Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday)

Jerusalem is the geographical and hermeneutical center of Luke’s Gospel.

Luke 22:27
"But I am among you as one who serves." Photo by Eye for Ebony on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

April 14, 2019

Alternate Gospel
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Commentary on Luke 19:28-40

Jerusalem is the geographical and hermeneutical center of Luke’s Gospel.

The drama of the narrative begins and ends in the Jerusalem temple (1:5-8; 24:52-53). Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem unfolds over many chapters in Luke, from 9:51 when Jesus “sets his face” to go to Jerusalem, until 9:28 when Jesus finally “goes up” to Jerusalem. This is where our text, and the final week of Jesus’ earthly ministry, begins.

Jesus’ “going up” to Jerusalem is a public event, interpreted by Luke as a royal entry. First, Jesus sends two of his disciples to find a colt for him to ride into the city, telling them that if anyone asks why they are untying it, they should simply say, “The Lord (kyrios) needs it.” In fact, the owners (kyrioi) of the colt do ask, understandably, why the disciples are untying it, and the disciples respond, “The Lord needs it” (19:30-32). One wonders why the owners of the colt accepted this response so readily. The text seems to highlight the fact that the Kyrios Jesus has authority over and above all human kyrioi.

The fact that Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on a colt to the acclamation of the crowds recalls the oracle of Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion, shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt the foal of a donkey.” Though the verse is not cited in Luke as it is in Matthew 21:5 and John 12:15, it almost certainly informs Luke’s account.

The royal implications of this entry on a colt are clear in the words of “the whole multitude (plethos) of disciples” who praise God for the deeds of power they have seen and cite Psalm 118:26 (Ps 117:26 in the Septuagint), with a notable addition. “Blessed is the one who comes (ho erxomenos) in the name of the Lord!” (Lxx Psalm 117:26) becomes in Luke 19:38: “Blessed is the king who comes (ho erxomenos ho basileus) in the name of the Lord!”

The second part of the multitude’s acclamation, “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven” echoes the song of the multitude (plethos) of angels at the announcement of the birth of Christos Kyrios (Luke 2:11-13). The multitude of disciples, like the multitude of angels, seems to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the King who is to come.

This acclamation makes the Pharisees very nervous. Some Pharisees had warned Jesus in Luke 13:31 that Herod wanted to kill him and had advised Jesus to lay low. Now again some Pharisees implore Jesus to order his disciples to stop their subversive chant. The Pharisees understand that such a display of royal pretensions may very well bring down the wrath of those in power in Jerusalem, whether it be the Sanhedrin, Herod, or Pilate. As it turns out, Jesus will pass in judgment before all three (Luke 22:66-23:25).

Yet just as Jesus had brushed aside the warnings of the Pharisees before (Luke 13:32-33), he does so once again, saying, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out” (19:40). Jesus knows full well the opposition he faces, but he will not be deterred from his mission.

It is worth noting that just as Jesus’ response to the Pharisee’s warnings in Luke 13:32-33 led directly into a lament over Jerusalem (13:34-35), the same is the case here in Luke 19. Jesus’ retort to the Pharisees leads directly into another lament over Jerusalem, this one accompanied by weeping. Although our assigned text ends at 19:40, the lament of Jesus in 19:41-44, followed by his clearing the temple of its vendors in 19:45-48, are of a piece with his entry into Jerusalem. Jesus’ destination is the temple, and all these events happen the same day, in one fell swoop.

The lament in particular offers a poignant interpretation of the events taking place. “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” Jesus goes on to describe the destruction that is coming upon Jerusalem and finishes by saying that these tragic events will happen “because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God’ (19:41-44).

The “time of visitation” (kairon tes episkopes) was intended to bring salvation to Israel, as Zachariah had announced in Luke 1: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably upon (or visited: epeskepsato) his people and redeemed them” (1:68). Jesus now weeps because many in Israel have not recognized him as Messiah and Lord and have not accepted his peaceful visitation. Their refusal of “the things that make for peace” will have tragic consequences for the nation.

In Luke as in the Prophets, the city of Jerusalem is personified. In Jesus’ lament, Jerusalem is symbolic of the people of Israel, but in a larger sense, of all of humanity. It is the center of opposition to Jesus, but also at the center of God’s salvific purposes for all people. In the sequel to Luke, the Acts of the Apostles, it is from Jerusalem that the good news will go out to “the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). So it is that Jesus, knowing the opposition that lies before him, nevertheless remains undeterred in his mission, entering boldly into the temple and clearing out the vendors, then teaching in the temple every day until his arrest.

Palm/Passion Sunday places preachers in a bit of a dilemma in terms of how to focus our preaching. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is royal, triumphant, but we know how the people will turn against Jesus, even if the whole passion story is not read this Sunday. We know that many in the crowds who hail Jesus as king on this Sunday will be crying out for his crucifixion by Friday. Perhaps they expected a mighty warrior-king who would drive out the Romans. Seeing Jesus held by Roman soldiers, weak and vulnerable, they will decide that he is not the king they want after all. In fact, supporting him could be downright dangerous.

One question the preacher might ask is, “Where do we see ourselves in this story?” We have the advantage of 2000 years of hindsight, and it is easy to judge the characters in the story from a distance. But are we really so very different from them? How quickly does our faith falter when God does not deliver what we are expecting? How quickly does our discipleship falter when we realize the great cost and risks of following Jesus? How often do our self-serving instincts lead us to deny Jesus and his claim on our lives?

Luke’s passion story records a variety of human responses to Jesus — from faith and jubilant praise to mockery, hostility and violence. Yet throughout this story of vacillating human responses, of human blindness, weakness, and hardness of heart, one thing remains constant: God’s will to show mercy and to save. Without jumping ahead to the end of the story just yet, we can affirm that even in the midst of this human tragedy, God is at work for good.