Sunday, April 10, 2022

“Stories and Choices” — Rev. Brent Gundlah

In case the waving green leaves and shouts of “Hosanna” with which we began worship today didn’t give it away, I’ll remind you right now that it’s Palm Sunday, the day on which we celebrate Jesus’s final arrival in Jerusalem, the day on which Holy Week — the last week of Lent — officially begins.

I’m pretty sure that this story is already familiar to you. Jesus enters the city on the back of a small donkey amidst a crowd waving palm fronds and yelling “Hosanna,” a Hebrew word meaning “Help us,” or, more precisely, “Save us, I Pray.”

Now, I hope you all were listening as I read today’s passage from Luke’s Gospel, which tells the story of this momentous event, because, if you were, you might have noticed some interesting things about it.

For starters, there are no palms. And there are no “Hosanna’s”either. If you don’t believe me, just have a look.

All four Gospels tell a version of this particular story (which is unusual in and of itself), but Luke’s is the only one in which there is neither a “Hosanna” nor a palm to be found — so I guess it’s a good thing that we decided to bring our own with us today.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that there weren’t plenty of palms and Hosannas to go around that particular day — after all, three out of four gospel writers say that there were (and, like the three out of four dentists who used to tell us all to chew Trident gum, it’s hard to believe they were wrong). But Luke decided to tell this tale a bit differently than Matthew, Mark and John did; and we’re left to consider why. 

It may seem like an obvious point, but I’ll raise it anyway: whenever we tell stories — even about events that actually happened — we make all sorts of choices about what we’re going to say (and not say), what details were going to include (and exclude), what matters in the grand scheme of things (and what doesn’t). We all do this, whether we’re conscious of it or not. And so when Luke sets out to give his account of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, he does it too.

For Luke, perhaps the single most essential thing for us to understand about the good news Jesus proclaims is that it’s for everyone. We see this idea over and over throughout the Third Gospel. We see it again in the book of Acts as the apostles share their faith with Jews and Gentiles, within Israel and throughout the world — which makes sense because Acts was also written by Luke.

It’s worth noting that some of these apostles were not real keen about including anyone other than God’s chosen people (that is to say, the Jews) in this new movement — remember, they thought of themselves as rightly observant Jews. Others like Paul took a more expansive view as to who God’s chosen people were (namely, everybody).

Luke, it is safe to say, was in that second category. And so the choices that he makes in recounting his version of the gospel reflect a more inclusive understanding of who’s welcome in God’s kin-dom.

Which brings us back to the palms and hosannas — their presence in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and John; and their glaring absence from Luke’s.

The Lectionary pairs today’s Gospel reading with excerpts from the 118th Psalm, which totally makes sense on Palm Sunday. This ancient Hebrew text is the place in the Bible where hosannas and palms are first mentioned. “Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord!” (or, “Hosanna”) says the psalmist, “Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar.” There you go.

We might not think much about this today, but the date palm tree was a really potent symbol back in the first century — one that specifically represented the kingdom of Judah and its place as God’s chosen people. This idea is reflected in the psalmist’s words: “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever! Let Israel say, ‘His steadfast love endures forever.’”

So when the people line the streets waving palms in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and John in order to welcome Jesus to Jerusalem as their king, they were celebrating him as the king of Israel and its people;

they weren’t really concerned with anyone else.

Consider this gesture alongside the loud shouts of “Hosanna,” which, as we noted earlier means “help us” or “save us” (the operative word being us).

To the enthusiastic crowd that has gathered around Jesus, “us” doesn’t mean “all of us;” it means “us and not them.”

They understood Jesus’s arrival in the city as a fulfillment of the Hebrew scripture’s promise for the restoration of Israel.

After all they had been through, you can’t really blame them for hoping for and believing in this.

But by leaving the palms and hosannas out of his version story, Luke seems to be telling us that this kind of exclusivity is not what Jesus is all about. Thus, in Luke, the crowd’s celebratory cry is far less specific: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” is what they shout here.

I can’t say for certain why Luke tells us one thing, while Matthew, Mark and John tell us a completely different thing. Maybe it’s just human nature to hear what we want to hear.

And because it’s clear that Luke believes in a very broad and all-encompassing kind of kingship in Jesus, it shouldn’t be too surprising that this is how he chooses to recount the events of that fateful day.

Context is incredibly important — we can’t look at stories from the Gospels in a vacuum and hope to understand all they’re saying to us.

Today’s passage seems to begin midstream, with the words “After he had said this,” which practically begs us to look and see what Jesus had just said. A quick glance back to the beginning of this chapter reminds us that Jesus’s ride into Jerusalem is preceded by accounts of two incidents: an encounter with Zaccheus and the Parable of the Ten Pounds. And all of these seemingly separate threads are, in fact, completely intertwined.

In the first one, Jesus not only embraces but also actively seeks out the most unlikely of converts: Zaccheus, a tax collector, the ultimate other, the unworthy outcast in the Jewish world.

Now, Zaccheus was definitely not someone who would have been seen as one of God’s chosen people; and yet Jesus invites himself over to Zaccheus’s house.

Ignoring the grumbles of polite society, Jesus stands right there in Zaccheus’s living room and makes this provocative declaration: “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

And “save the lost” has a much different vibe than “save us” does.

Because we’re all lost, aren’t we?

Because we’re all the children of Abraham, aren’t we?

Because the Son of Man came to seek out all of us, didn’t he?

That’s the whole point here, isn’t it?

And while Luke wants us to know and understand this, it’s not all that he wants us to know and understand.

In the Parable of the Ten Pounds, Jesus explains that it’s our responsibility to take the treasure we’ve been given — namely, the good news for all the lost children of Abraham that he has shared with us — and actually do something to make it a reality for our world.

And our unwillingness to do this, our habit of abandoning our covenant responsibilities to God and one another, is the ultimate insult to God.

We see this same idea at work in the story of Palm Sunday. While the main actor is clearly Christ, his disciples are called to act here too: Go to the village, find a colt, untie it and bring it here.

But what if Christ is also asking us to do things that are far more difficult than borrowing someone’s donkey?

What if Christ is asking us to put aside our self-interest for the sake of others? What if Christ is asking us to give up the entire concept of “other” so that we might see and strive for the common good?

You know: What if Christ is asking us to make real sacrifices?

Well, wonder no more because Christ, who has already done all of these things, is asking us to do them too. That’s the whole point.

And so as we walk this week with Jesus — toward the betrayal of Maundy Thursday, toward the horror of Good Friday, toward the glory of the cross, toward the fulfillment of God’s promises in light of the resurrection — what we need to be asking ourselves is this: Just how far we are willing to go in order to follow in his footsteps?