“A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’” -Matthew 21: 8-9
This week, a friend blogged about something that’s really been frustrating him. Shay is a priest and an activist, and for both aspects of his life has done a lot of study and reflection. He has devoted a lot of his life to learning about theology, gender, sexuality, embodiment, and the intersections of all of these. And he is always willing to talk to those who might be new to any of those subjects; to begin to teach, to recommend resources. But he is not willing – or able! – to do it all of that work for someone else; to take all that he knows and just dump that information into someone else’s consciousness: as he reflects, “New understandings can’t just be handed to you. A one-hour conversation in a coffee shop or an email exchange won’t cut it. There are some things you can only understand by studying.”
You’ve got to do the work.
Sometimes I wonder how often Jesus thought something similar. I wonder how often he wished his new interpretations, his unpacking of scriptures, would lead people to actually study the law and the prophets; to go deeper in their faith, to really enter relationship with God.
Today, we encounter Jesus entering Jerusalem for what he knows will be the last time. For this is the moment when the gauntlet is thrown, this mocking procession that so nearly mimics a warrior’s triumphal entry, according to the Psalms:
This is the gate of the Lord;
the righteous shall enter through it.
I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvellous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
We bless you from the house of the Lord.
The Lord is God,
and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches,
up to the horns of the altar. (Psalm 118)
In keeping with the Psalm – familiar enough to be recognizable to the people of Jerusalem! – Jesus is treated like royalty, like a savior, like a conquering hero – but what does that mean to the very people who are throwing down branches and cloaks? What do they expect, as they see Jesus claiming the mantle, the authority of the Messiah, in the face of power? This is Jesus as many have long hoped to see him, but for a far different end result than most may be hoping for. Expectation trumps all that they have heard from him over the course of his ministry; appearances in the moment speak louder than the most poignant sermon. And so the people cry out: Hosanna! which means, Save us! Save us from the immediate problems we are facing – the occupation, the taxation, the struggle of daily life. Hosanna, Son of David, be the savior for this generation.
I wonder how many of them were still following with shouts and palms after he reached the Temple? For it was at the end of this procession that tables got turned and people got rebuked… how many were brought up short in their praise of the man who suddenly seems scornful of their religious practice?
How many stayed to hear his teaching in Jerusalem, which seems to take on a particular urgency in this week. The audience will be large, for it is Jerusalem at the Passover: there are many who might hear. But there is a deeper urgency, not just to be heard, but to get the people thinking enough, interested enough, to study and to follow: to go beyond immediate, to do the work, not for the Kingdom of Judea, but for the Kingdom of God.
This week especially, we are made aware, in the urgency, of the demands of discipleship. The twelve are about to discover that the discomforts of three years spent tramping around Galilee, Samaria, Judea were nothing at all, compared with this week in Jerusalem. We are made aware, in these days, that the triumphal entry of a humble King was not the culmination of Jesus’ ministry, but the beginning of the end, the beginning of the real demands of discipleship. This week is the crucible in which discipleship is tested, in which we find out who had done the work, incorporated the lessons… And we watch, as one by one, Judas, Peter, James, John and the others disappeared from Jesus’ side, and even the women, Mary Magdalene among them, remain in the distance. This is the week in which we are reminded of the cost: that we are called to bear witness to suffering, even at risk to ourselves.
It’s hard to talk about the cost of discipleship without evoking Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran theologian and pastor. After serving churches in Spain, Germany and England during the 1920s and 1930s, Bonhoeffer found himself teaching at Columbia University at the start of the war. I don’t think anyone would have blamed him for breathing a sigh of relief at his situation and continuing in his comfortable life in New York City, but that was not the discipleship that he knew himself called to. And so he went back to Germany. He went back into the Third Reich to found a Christian community – a community that would bear witness to the great suffering of all Germans during those years; that would serve as a bulwark of love against the pervasive hatred of the Nazi regime. In Germany, Bonhoeffer could live out what his discipleship called him to do: to stand at the foot of the cross, as Body of Christ was crucified before his very eyes. To leave comfort and security for community, relationship, and vulnerability. He had done the work, had traced the path that lay ahead of him and prepared his heart. He well knew the cost of discipleship (it would be the title of his most famous book), but knew as well the joy and the freedom that the cost made possible.
Did any of those waving palm branches and shouting Hosanna in Jerusalem have such understanding? Those shouting Save us! so that we needn’t do the work, needn’t bear the cost ourselves. Save us, as well as our comfort, our security, our familiar lives. Hosanna! Save us! they cried, but how many would follow, to the point of salvation? To the point where love won?
How many would do the work, and put their prayers – Hosannas – into action? How many would look beyond the immediate situation, beyond themselves?
How many would study, wondering at the warrior in humility, looking like an idiot on a donkey, and search for deeper meaning?
How many would study their own lives in this new lens of love and grace and humility, until they could stand at the foot of the cross and bear witness to the worst that humanity can inflict upon itself? until they could forgive the cruelty, the mockery, again and again?
And we, who are also waving palm branches today? We, too, cry, Hosanna! Save us! We, too are called to do the work: to follow, even to the unexpected places, to the unexpected results. We, too, are called to a demanding discipleship; perhaps even more than the population of Jerusalem. For we know the results of this week: the promises that only began with this procession.
Will we do the work, delve deeper into those promises, and learn their place in our own lives? Will we be disciples, accepting the cost, setting aside comfort and security to work for God’s kin-dom? Will we work to ensure that the abundance of food that this creation provides will feed all who need, without human judgment attached? Will we work to ensure that adequate housing is not a privilege but a birthright? to view the “other” – the imprisoned, the ill – as ours to care for rather than to shun and punish? to actively remember that we are not the owners but the stewards of this holy creation in which we live?
Will we do the work, and learn to speak the truth – of love, of grace, of justice, of equality – to power?
Will we do the work? will we pray, Hosanna! Save us!, and then put that prayer into action?
For we do have work to do.
Blessed, indeed, is the one who comes in the name of our God; the one who has blessed us and called us, not to the triumph of a King’s arrival, but to the humility and vulnerability of love beyond us; to the demands and the freedom of understanding, and choosing this path. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of our God, and blessed are we, who set aside our palms, and follow.