Tell the Story

Week of Sunday April 13 - Palm Sunday
Gospel: Matthew 21:1-11

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.” And he will send them immediately.*4This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
5 ‘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.’
6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd* spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The 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!’
10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ 11The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’

12 Then Jesus entered the temple* and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 13He said to them, ‘It is written,

“My house shall be called a house of prayer”;
but you are making it a den of robbers.’

14 The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. 15But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard* the children crying out in the temple, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’, they became angry 16and said to him, ‘Do you hear what these are saying?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Yes; have you never read,
“Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies
you have prepared praise for yourself”?’
17He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.

Recently nine people held a prayer vigil in the office of The Minister for Immigration, Scott Morrison. Five of them were arrested. One of the nine writes

There are 1,138 children in immigration detention centres: 1,138 too many. One young man killed in our care is one too many.

Whatever else you think about the issue of asylum seekers, locking children up indefinitely is wrong. There is no moral framework that could justify putting children in detention, unless you think Machiavelli was an ethicist.

There is overwhelming evidence that detention beyond a limited period is a “factory for mental illness”, self-harm and suicide attempts, especially among children. We know this but do it anyway. The deliberate and wilful infliction of mental injury on innocent children for the purpose of deterring others from seeking our protection is bipartisan policy.

This is a scandal. More than that: it is evil. And as Gandhi once said, "non-co-operation with evil is as much a duty as co-operation with good." The Guardian

When I read this article from The Guardian, the first comment said this:

If I do something that screams "LOOK AT ME. LOOK AT ME!!!!!" can I get published in the Guardian?

Jesus had the same problem. A potent piece of civil disobedience cum street theatre left people claiming in the comments in (the) Haaretz of the day that he was a hick exhibitionist. And that he was endangering the nation with needless provocation. The teenagers and hotheads of the time thought it was hilarious, while the more cautious wondered about his future.

Passover was a problem for Rome. To not allow Passover to be celebrated would probably cost more, via a general civil uprising, than it was worth. Yet the festival was a celebration of escape from Egypt which always seemed on the edges of a rebellion against Rome. It was not hard to imagine that all that innocent asking of questions by the children:

Why is this night different from all other nights?
On all other nights, we eat either unleavened or leavened bread, but tonight we eat only unleavened bread?
On all other nights, we eat all kinds of vegetables, but tonight, we eat only bitter herbs?

and so on, was a thinly veiled reference to events that it was hoped would one day involve an escape from Rome, and, hopefully, something not too far distant from the drowning of Caesar's armies

So to keep things under control extra troops would be sent into Jerusalem for the duration. They would march in from the west, probably from Caesarea Maritima, and make a great show of military might with war horses and columns of marching troops while entering the city, in an effort to dampen the enthusiasm of any Jewish activists.

The story from Rome was that it had conquered the world. Resistance was useless.

Jesus appears to have carried out something between a seriously seditious piece of street theatre and what we Australians would see as an hilarious piss-take of the "powers that be." In recent Australian history we see such an act in the Chaser's Breach of APEC restricted zone, which had half the country laughing themselves silly and the government furious.

While Pilate and Herod had their "ring of steel" clamping down on the city, Jesus was on the other side of the city at the Mount of Olives, which is significant in biblical history as the place where the Lord's feet would stand when the enemies who had come against Jerusalem were finally driven out.

This shall be the plague with which the Lord will strike all the peoples that wage war against Jerusalem: their flesh shall rot while they are still on their feet; their eyes shall rot in their sockets, and their tongues shall rot in their mouths… Then all who survive of the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year by year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the festival of booths… (Zechariah 14:1-19)

Jesus made his own entry down the hill and over into Jerusalem mounted on a donkey and its foal. This is not some bizarre circus trick. It echoes the text of Zechariah 9. The triumphant king who comes in peace rides a donkey. Hebrew poetry uses a technique called a hendiadys where one noun is echoed by another for emphasis. So

humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey… (Zechariah 9:9)

is not talking about two animals but emphasizing the fact of the donkey over the warhorse that one would expect of a hostile king. The next lines make this clear:

He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the warhorse from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations

There is some confusion about why Matthew, almost certainly a Jew, tells the story as though Jesus somehow needed to have two animals to fulfill the prophecy and ride both of them. (The original story in Mark has only one animal.) Some suggest this is a literary device to emphasise that the prophecy is thoroughly fulfilled; eg, Petty, but I think there is a proto-Australian attitude on show here!

The centurions coming into Rome all had their remounts— their spare horse in case the main mount went lame— up at the back of the column in the care of their batman. You don't look half so magnificent if you have an un-mounted horse tethered behind you. But Jesus tows his own remount. And it's only a foal!

It's likely that any Roman soldier watching this has no idea of the cultural referencing that's going on. But the people who are coming in with Jesus clearly see a single raised middle digit, and may have taken it further than Jesus desired. (It specifically says that it is the crowd travelling with him which makes all the fuss, not the people in Jerusalem.)

They put their clothes down on the road, which is a sign of acknowledging royalty. A clear reference to this is in 2 Kings 9:13.

"Then hurriedly they all took their cloaks and spread them for him on the bare steps; and they blew the trumpet, and proclaimed, ‘Jehu is king.’")

If we read for the context of this quotation we see that Jehu has just been anointed king by one of Elisha's emissaries—a junior prophet—although the current king is still alive and on the throne! This is a coup. Jehu then rides off, pretending still to be loyal, and kills both the king of Israel—who is the son of Jezebel—and the king of Judah.

So maybe Jesus didn't appreciate the enthusiasm of some of his followers. Matthew certainly sees an opportunity in the story to add one of his own insights. The crowd travelling with Jesus cry out "Hosanna to the Son of David."

'Son of David' is an appropriate title for Israel's Messiah, a hope modelled on selective memory of his achievements. It is found on the lips of the Canaanite woman, two sets of two blind men (20:29-34; 9:27-31; cf. Mark 10:46-52), and a few verses later on the lips of children who also cry: 'Hosanna to the Son of David' (21:15). Matthew uses acclamation by outsiders, marginalised and little ones, to shame Israel for its failure to acknowledge him as 'the Son of David' of Jewish hopes. (Bill Loader)

The story from Jesus is that the old hope of The Promised Land—remember the orphan and the widow and the stranger—which he is calling The Kingdom of Heaven, is still real. It is near. If Rome has conquered the world it is temporary and limited.

Jesus continues the telling of his new-old story by "driving out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and overturning tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves." This was serious behavior. At this point The Chaser were turning around in case the American President's snipers didn't see the joke and shot them.

To make sure his message was plain he quoted Isaiah's vision of a time when things would be done as God wished: “My house shall be called a house of prayer,” and then thundered, "but you are making it a den of robbers."

It was scarcely necessary. Even the children "got it," and were crying out "Hosanna to the Son of David" in the temple. It's where we get the saying, "Out of the mouths of babes…."

In a week he was dead. Was it worth it?

Who remembers The Chaser in this world of fleeting celebrity and momentary news?

Who even heard of nine Christians entering Scott Morrison's office?

Does it matter if it was hardly heard at all? Does it matter that hardly anyone saw Jesus' procession, let alone remembered it?

The story from Canberra is that it has been 99 days without any boats.

The rhetoric is confused, then. And contradictory, given that between 2009 and 2010 91% of asylum seekers arriving by boat were found to be genuine refugees. Yet, in some quarters at least, the government's argument is lapped up. Turning back boats saves lives. Closing borders results in more compassion. Deterrence is fairness.

“Tony Abbott and his policies on border protection have saved men, women and children from drowning an awful death at sea,” crooned former Victorian Liberal president Michael Kroger on the Bolt Report earlier in the month. “You just imagine these parents and their kids in the sea, life draining from their bodies, watching their children and wives and husbands die in the sea. That is what happened to 1,200 people under the Rudd/Gillard policies”.

Bolt interjected: “And as they drowned they thought ‘at least the Greens policies are more compassionate’. Ridiculous.”

Which story will be told?

Burnside goes feral: Abbott’s government “corrupt” Andrew Bolt

or

For the next few years, the cruelty and dishonesty continued. Asylum seekers, innocent of any offence, were held in detention for years until they collapsed into hopelessness and despair.

A little girl, ten years old, held in detention in Melbourne, hung herself.

A little boy, eight years old, held in detention in South Australia, slashed his arms with razor wire.

A man who had been in detention for five years cut himself so often he had ten meters of scarring on his body, but the government insisted that the only treatment he needed was Panadol….

We have a corrupt, hard right-wing Liberal government, led by self-seeking hypocrites. We have a weakened, right-wing Labor opposition.

And we have a country, once great, now seen as selfish, greedy and cruel and we have no political leadership at all.

We are well into the process of redefining our country. Most of us have not noticed because, for most of us, life is good.

The sight of the major parties competing to promise greater cruelty to boat people is new in Australian politics. We have never been perfect, but this was something without precedent.

It is painful to recognise that we are now a country which would brutalise one group with the intention that other people in distress will choose not to ask us for help. (Julian Burnside AO QC)

The horror or our inhumanity to refugees—forget not the stranger in you midst—is the story of the world in miniature. It is a world where the Abbotts and Morrisons protest their faith, but take the side of Imperial Rome and line up with Reinhardt, Murdoch and Pilate. Palm Sunday is the other story; the story of the Kingdom of Heaven. It remembers the truth and the enslavement of empire.

Each Sunday is Palm Sunday. Every Sunday we tell the story, remembering the Kingdom of Heaven. Remembering its cost. Remembering its promise. Processing down to the table. Telling the old stories—remembering, rehearsing, doing the theatre. Without the story we are lost. God is nothing but an idea. But Palm Sunday— every Sunday—is our trust marching live into the world and embodying The Kingdom of Heaven.

You are not big enough to accuse the whole age effectively, but let us say you are in dissent. You are in no position to issue commands, but you can speak words of hope. Shall this be the substance of your message? Be human in this most inhuman of ages; guard the image of man for it is the image of God. -- Thomas Merton Raids on the Unspeakable

To be human is to march the march of Palm Sunday, and to tell the other story.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.




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