Proper 21A. Trinity Cathedral.
When you are trying to understand a passage of Scripture, it’s very important always to look at the context of that passage. We have some nine or ten verses from Matthew’s Gospel this morning and they begin like this: “When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things; and who gave you this authority?” (Matthew 21:23)
At first glance it may appear that they were questioning Jesus’ authority to teach. However, by this time Jesus was well accepted as a kind of itinerant rabbi and, in any case, it was always acceptable for a Jewish male to stand up in synagogue or Temple and comment on the Torah portion for the day. Besides, they don’t say, “by what authority are you teaching?”… They say, “by what authority are you doing these things!” They were concerned about what he was doing!
And what had he just done? Well, twelve verses earlier in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, he had been greeted as the Son of David by crowds in the street, and he had pushed over the tables of the money-changers in the temple and driven them out for turning a house of prayer into a den of robbers!
That’s what the chief priests and the elders were upset about. Not so much about what Jesus was teaching, but about what he was doing. And what he was doing was challenging both the political and religious establishment of his day, and doing so in the heart of the political and religious capital city – Jerusalem.
According to a recent book by New Testament scholars John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, two processions entered Jerusalem on that first “Palm Sunday.” One was a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession. While Jesus and his followers were entering the city from the east, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor and his legions were entering the city from the west. Pilate’s entry into Jerusalem and its significance would have been well known in the Jewish homeland of the first century.
It was standard operating procedure for the Roman governors of Judea to be in Jerusalem for all the major Jewish festivals. This was not out of any respect for the religious devotion of their Jewish subjects. It was to reinforce the Roman garrison permanently stationed in Fortress Antonia in case there was trouble. And there usually was trouble, especially at Passover, a festival celebrating the liberation of the Jews from an earlier oppressor, the Egyptians. There would be trouble on this Passover as well!
By staging a “counter procession” to Pilate’s, Jesus wanted to make a specific point. His purpose was to fulfill the prophecy made by Zechariah that the Messiah would come to Jerusalem in a very specific way – not like King David, in splendor on a white horse at the head of a procession of armed men, but “humble, and riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9). Moreover, Zechariah tells us what kind of king he would be:
“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.” This Messiah would not be a king of war, but a prince of peace.
What a contrast to that other procession! On one side of town, Pilate was entering Jerusalem in a display of imperial power – cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, the sounds of marching feet, implicitly claiming that the Romans were the rulers of the ancient world. On the other side of town, Jesus and his rag-tag group of followers were trotting into town on foot and on a donkey with children and the poor claiming him as representing the true Ruler of the ancient (and modern!) world – the living and true God!
That’s what the chief priests and the elders of the people were “on” about in questioning Jesus’ authority. And that’s why Jesus turns the question back on them, wanting to know what they thought about that other bold prophet, John the Baptist. “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin,” he asks.
“Uh oh,” they gulped, “If we say he was from God, he’ll want to know why we didn’t listen to him. If we say he was only speaking on his own authority, we will have a riot on our hands. Those are John’s people out there – the poor, the lost, the least and the lonely.”
And that’s why Jesus told the story about the two sons – the one who said he wouldn’t work in the vineyard but did; and the one who said he would and didn’t. For you see, dear friends, in the final analysis, it doesn’t really matter what you profess to believe. What matters is what you actually believe!
It doesn’t really matter what you say you’re going to do. What matters is what you do. And what you actually do in this life will ultimately depend on which procession you’re in – Pilate’s or Jesus’s?
St. Paul puts the challenge to us in today’s Epistle: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”
“Therefore God has highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:5-11).
Which procession are you in today – Pilate’s or Jesus’s.