Text: Matthew 21:1-12
This morning, on this Palm Sunday, I want to challenge you with some movie trivia. I’m going to give you some facts about a specific movie and when you think you know the movie I am talking about, raise your hand. Okay, here we go! This movie is notable for its use of Technicolor, fantasy storytelling, musical score, and unusual characters. Over the years, it has become an icon of American pop culture. It was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, but lost to Gone with the Wind. The 1956 broadcast television premiere of the film on the CBS network reintroduced the film to the wider public and eventually made the presentation an annual tradition, making it one of the best know films in movie history. The songs for the movie were written by Edgar Harburg and Harold Arlen. It is based on a novel written by Frank Baum. The film stars Judy Garland and begins in Kansas. The main character lives with her dog on the farm of her Aunt and Uncle.
Most people in this room know the story of Dorothy and Toto, the Emerald City and the Yellow Brick Road, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion. But how many of you know that The Wizard of Oz is an allegory or metaphor for the political, economic, and social events of America in the 1890’s? Not long after its debut, political commentators began to emphasize the close relationship between the visual images and the story line of The Wizard of Oz to the political interests of the day. Biographers report that Baum had been a political activist in the 1890s with a special interest in the money question of gold and silver, and the illustrator Denslow was a full-time cartoonist for a major daily newspaper. It has been noted that for the 1901 Broadway production Baum inserted explicit references to prominent political characters such as President Theodore Roosevelt.
In a 1964 article, educator and historian Henry Littlefield outlined an allegory in the book of the late 19th-century debate regarding monetary policy. According to this view, for instance, the Yellow Brick Road represents the gold standard, and the original silver slippers represent the Silverite sixteen to one silver ratio. Another historian, Quentin Taylor, a professor of history and political science, claimed that many of the events and characters of the book resemble the actual political personalities, events, and ideas of the 1890s. Dorothy—naïve, young and simple—represents the American people. She is everyman, led astray and seeking the way back home. Following the road of gold leads eventually only to the Emerald City, which may symbolize the fraudulent world of greenback paper money that only pretends to have value. Taylor sees additional metaphors, including: the Scarecrow as a representation of American farmers and their troubles in the late 19th century; the Tin Man representing the industrial workers, especially those of American steel industries; and the Cowardly Lion as a metaphor for William Jennings Bryan. And we thought it was just a movie!!!
So why am I drawing our attention to The Wizard of Oz on this Palm Sunday when our text is about a parade that features palm branches and large crowds spreading their coats along the streets to shouts of “Hosanna!” while Jesus rides into the Holy City on not one but two donkeys according to Matthew’s gospel. What is the connection between The Wizard of Oz and Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem? Just like The Wizard of Oz, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, as Matthew tells the story, is a statement about the political, economic, and social events of Jerusalem in 33 A.D., especially when it comes to the two-donkey allegory.
It is the writer of Matthew who takes great care in giving us the details about obtaining the donkeys that Jesus will ride on as he makes his final entry into Jerusalem. One theologian notes that: “Anyone familiar with the book of Zechariah would immediately recognize why. Zechariah 9:9 says,”
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. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River [Euphrates] to the ends of the earth.
Carl Gregg, pastor and creator of the blog Patheos, writes of this connection between Zechariah and Matthew’s gospel that:
Many commentators have speculated that Matthew emphasizes the details of retrieving the donkey to give his readers time to have “ears to hear’ the allusion to Zechariah’s prophecy—that the one who comes riding on a donkey will nonviolently bring peace. Importantly, this connection between Zechariah and Matthew is not merely the speculation of modern scholars. Remember that both Matthew and Luke had a copy of Mark on their desks when they wrote their respective Gospels a decade later. In this case when Matthew copied Mark’s account of Palm Sunday, he explicitly adds in Matthew 21:4 that, “This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet,” and then Matthew explicitly quotes Zechariah to make clear Mark’s allusion.
But here’s where, [Gregg notes that] the story gets really strange. Whereas Mark simply has Jesus riding a donkey colt, Matthew oddly switches into the plural. In Matthew 21:6-7 if you read closely, you’ll notice that it says, “The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.” In other words, Matthew’s version sounds like Jesus rode in on both beasts at the same time, straddling two animals like some circus act.
Gregg goes on to note:
In Matthew’s defense, Zechariah said that the prophesied one would come “on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” But any Hebrew scholar could tell you that Zechariah was simply speaking poetically using Semitic parallelism, which was commonly used to describe the same object in two different ways. But Matthew, reading a Greek translation of Zechariah (the Septuagint), may have misread the prophet as speaking literally, and then changed Mark’s account to conform to Matthew’s understanding of Zechariah’s prophecy. In other words, many scholars have maintained that Matthew must have thought that if Zechariah said two animals, then Jesus must have ridden two animals no matter how odd that seems.
Some scholars have used the connection between Zechariah’s prophecy and Matthew’s two-donkey account to put forth the argument that Matthew was a scriptural literalist. However, historical Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan challenges this argument. Crossan writes that Matthew:
wants two animals, a donkey with her little colt beside her, and that Jesus rides “them” in the sense of having them both as part of his demonstration’s highly visible symbolism. In other words, Jesus does not ride a stallion or a mare, a mule or a male donkey, and not even a female donkey. He rides the most unmilitary mount imaginable: a female nursing donkey with her little colt trotting along beside her.
This is the gospel Jesus!!!
There are other Jesus seminar scholars who have reminded us that while Jesus was riding into town on his donkey and colt from the east, on the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, was riding into town on his stallion with his full imperial army. On the west side, it was royalty and power at its height. On the east side of town, it was motley crew of characters riding in on makeshift floats with their main character riding “the most unmilitary mount imaginable”—a donkey and her colt. Just like The Wizard of Oz everything about these two parades speak to the political and social events of the day. These two parades symbolize the confrontation between those with power and those without. They symbolize the differences between the power of kingdom of God and the power of the empire. Matthew’s donkey and colt are the story—they’re not just props to be debated. The donkey and the colt represent strength in weakness, richness of poverty, and invulnerability when being vulnerable. The donkey and the colt are saying, “when you did it unto the least of these, you did it unto me.” The donkey and the colt are saying, “You have heard that it was said ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’” They are saying, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” They are saying, “Take up your cross and follow me.” They are saying, “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” The donkey and the colt represent Jesus’ entire life and ministry.
I titled this sermon Between Parades not to draw the distinction between the two parades happening on the same day that first Palm Sunday. No, I titled this sermon Between Parades to highlight the events in Jesus’ life between his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the parade that we call resurrection Sunday.
Between Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and Easter morning, Jesus goes into the temple, and as an act of civil disobedience, he turns over the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. And it is likely that this action alone is what got him killed. “Jesus names what is at stake in his reform—the Temple has become a place where the poor are defrauded and religious observance has become a means of making profit. All well and good, we might think, no one wants religion to serve the advancement of the wealthy and powerful to the detriment of the poor. Except, of course, the wealthy and powerful. And in Jesus’ world this means the Romans and those who run the Temple on their behalf. And so Jesus, in this move, antagonizes those who have the power to put an end to his reforms altogether.” (David Lose, Working Preacher) But he doesn’t stop there. Matthew tells us that the blind and the lame came to him in the Temple and he cured them. This, too, made the wealthy and powerful angry. But he didn’t stop. He continued to teach in the Temple and to heal those suffering. And the powerful became angrier and angrier. Between the parades, of Palm Sunday and Easter morning, he did everything he could to expose the political, economic, and social systems that advanced the wealthy and powerful to the detriment of the poor.
The Matthew Jesus, who enters Jerusalem for the last time riding not one but two donkeys, is asking us what we will do between the parades. Palm Sunday makes clear our intention – in celebrating Palm Sunday we align ourselves with the least of these in the kingdom of God, and in so doing, we reject the power of the empire. On Easter morning we will proclaim resurrection, the victory of life over death. But I’m afraid we miss the point if we do not grasp that it is between these two events that Jesus makes manifest his intention to reject the empire. Do we believe Jesus would have been targeted for assassination by the empire for merely inciting a parade? Doubtful. Yes, his popularity had been growing, and he for sure was on the no fly list of the day. But it wasn’t the donkey and the colt that got Jesus killed. It was his actions in the temple, where he directly assaulted the economy of extraction that had coopted the temple into working more for the financial interests of the Roman empire than for the welfare of the people—the poor, the oppressed, the sick—the ones who can’t afford health insurance, the ones who work for $7.25 an hour.
We live in a time with significant parallels to these last days of Jesus’ life; a time for deep discernment of what it means to follow Jesus in the shadow of a great empire. I fear we have tamed these two parades—Palm Sunday and the Easter story. We have done so by focusing for centuries on personal salvation versus gospel justice. Jesus does not single out individuals in the temple, he focuses on the transactions of the institution – he sees behind the individual to the corporate sin of the collusion between the temple and the empire. But even after we accept Palm Sunday and Easter as acts of gospel justice, we tend to want to focus on the parades, and not on the civil disobedience that happens in between. Again, I say, the confrontation in the temple is not a detail, nor a literary device to bring the story to a climax – it is the very heart of the story.
So here we sit, seven days from resurrection. We have processed in over the palms and hosannas of our intention. What now is required of us as we await the return of the one who taught us by example? These rituals of the liturgical calendar exist to make sure we not only remember our faith stories, but that we continue to live them. How will you live Easter in 2017? I invite us to celebrate the full pageantry of the season – pull out our bunny plates and our Easter eggs and our best Sunday clothes. But I also implore us to do the hard work of discerning what it means to live the life of Jesus between the parades. For it is there—between the parades—that we will find our true salvation!