He will cut off the chariot . . . the warhorse . . . and the battle-bow . . . and he shall command peace to the nations.
Let’s imagine ourselves just outside Jerusalem. We are with Jesus and his band of disciples early on a Sunday morning. Jesus has walked many a mile since he taught us that day on the hillside in Galilee. He has told many a parable, answered many a question and asked even more. Earlier this morning, he did something really strange.
He sent two of our number into a town on the Mount of Olives, which overlooks Jerusalem from the east. He said they would find a donkey’s colt tied to a tree. The two disciples should untie it and bring it to him, and if anyone asked about it, they should simply say, ‘The master needs it.’ That was exactly what happened, and they brought Jesus the colt. The colt, of course, didn’t have a saddle, so we took some of our coats and put them on the donkey. Then we lifted Jesus up onto it. We started down the road that led to Jerusalem.
So now we walk with him. At first it’s quiet, with only the sound of the donkey’s hooves clomping on the road. The wind blows through the olive trees. We don’t have any idea what he has planned.
Then we hear something up ahead. What is it? A crowd is gathering. Children are shouting. Palm branches are waving. People are taking their coats and spreading them on the dusty road to make a lavish, multicolour carpet, as if Jesus were a king being welcomed to the capital. More and more people join our parade as we descend the hill. Eventually, we feel our confusion giving way to excitement. We shout and dance and praise God together as we descend the road that leads to Jerusalem. Our voices echo across the valley: ‘Blessings on the king who comes in the name of the Lord!’ we shout. ‘Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens!’
Some Pharisees who have been part of the crowd are getting uncomfortable. They rush up to Jesus and sternly warn him that this is dangerous. He should order us all to be quiet. They’re worried that proclaiming Jesus as king will be seen as a revolutionary act, the kind that might bring the Roman soldiers riding in on their horses, swords and spears in hand, to slaughter us all in the name of law and order. But Jesus refuses to silence us. ‘If they are silent, the rocks will start shouting!’ he says.
So our parade continues. We shout louder than ever. After our long journey over these last three years, it feels that things are finally reaching their climax. We round a bend, and there is Jerusalem spread before us in all her beauty, the temple glistening in the sun. A reverent silence descends upon our parade. It’s a sight that has choked up many a pilgrim.
But Jesus doesn’t just get choked up. He begins to weep. The crowd clusters around him, and he begins to speak to Jerusalem. ‘If only you knew on this day of all days the things that lead to peace,’ he says through his tears. ‘But you can’t see. A time will come when your enemies will surround you, and you will be crushed and this whole city levelled . . . all because you didn’t recognise the meaning of this moment of God’s visitation.’
What a shock! From a shouting, celebrating crowd to the sound of Jesus weeping! From the feeling that we were finally about to win to a prediction of massive military defeat! From joyful laughter to tears!
As we continue descending the road towards Jerusalem, we also descend into the quiet of our own thoughts. We begin whispering among ourselves about what’s happening. Someone reminds us of the words from the prophet Zechariah (CEB): ‘Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Sing aloud, Daughter Jerusalem! Look, your king will come to you. He is righteous and victorious. He is humble and riding on an ass, on a colt, the offspring of a donkey.’ A shiver of recognition runs through us.
‘What comes next?’ one of us asks. ‘What did the prophet Zechariah say after that?’ Someone else has the passage memorised: ‘He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem. The bow used in battle will be cut off; he will speak peace to the nations. His rule will stretch from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth.’
Suddenly we feel the full drama of this moment. We recall another parade that frequently occurs on the other side of Jerusalem, whenever Herod rides into the city in full procession from his headquarters in Caesarea Philippi. He enters, not on a young donkey, but on a mighty warhorse. He comes in the name of Caesar, not in the name of the Lord. He isn’t surrounded by a ragtag crowd holding palm branches and waving their coats. He’s surrounded by chariots, accompanied by uniformed soldiers with their swords and spears and bows held high. His military procession is a show of force intended to inspire fear and compliance, not hope and joy.
And so the meaning of this day begins to become clear to us. Caesar’s kingdom, the empire of Rome, rules by fear with threats of violence, demanding submission. God’s kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, rules by faith with a promise of peace, inspiring joy. Jesus’ tears are telling us something: he knows that our leaders aren’t going to listen to him. They’re going to respond to Caesar’s violence with violence of their own, and that’s why Jesus just made that dire prediction.
Our minds are reeling with these realisations as Jesus leads our little parade into Jerusalem and straight to the temple. There he causes a big scene. He drives out the merchants who sell animals for sacrifice. He drives out those who exchange foreign currency for the temple currency. Again, we know there is great meaning in his actions. He is again challenging assumptions about the necessity of sacrifice and about the need for opulent temples and all they represent. This time he links together quotes from two of our greatest prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah. My house will be a house of prayer for all peoples, Isaiah said. But you have turned it into a hideout for crooks, Jeremiah said.
It has been quite a day, a Sunday we’ll never forget, the beginning of a week we’ll never forget. What a wild mix of emotions! What a collection of dramatic moments! As we fall asleep, we ponder this: to be alive is to learn what makes for peace. It’s not more weapons, more threats, more fear. It’s more faith, more freedom, more hope, more love, more joy. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Meditate & Contemplate
1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?
2. Share a story about a time when you were part of a public parade or demonstration.
3. How do you respond to the idea that on Palm Sunday Jesus was intentionally echoing Zechariah’s prophecy?
4. For children: What do you like about parades?
5. Activate: This week, look for moments when you, like Jesus, can see with grief that people are choosing a way of conflict or violence instead of peace. Allow yourself to feel the sadness without vilifying anyone.
6. Meditate: Hold the phrase ‘a house of prayer for all people’ together with the phrase ‘my Father’s house’. See what thoughts and emotions arise within you, and express them in prayer.