ENTRY OF OUR LORD INTO JERUSALEM
(Phil 4: 4-9; John 12: 1-18)
Dr. M. R. Brett-Crowther.
Today’s epistle reinforces the group to whom it is written:
‘I want you to be happy, always happy in the Lord… Let your tolerance be evident to everyone: the Lord is very near.’
Paul wants the Christians of Philippi to be reasonable with one another, for the sake of unity. His belief that Jesus will return very soon, Paul came to see, would not be fulfilled in his lifetime, but we can anticipate Jesus’ arrival in our midst on Palm Sunday. The words used for this closeness – Maran atha - show that Jewish Christians gave the title of Lord to Jesus, recognizing that he was the Messiah, the Anointed One. Therefore Paul can go on to say,
‘There is no need to worry; but if there is anything you need, pray for it, asking God for it with prayer and thanksgiving.’
This is a natural conclusion because the Messiah would fulfil the hopes of the faithful people of Israel. It therefore follows that ‘that peace of God, which is so much greater than we can understand, will guard your hearts and your thoughts, in Christ Jesus.’ The logic is, however, that a spiritual kingdom will be present; not a political one.
‘Finally… fill your mind with everything that is true, everything that is noble, everything that is good and pure, everything that we love and honour, and everything that can be thought virtuous or worthy of praise.’
This is Paul the cosmopolitan speaking. He wants Christian belief to fulfil all that is good and admirable in existing knowledge and culture.
And then the main point: don’t just believe, act.
‘Keep doing all the things you have learnt from me and have been taught by me and have heard or seen that I do. Then the God of peace will be with you.’
Paul gives on his teaching – makes a tradition of the truth which he conveys – and makes that gift a personal obligation. His relationship with Jesus becomes his relationship with the new disciples of Philippi, and thus they have to make a relationship in faith with others. This is Paul’s idea of the Body of Christ (cf 1 Cor 12: 27).
The gospel reading holds 3 events: the dinner party at Bethany, the anointing of Jesus, and his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The extraordinary resurrection of Lazarus (ch 11) is balanced by the customary behaviour of Martha – waiting on the group; and the customary behaviour of Mary, to be concerned with prayer, is now made extraordinary. She anoints the feet of Jesus and wipes them with her hair. This reminds us of the washing of the feet which will take place at the Last Supper. For Mary’s anointing of Jesus is a radical act. A woman, not a priest, does this thing; at a dinner party, not in a service (Cf. 1 Kings 1: 38-40). The anointing of Jesus makes him into a king: Messiah, Christos, Anointed One. Jesus’ anointing antagonizes Judas. We are told that Judas was ‘the man who was to betray him’ and that he said ‘Why wasn’t this ointment sold for three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor?’ John says (v 6) that this was a camouflage of his actual and intended guilt; because Judas used to help himself to the common fund of which he was the keeper.
Jesus does not reproach Judas. Jesus does not indicate any sense of Judas’ intention against him. Jesus does not say anything drawing attention to the inner meaning of royal status as Messiah. He only says of Mary,
‘Leave her alone; she had to keep this scent for the day of my burial. You have the poor with you always, you will not always have me.’
These words almost avoid the implications of Mary’s act. Jesus modestly denies the significance of what has happened, stresses his mortality. Mary’s action reflects the understanding stated by Martha (Ch 11), who says ‘Yes’ (v 27), when Jesus declares that he is the resurrection (vv 25-26). What Martha the practical one understood, Mary the pious one now shows by her action. The forthcoming death of Jesus is related to the resurrection by Mary’s action; for Lazarus’ resurrection proves the point, and he reclines at the table, with his sister Martha looking after the gathering, and with Mary - another chief witness - showing her belief in the power of Jesus over death itself. We are told that ‘a large number of Jews’ were present both to see Jesus and to see Lazarus; and that the chief priests now decided to kill Lazarus also.
The next day Jesus enters Jerusalem. Seated on a young donkey, he is greeted by people bearing palm branches. A direct sign of triumph – the palm procession - is balanced by an obscure symbol. John says that ‘at the time his disciples did not understand this’ – this being a prophecy in Zecheriah, 9: 9 ‘ Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion; see, your king is coming, mounted on the colt of a donkey.’ It is understandable that the disciples did not recognize – or did not wish to recognize - what they were seeing. For about 160 years before when Simon Maccabaeus occupied the citadel in Jerusalem, his supporters had entered with music and bearing palms (I Macc 13, 51); and Simon Maccabaeus then laid down the law, expelling the people in the citadel and purifying it from its pollution. The Maccabaeus family had revolted from King Antiochus Epiphanes of Syria to bring Israel back to righteousness. But all the gospels show that Jesus had held back from declaring his claim to be the Messiah, and the disciples were not fully confident in him. They would flee when the time came for his arrest and crucifixion; and Peter, would betray him by saying he did not know him (18: 25-27). The entry with palms points in a political direction. Jesus’ anointing by Mary points in a political direction, but really is a radical mystical act.
The cry ‘Hosanna’ means ‘Save us’. ‘Hosanna’ (Ps 118, 26) is from a psalm sung at the Passover festival. As in John 1: 35-36, so here, Jesus is treated as a Lamb for sacrifice. The cry King of Israel acknowledges that Jesus is Messiah. Many must have seen the procession as a political act. John connects the Jerusalem entry with Lazarus; ‘all who had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead were telling how they had witnessed it.’ This was another reason why ‘the crowd came out to meet him.’ And we are finally told that ‘the Pharisees said to one another, “You see, there is nothing you can do; look, the whole world is running after him!”’ Jesus’ appeal to society was political in its effect, and its true spiritual meaning could only become clear after his crucifixion. Yet even its spiritual meaning has a social or political effect.
Palm Sunday in John’s account shows that the meaning of Jesus, as king of Israel, is misunderstood; though his achievements as a healer and a teacher are only too obvious to the religious leaders, and to the disciples. ‘You will not always have me.’
St Paul might have said the same. ‘Keep doing all the things you have learnt from me and have been taught by me and have heard or seen that I do. Then the God of peace will be with you.’ Paul, the most Christ-centred apostle, says to the Philippians what Jesus is conveying by his acts and words in these last days. Soon it will become painfully clear. But even the Cross is not the whole explanation. ‘I am the resurrection.’ Ego eimi e anastasis kai e zoe (John 11: 25).
© Dr. M. R. Brett-Crowther.
Palm Sunday, April 20 2003.
Icon in Satvronikita Monastery, Mont Athos. Cretan School: Theophanis the Cretan, 1546.
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