Palm-powered Protest (Matthew 21:1-11)

By Adam J. Copeland

People talk about the power of crowds to change the world.

Have you ever noticed that society allows fans to do things that, short of fandom, we would deem absolutely crazy? When do grown adults have permission to paint their faces with logos except on the day of the big game? When is hugging perfect strangers acceptable? After a 3-point shot of your favorite team beats the buzzer, it’s expected. Screaming at the top of our lungs is perfectly acceptable when we’re in a crowd of thousands doing the same.

March Madness wraps up this week and a tournament champion will be crowned. Whatever the outcome of Monday’s championship game, we can guarantee that there will be screaming crowds at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. (The final may break the record of largest crowd ever to attend a NCAA basketball game 75,421.)

Crowds change social norms. Whether they are for sport, political protest, or public worship, gathering with thousands inevitably changes our mood and actions. I have never felt as alone as in a rival team’s stadium filled with thousands of home-team fans. I rarely feel as important as when I’ve gathered with others to protest unjust laws or call for social action. I get Goose bumps when I’m able to recite the Lord’s Prayer with a few thousand other worshipers.

Next Sunday, April 13, 2014 is known as Palm Sunday. Around the world Christians will gather to wave palm branches. In some traditions, rather than starting the worship service inside the church, on Palm Sunday they gather outdoors. On Sunday, shouts of “Hosanna” will ring in city parks and street corners, in church courtyards and city squares. Pastors will shout in the crisp morning air as they read from the day’s gospel passage Matthew 21:1-11.

Matthew’s telling of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem carefully connects to several Old Testament passages. The scene begins outside of Jerusalem, in a village called Bethpage where Jesus and the disciples take a break. Jesus then sends two disciples into town to fetch a donkey and a colt that the Lord will provide. This recalls related passages in Zechariah 9:9, an oracle concerning the king of peace, as well as Isaiah 62:11.

Once Jesus has his animals—a donkey and a colt, both quite different from a warhorse—the peaceful rider meets a “very large” crowd. (I can’t help but mention the humorous note that Matthew seems to take Zechariah so literality that he suggests Jesus may be riding both the donkey and the colt into town. Ouch!)

The crowd spreads their cloaks on the road and cuts branches from the trees. They make a path for this strange parade. Like good fans, they shout together, but it’s not just any chant.

“Hosanna to the Son of David!” they cry, suggesting Jesus comes “in the name of the Lord.” The word “hosanna” literally means, “O, save” or “save, I pray.” The chants from the crowd come directly from Psalm 118:26, “Hosanna in the highest heaven” (Matt. 21:9). With all the ties to the Old Testament, Matthew makes it clear: something big is going on here.

Michael D. Kirby notes that Matthew also may be up to something subtler. Beyond Jesus and the disciples, two groups are described: “the crowds” and “the city.” One can read the passage to suggest the crowds may be mainly from Jesus’ own menagerie of followers, a group that’s been following him around for some time to witness his miracles and learn from his teaching.

According to Matthew, the residents of the city do, in fact, seem a bit perplexed. When Jesus entered, Matthew writes that the city folk asked, “Who is this?” (21:10). The crowds let it be known, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee” (21:11). The crowds shout using a verse from Psalm 118. “Hosanna!” they cry. The city isn’t sure what’s going on.

I wonder if this dichotomy may be more than an ancient phenomenon. Do most of our large public gatherings proclaim fervent religious commitment or praise of other gods? When we get together in large groups, do we confuse more than we communicate?

Whatever team wins the NCAA basketball tournament this week, it will be greeted back on campus with crowds of cheering fans. But surely crowds will also gather this week for other purposes.

There will be protests of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and public rallies to raise the minimum wage. There will surely be gatherings for advocates of women’s rights, and for those who work to make all abortions illegal. Groups will mark the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. Crowds will gather soon for Earth Day festivities, celebrating God’s creation and working towards eco justice.

Beyond physical gatherings, through the power of the Internet, millions connect every day on Facebook to share statuses from the mundane to the magnificent. The White House tracks and responds to government-related petitions at We The People. Change.org makes starting a protest as easy as typing into a web form.

Crowds too will soon gather in many churches to celebrate Easter Sunday in numbers much greater than those who waved palms the Sunday before.

“Who is this?” the city people wonder. While those who had followed Jesus thought it was at least momentarily clear, while they quoted from the Psalms and shouted scripture, they may not have been so sure themselves.

Throughout the gospels, time and time again, even Jesus’ disciples wonder in word or deed “who is this man?” When the procession of “hosannas” and palms, colt and donkey took place, were they all just swept up in the crowd’s movement?  Were they chanting their way to belief?

For those who seek to follow Jesus today, faith does indeed call us to times of protest and counter protest, procession and counter procession. We might need to shout in praise of a political cause, or silently march against it.

Our world needs its protests. They remind us of injustice we like to ignore. Protests can rally public opinion and draw the attention of those in positions of power. When we strive to protest with Matthew 21 in mind, we must ask ourselves that question from the crowd, “Who is this?” Our protests should honor the one whom we follow: Jesus, the peaceful one, riding on a donkey. Hosanna!

Please join us for a Twitter chat about this article on Thursday April 10 from 9:00 – 9:30 PM Eastern Standard Time. Just tweet using #ONScripture to participate!

Questions for reflection:

  • Are there issues or situations that cause you to want to protest? How is your faith related to these causes?
  • When do you see people of faith gathering in large numbers? What makes you want to join them or stay away?
  • Thinking about what you know of the stories of Jesus in the gospels, when would you have asked, “who is this” about Jesus himself?

For Further Reading

Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach Us About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem, HaperOne, 2007.

Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Westminster John Knox, 2004.

Rev. Adam J. Copeland teaches in the Religion Department at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota where he serves as Faculty Director for Faith and Leadership. His writing has appeared in The Christian Century, Working Preacher, Lectionary Homiletics, and in several books. An associate editor of Journal for Preachers, Adam’s broad interests include Christian ministry, digital religion, emerging church, and culture. He holds degrees from St. Olaf College and Columbia Theological Seminary and is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). He blogs at A Wee Blether(http://adamjcopeland.com) and tweets @ajc123.

 

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