose to preach on the standard Palm Sunday texts or of considering in our preaching the greater whole of the Passion story as it is appointed for us. With this second possibility in mind we shall make the same suggestion here as we have made in the works referred to above. Instead of preaching on this entire text, simply tell the story. Tell it by memorizing it and sharing it orally with your congregation. One pastor who tried this with the Markan Passion Sunday text wrote to say he did this--and had more requests for the videotape of that service than for any service he had ever had. Why? What happened? The power of the story happened. Never underestimate the power of this Passion story.
Memorizing the whole of the story, of course, is a tall order. An alternative might be to share the memory work with others. Let others join us in orally proclaiming this story. We have also suggested in the works mentioned above the possibility of telling the Passion story in a variety of ways. Some parts could be memorized. Musical selections could cover other parts of the story. Some parts of the story could be enacted or mimed as a reader reads part of the story. Art work could be used. Videos could be played. Tell the story, in other words, in a variety of art forms. Just see to it that the story gets told. The story will take care of itself. Even without all of our wonderful "points" about the story the impact of the story itself will create powerful responses in the lives of the hearers.
Matthew's Passion story has its own accent. It is not the same as the story told by Mark or Luke. We will make a few comments here on some of the particularities of Matthew's Passion story. In Matthew 26:1 we read, "When Jesus had finished saying all these things...." We recognize these words as the Matthean formula which brings to an end a particular discourse of Jesus. Jesus' teaching is now completed. All these things are completed. The final chapters of Matthew's Gospel focus on Jesus' deeds more so than on his words. Finally Jesus' words (so important to Matthew) and deeds form a single unified ministry.
In 26:2 Jesus tells his disciples that his predictions of the passion are now to come true: 16:21; 17:22-23; 20:18-19. God, Jesus, and the religious authorities are the main actors in this drama.
All three principals...desire the death of Jesus, though for different reasons. Through the unfolding of Matthew's story, these reasons have become increasingly clear. God has ordained the death of Jesus because it is to be the crucial event in the whole of the history of salvation. Jesus freely submits to suffering and death because he is, on the one hand, perfect in his devotion to God and, on the other hand, perfect in his service to humankind.... By contrast, the religious leaders desire the death of Jesus because they understood him to be a "deceiver," or false messiah (27:63). They rightly perceive that he stands as a mortal threat to their authority and therefore to the religion and society based on that authority (15:13; 21:43).4
During the Passover meal with his disciples Jesus announces to them that one of them would betray him.
Matthew indicates that this event of betrayal takes place in fulfillment of scripture. "The Son of man goes as it is written of him..." (26:24). We recall that the opening chapters of Matthew chronicle nearly every step of Jesus' way with the note that scripture is fulfilled. The Passion story is likewise filled with references to the fulfillment of scripture: 26:54, 56; 27:9. What happens to Jesus is not accident. Neither is fate the cause of the Passion. God is in control of these events. God's plan of salvation must be carried out. God is with us in Jesus, and now Emmanuel must die in order that we might be saved, in order that our sins might be forgiven. See Matthew 1:21-23.
Sins are forgiven, as Matthew tells the story, through the blood of Emmanuel. In the words of institution for the Passover meal it is only in Matthew that we read that the cup the disciples are to drink is "...my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" (26:28). Neither Mark nor Luke contain this reference to blood and forgiveness when they cite Jesus' words of institution. The words of institution handed down to Paul do not contain this reference either: 1 Corinthians 11:23-26.
Blood is important to Matthew. An early reference to blood is found in 23:29-36 where Jesus talks about the blood of the prophets that had been killed. Other references to blood in Matthew 27 are vv. 4, 6, 8, 24-25, 49. The end of the story of Judas is particularly intriguing here: 27:3-10. Judas comes to recognize that he has betrayed innocent blood. When he returns the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests they cannot accept this gift to the temple treasury for they are blood money. They took the blood money, therefore, and purchased a Field of Blood--a place for strangers to be buried.
Matthew has pondered the power of the blood of Jesus (26:28; 27:24-25) and sees a strange truth in the use of that blood money. That purchased ground for strangers to the covenant, strangers like Rahab and Ruth (1:5), strangers like the magi (2:1), strangers like the centurion and his squad (27:54), or like the nations (28:19). Strangers (and not they alone) benefit from the dying of Jesus (20:28; 26:26-29).5
In the story of Jesus' trial before Pilate there is much material that is unique to Matthew:
...the suicide of Judas, the dream of Pilate's wife, Pilate's hand washing, and several references to the power of Jesus' blood. The material may be divided into three subsections: Jesus is handed over (vv. 1-2), Judas's end (vv. 3-10), trial before Pilate (vv. 11-26). The first and third sections bracket the second...together the three sections offer a meditation on guilt and innocence and on the power of Jesus' blood.6
The triumphant conclusion of Matthew's Passion story is the confession on the part of the Roman centurion that Jesus was the Son of God (27:54). This confession comes in the midst of all kinds of wondrous events which mark the significance of what has just happened on the cross. The curtain of the temple was rent, the earth shook, rocks split, tombs were opened, and once-dead saints appeared in the city. How's that for an author's way of calling attention to the importance of an event he is narrating! The centurion's confession is paraded on stage with this great pomp and circumstance. The centurion's words are addressed to us. It is left to us to believe or disbelieve such a confession. Matthew finally leaves us at the foot of the cross. We see. We hear. We marvel. Do we believe?
Kingsbury notes that the centurion's confession means at least three things:
First, the acclamation of the Roman soldiers constitutes a vindication of Jesus' claim to be the Son of God (21:37; 26:63-64).... Second, the verb in this acclamation is in the past tense ("was," 27:54). In that the Roman soldiers say that Jesus was the Son of God, their acclamation calls attention to the fact that the cross marks the end of Jesus' earthly ministry.... Third, with this acclamation by the Roman soldiers, Matthew brings the third part of his story (16:21--28:20) to its initial climax. In declaring Jesus to be the Son of God, the Roman soldiers "think" about him as God "thinks" about him.7
The centurion's confession is the climax of this part of the story. Here for the first time publicly, humans acknowledge that Jesus is the Son of God. We have heard God acknowledge this on Jesus' behalf in his baptism (3:13-17) and in his transfiguration (17:1-8, 5). Here for the first time it is revealed to babes like the Roman centurion that Jesus' identity is divine.
A Roman soldier makes the confession. From the Gentile women in Matthew's genealogy at the very beginning of the story (1:1-16) to this centurion at the very end of the story, Gentiles play a vital role in God's revelation of salvation in Jesus Christ. We should not be at all surprised, therefore, to find at the end of the story that we who confess Jesus to be Son of God are commissioned to share that confession with all nations (28:16-20, 19).
1. Robert H. Smith, Matthew: Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1989), p. 242.
2. Ibid., p. 244.
3. Ibid., p. 245.
4. Jack Dean Kingsbury, Matthew As Story (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), pp. 84-85.
5. Smith, op. cit., p. 318.
6. Ibid., p. 317.
7. Kingsbury, op. cit., pp. 89-90.
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