Was it only a little over a week ago when we celebrated Christ the King? And how many winced at the hierarchical and patriarchal language? And we twist and turn the Kingdom of God into the Reign of God. But reign is a synonym for kingdom. And kings reign. When we made our baptismal vow what we were doing was swearing fealty to Jesus the Christ. The thing about fealty is that it is a mutual vow, my service for my liege lord’s protection. What we received in return was forgiveness, remission of our many sins, broken little ones that we are, and life eternal. Not a bad deal. The Kingdom of God is not a democracy. But what Jesus came to teach us was that to attain that kingdom we needed to regard everybody in it as equal, a new kind of democracy imbedded in an absolute monarchy. Obey God. Try to follow the rules laid out in Scripture. Pick ourselves up by confessing our stumbling and keep going, abiding in God’s love for us and our love for Jesus the Christ, we whom Jesus calls brothers and sisters and gives us adoption papers as children of his Father. And from that we turned to the opening act of the Reign of Christ, the Incarnation. Our three readings for this Monday are Amos 2:2-26, 2 Peter 1:1-11, and Matthew 21:1-11.
The Gospel for today is the Matthean narrative of Jesus entrance into Jerusalem, our Palm Sunday. This narrative is so seminal that it appears almost unchanged in all three Synoptic Gospels, and even in John there is a shortened version. One difference is that in Matthew there is an ass and the colt of an ass. No, Jesus did not ride into Jerusalem on both at once in tandem. Matthew doubled things. Two demoniacs. Two blind men. It is a biblical literary device. Sometimes things are exaggerated, sometimes repeated or rephrased. And Matthew is quoting Zechariah 9:9, where both ass and colt are used poetically in welcoming Zion’s king. Jesus probably entered through the Eastern Gate, the Gate of Mercy, fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah (14:3-4) and Ezekiel (44:1-2), riding an ass, or donkey, the traditional mount of the Jewish kings. Thus, Jesus’ entry is provocative. Even the description of how two of his disciples obtained the mount is telling. They basically steal it or commandeer it, until the owner is told that the Lord has need of it. And then it is freely lent, for all things belong to the Lord. There was no royal advance team to roll out the red carpet and hire musicians, dancers, singers. At Jesus’ entry the people themselves throw garments and palm fronds in the road for their king to ride on, and sing out, “Hosanna [“Save us” (Hebrew)] to the Son of David.” All this emphasizes the humble lowliness of this king, a king of a people who had often drawn their royal lineage from simple shepherds.
In Amos we read that Israel will be punished because “they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals— they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way.” As Jesus was sold for silver. But the image of the needy sold for a pair of sandals is particularly graphic. We are told in both the Jewish and New Testaments to cloth the poor and tend to the needy, but here it is vividly told. A pair of sandals. The afflicted being elbowed out of the way. We can see it. Feel it. And once seen and felt we can recognize it around us in ways more intimate than a moral and legal injunction to care for the poor and needy. Yes, a kingdom which belongs to the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, the God who created it. But within that kingdom woe be to any who hurt another, because all those others are also subjects of that King, a Shepherd loves and protects them all. And now we are in a kinship relationship to that king, sons and daughters, family, to be cherished.
We know the irony of Palm Sunday. That crowd cheering would soon be the mob crying, “Crucify him.” And we are doing it still. We bring out the torches and pitchforks and cry out, “Lock her up,” “Burn the witch,” “Lynch him.” We have moved from the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem, leading to the Cross, the blood of our redemption, the sacrifice for our sins, to the evils of our brokenness. We sell him for silver. We sell them for a pair of sandals. We push the weak and afflicted out of sight.
How can we make this right? How can we make Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem the entrance of Jesus into the Kingdom of his Father to claim his right as our judge and our Lord. In 2 Peter the writer reminds his hearers that we have been given all we need for a righteous life, one that embraces the gifts which Christ gave us. In order to stay on the way he exhorts, “For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love.” This is not unlike Paul’s enumeration of the fruit of the Sprit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:22-23). But we are a pretty lustful and needy people, very aware of our embodiment and more than tempted by the pleasures of the flesh and luxury. It may have once been jewelry and expensive clothing, but now we can add the newest electronic toy, something that will last until the marketing wizards decide it is time to extract more money from us with the newest model. And in Advent the competition with secular Christmas makes this appeal not easy to avoid, or even balance with a Christian life. There is nothing wrong with bringing Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol or Polar Express into our consciousness. And except for the energy footprint, to take joy in our streets transformed into magical realms festooned with light. It is, after all, the Light of the world which we await. And, so long as we never forget to feed hungry and poor, a big luxurious Christmas dinner shared with our family and friends is not out of line with the meals Jesus shared with his friends and disciples. But we are beginning a long month where our real purpose is to remember the one who entered Jerusalem as a King and rose from execution as a criminal to our God and our Lord. And the one who was born, not in the upper room of a cousin’s or uncle’s house, but warm in the lower story, warm with the few animals an urban householder would keep, warm with soft hay. A helpless newborn of a very young mother and a very faithful, but puzzled, stepfather. And a Star above. It is the beginning of the journey to the Cross, and to the Ascension, and to the coming of the Holy Spirit, the circle of the year where we can live over and over again the life of Jesus, of our Christ, our Savior, trying to grow ever more like him, ever closer to God our Father/Mother, ever closer to the peace of Salvation. Happy Advent.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a lifelong Episcopalian, currently at All Souls Episcopal Parish, Berkeley, California, and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.