Celebrating No-Palm Sunday

Palm-Sunday-2013This year, Palm Sunday is cancelled, so you need to do away with your palm crosses, and change the choice of hymns. The reason is that we are reading from Luke’s gospel, and Luke makes no mention of ‘palms’ during Jesus’ ‘triumphal entry’ in Jerusalem, riding on a donkey. Instead, we only get mention (Luke 19.37) of people spreading their cloaks, or outer garments (himatia) on the road. So this year we celebrate Cloak Sunday. (If you are part of the tradition which keeps the palms and burns them for next year’s Ash Wednesday, I would advise against doing this with your coats.)

But Luke’s account raises another question for us: what kind of king do we want reigning over us? I am not here referring to Charles and Camilla—but to the kind of authority that we are ready to submit to. There are many authorities which exercise influence over our lives, both formal and informal—and in fact all those around us exercise some kind of power over us, through their opinions, personalities and evaluation of us, as we exercise power over them.

The reason Luke raises this question for us is that this whole section of his gospel is shaped to relentlessly press home the question for his readers: who is Jesus?

It starts in this passage with the mention of Jerusalem. Although Jesus must have visited the city many times before, Luke has been arranging his narrative since chapter 9 around this, climactic visit (Luke 9.51, 13.22, 17.11). Why does Jerusalem form such a vital focus? Certainly because this is the place where prophets are killed (Luke 13.33–34), but also because Jerusalem was the centre of spiritual, religious and political power. It was from Jerusalem that the influential Jewish leaders had come (Luke 5.17) and where people expected the kingdom of God to be revealed (Luke 19.11)—not least because it is the City of the Great King (Matt 5.35, Psalm 48.2). We might also note (as we have seen before) that Luke’s writing appears to be oriented to a non-Jewish readership who have received the gospel—and he wants to make it clear that, whilst the gospel is for the gentiles, it comes from the Jews and Jerusalem (compare John 4.22).

As Jesus approaches the city, Luke slows down the narrative dramatically; Bethany and Bethphage are just a couple of miles from the city, and the Mount of Olives just several hundred metres away, with a panoramic view over its walls and temple—glistening in the sun with its limestone, marble and gold decoration. Up till now we have covered mile after mile with Jesus; now we slow right down so we can trace his every footstep.

Luke’s focus on detail doesn’t tell us some things we would like to know—like which disciples go ahead to find the colt, exactly which village the colt comes from, who the owners are, or what they felt when the colt was taking. But it does tell us about the colt being untied—five times! The disciples will find a colt that is tied up; they are to untie the colt; they might be questioned about the untying; they did untie it; they were asked about untying. Why all the focus on untying?! Because, according to Gen 49.10–11, this is the sign of the Coming One who is the true ruler of Judah, to whom the nations of the world will submit, and he is the one who ties and unties the donkey. As Joel Green comments, ‘the whole process is wrapped in the interpretive cloth of eschatological expectation and scriptural allusion.’ Uniquely in Luke, it is the colt’s ‘lords’ (in most translations, ‘owners’) who question the disciples (Luke 19.33); they respond to these ‘lords’ that the colt is needed by the Lord.

The colt hasn’t been ridden on before, because that is what is required for the king’s mount. And the format of the entry into the city follows the pattern of other examples from Scripture and from culture. What is most striking is that such events do not mark the crowning of the king, but the recognition of the king who has already won his victory. Matthew and Mark hint at this in the way they record the acclamations of the crowd. ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the Coming One…!’ (Matt 21.9); ‘Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!’ (Mark 11.10). But Luke makes it explicit: ‘Blessed is the coming King!’ (Luke 19.38), adding to the quotation from Ps 118.36.

So Jesus is coming to the city of the king; he comes in the manner of a king; and he is acclaimed by the crowd of his disciples as the king who hope the kingdom will now be announced. But what kind of king is Jesus? And what does his kingdom look like?

First, he is a king who brings peace. Luke also records the crowds as acclaiming: ‘Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!’ Do you recognise that acclamation? I hope so; we heard it at Christmas on the lips of the angels as they made their announcement to shepherds in the field (Luke 2.14). When Zechariah celebrates the birth of his son, John the Baptist, he anticipates that his ministry will ‘give light to those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death and guide our feet into the way of peace‘ (Luke 1.79). Peace is a major feature of the theology of both Luke and Paul, so much so that Paul begins every letter not just with the customary greeting of ‘grace’ but also with ‘peace’.

Secondly, Jesus is a king who merits praise and brings joy. This is not just true for people, but the whole of the creation. If the people stop praising, then the very stones themselves (on the road? of the temple building?) will cry out (Luke 19.40)! Celebration is a consistent theme in Luke, not least in the parables of the lost who are found (in Luke 10).

Thirdly, Jesus is a king who brings power. The disciples welcoming Jesus celebrate the ‘works of power’ they have seen him doing (Luke 19.37). Luke has a distinctive interest in the question of power; when the Spirit comes on Mary, then power from on high rest upon her, the same power that will rest on the disciples when the Spirit comes in Acts 1 and 2. And Jesus himself, who goes into the temptations in the desert ‘in the Spirit’, returns in the ‘power of the Spirit.’ But this power is not to be used to control, manipulate or restrict, but to bring down the proud ‘in the imagination of their hearts’ (Luke 1.51) and to give ‘freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and to set the oppressed free’ (Luke 4.18).

This is a different kind of king to any you’ve met before. And the reason for that is that the journey up to Jerusalem is not a journey to power and glory, but (as Paul makes very clear in Phil 2.5–11, the other lectionary reading for (No-)Palm Sunday), it is a journey down in obedience to death. This is why he brings peace: he has turned us from enemies of God to friends through his death. This is why he brings praise and joy: because his death and resurrection have dealt with the things which separate us from God and from one another. This is the power he offers: power to know forgiveness and peace of mind.

And this presents each of us with a challenge. Will we stand with the disciples and welcome this king of peace, praise and power? Or will we stand with the Pharisees who are like the resentful tenants who ‘will not have this man to reign over us’ (Luke 19.14)?

(This is based the content of a sermon I preached at the sex-offenders prison HMP Whatton in 2016).

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27 thoughts on “Celebrating No-Palm Sunday”

  1. Great stuff.
    Just one question: any idea why the crowd shouts “peace in heaven” rather than “on earth” as in Luke 2:14?

    • That’s a really interesting question, which I hadn’t noticed. You are right to see the contrast with Luke 2.14, there are some connections in language with Acts 10.36.

      Marshall in the NIGTC gives a whole paragraph to this! It is rather puzzling, but worth noting:

      a. that Luke is avoiding using ‘Hosanna’ which is present in the other synoptics, since he is writing (it appears) to include a non-Jewish readership.

      b. He has made it explicit that Jesus is the coming king, where the other two just mention the kingdom, and one coming ‘in the name of the Lord’.

      c. But he is holding back language of the coming of the kingdom itself, which is not realised until the gift of the Spirit, when God’s rule breaks out…

      d. As the following pericope makes clear, peace has not come on earth, and Jerusalem will soon face destruction.

      e. And yet the message Jesus brings is a ‘gospel of peace’ (Acts 10.36) and this originates with God, the one ‘in heaven’.

      So where the consistent hope in the early chapters is the realisation of the promised peace on earth as it is in heaven, at this point in the narrative it is clear that such peace has not yet come.

      Does that help at all?

      • Yes, thanks – not sure if I’ll manage to work that into my (already too long) sermon, but definitely helpful.

        • Well, the simple way to include it would to note that it is Jesus who is the one who brings peace (and prosperity), and not Brexit, er, the EU, er, this or that particular party or economic policy, er the Emperor, that he brings it in his own way—and that it is not yet realised. I think that is the force of ‘peace from/in heaven’.

  2. I never realised the colt was so important and that it alluded back to the OT. Thanks.

    What do you think of the view that rather than Jesus supernaturally knowing where to find the colt, He had arranged it beforehand, without His disciples knowing? Personally I find that a rather odd understanding.

    • Actually I think the notion of pre-arrangement more convincing. It is clear from the narrative in John 12 that Jesus had more than one contact in the Bethany area, and we know from all gospels that he did things that are not reported, and from which the disciples were absent.

      So I think it is perfectly, practically plausible, and, opposite to you, I think the assumption of ‘supernatural knowledge’ is an unnecessary speculation, not least because nothing like this is really suggested in the gospel narratives. It is taken to be a practical arrangement, not a miraculous provision.

      • Another possibility is to read Luke’s account against the backdrop of 1 Samuel, where there are three signs of the kingdom given to Saul:

        1. Saul encounters two men who declare that Saul’s father’s donkeys have been found (1 Samuel 10:2). Two disciples obtain a donkey according to Jesus’ prediction and instructions (Luke 19:29-34).
        2. Saul meets three men going up to Bethel carrying goats, loaves of bread, and a skin of wine, who freely give Saul two loaves (1 Samuel 10:3-4). Peter and John meet a man bearing a water pitcher on the day when the Passover sacrifice (a lamb or a goat) was killed. He leads them up to a house, whose master freely provides them with an upper room for the sacrificial feast, where Jesus gives his disciples bread and wine (Luke 22:7-20). This sign seems to be intermixed with the earlier surprising events that befell Saul on his journey in 1 Samuel 9: meeting women bearing water (verse 11), being directed to the site of a sacrificial meal with the prophet in the high place who bestows a special meal portion prophetically set aside for the unannounced guest (verse 22-24), speaking with the prophet in the top of the house (verse 25), and having a kingdom bestowed upon him (1 Samuel 10:1; cf. Luke 22:24-30).
        3. The Spirit of the Lord comes upon Saul and he becomes a new man and prophesies (1 Samuel 10:6). The disciples are instructed to tarry in Jerusalem, where the Spirit of God will come upon them, they will receive power for their mission, and prophesy (Luke 24:49).

        • Thanks Alastair. I think that is a helpful and interesting theological reading. I am not sure I am quite persuaded that the evidence is there in the text (i.e. that either Luke or his readers would have seen this) since, whilst there are some structural and possibly narrative parallels, I can’t see much evidence of parallels of language in the text.

          Added to that, things like untying donkeys and carrying water are common aspect of pre-modern life, so there are bound to be some points of contact. And I wonder how we make sense of this bearing in mind the evidence that Luke is telling his story tied to the centrality of Jerusalem but clearly making accommodation for readers who are not familiar with the Greek or Hebrew OT?

          • Thanks for the response, Ian. Some remarks by way of reply:

            In some ways, it is precisely the quotidian character of events such as untying donkeys and carrying water that invite comment. Why would the text waste time recording such details? But yet all of the Synoptics record the donkey incident. There are many such details in the gospels, which invite comment precisely on account of their seemingly unnecessary character. Why would John tell us that 153 fish were caught in John 21, for instance?

            For instance, wells were a common feature of ancient daily life, but Scripture clearly uses encounters at wells as maritally-flavoured type scenes. Already in the Old Testament we see Saul’s encounter with Samuel subtly drawing upon the themes of Genesis 24, when Abraham’s servant goes looking for a wife for Isaac and matriarch for Abraham’s household. In both cases, there is the anticipation of a significant encounter with an auspicious individual, with God demonstrating their identity.

            Within Samuel, the three signs are already given some prominence. Not only are they mentioned in 1 Samuel 10, when David is sent to Saul, he comes with the three signs: a donkey, bread, wine, and a young goat, and a harp that he plays to change Saul’s psychological state. As the Son of David and the prophet announcing the kingdom, it shouldn’t surprise us to find Christ with similar signs. Luke uses Samuel as a backdrop for his gospel on many occasions, perhaps most notably at the beginning, where the characters of Hannah and Samuel are not hard to perceive in the background. So such a set of parallels wouldn’t come from an unexpected source.

            Matt Colvin highlights the incidents of the man carrying the water pitcher, a passage that invites reflection for its unusual character. As he observes, there is an Old Testament precedent for such a strange encounter in the story of Samuel and Saul (he highlights more parallels). More importantly, both the New Testament encounter and the passage from Samuel concern events associated with the inauguration of the kingdom (the Triumphal Entry, the Last Supper, and Pentecost in the case of Luke). It is precisely the unusual character of the events in Luke that led both Matt and me to the reflection that produced our readings. Neither of us started with Samuel.

            As for Luke’s Gentile readers, I am not persuaded that Luke’s readers would have been unfamiliar with the Old Testament, even though they might have been unfamiliar with Jewish customs, geography, etc. Then there is the fact that texts can easily be written for different levels of readers. Many of Luke’s readers may have been Gentiles and perhaps even less familiar with the Old Testament, but some of Luke’s readers had been careful hearers and students of the Old Testament Scriptures since childhood. And, more to the point, Luke uses the Old Testament in these subtle but elaborate ways at many points in his gospel.

            Most readers may get the surface meaning of a biblical text, but many texts invite closer study and hold deeper meanings. These meanings don’t generally undermine the surface ones, but they fill things out considerably. Everyone should be able to see the basic significance of the Triumphal Entry, Last Supper, and Pentecost, but alert and scripturally knowledgeable readers will recognize just how charged these events are with Old Testament background.

            Finally, when considering Luke’s readers, we may need to get away from modern assumptions about demotic reading practices. The average private reader of the gospel wouldn’t have been the average person. The literate percentage of the population would have been not too dissimilar to the percentage of our population with postgraduate degrees. This was also in a society where books were not remotely near as plentiful as they are in contemporary society, and where literate persons would have been expected to study a core body of texts extremely closely. It was also in a context where churches often grew out of synagogues, where leaders would have known the Old Testament extremely well.

            As for the average ‘person in the pew’, their reading environment would have been very different from ours. Their exposure to the text would have been through hearing literate readers read and expound the texts, not through private study. Consequently, we should expect the gospels to be written primarily for skilled readers, who knew the Old Testament a lot better than most pastors do today. These readers would then be able to assist illiterate persons in coming to grips with the text.

  3. Ian, you wrote, “what kind of king do we want reigning over us? I am not here referring to Charles and Camilla—but to the kind of authority that we are ready to submit to.”

    But have you not already declared true allegiance to the queen and her successors, for such an oath is mandatory for ordination in your church, isn’t it? And don’t you deny the right to vote to new comers to your country who are not willing to take that oath? And do you not already sing “long to reign over us” in reference to the monarch? Some will no doubt try to draw impossibly fine distinctions and claim that words to not actually mean what they say, but I think it is better to admit the hypocrisy and actually do something about it.

    • The oath to the Monarch is in the context of said monarch having taken an oath to defend the Protestant religion. At the very least the clergy oathp is not subjection to him/her instead of God…

      In the National Anthem most folk seem to miss the qualification clause, “and may she ever give us cause…. to sing “God save the Queen “.

      • As I feared someone would, it seems that you are reaching for excuses to deny the plain meaning of the words, Ian (Hobbs). There is nothing in the ordination ceremony that refers to the monarch having taken an oath to defend the Protestant religion, as far as I can tell. The oath is as follows:
        “I, A B, do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors, according to law: So help me God”.
        This oath is therefore to bear true allegiance to Charles, among others. You surely cannot know whether he will take an oath to defend the protestant religion or whether he will fulfill such an oath well. He does not have a good track record at keeping his oaths.

        In the UK national anthem the words “and may she every give us cause…” do not qualify the words “long to reign over us”. They are two verses later.

        • Sorry Richard but this isn’t the place, as far as I am concerned, to take up further defence to accusations of “excuse” on top of “hypocrisy”. It’s a well worn path and not worth the candle. Every blessing but I won’t be investing.

    • That is an interesting tangential question Richard. It is worth reflecting on Anglican theologies of the monarchy, not least through the well known prayer for the Queen in the BCP:

      ALMIGHTY God, whose kingdom is ever-lasting, and power infinite: Have mercy upon the whole Church; and so rule the heart of thy chosen servant ELIZABETH, our Queen and Governor, that she (knowing whose minister she is) may above all things seek thy honour and glory: and that we and all her subjects (duly considering whose authority she hath) may faithfully serve, honour, and humbly obey her, in thee, and for thee, according to thy blessed Word and ordinance; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee and the Holy Ghost liveth and reigneth, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

      This pattern seems to me to match very closely Paul’s language in Romans 13. Swearing due obedience to the monarch is theologically dependent on the monarch being subject to the rule of law and the call of God, which is why, should Charles decide *not* to be Defender of the Faith, there will be something of a constitutional crisis in relation to the Establishment of the Church of England.

      My obedience is about stable government exercising power according to due process, and accountable to another power, and nothing less than that. The same qualification applies to my oath of canonical obedience to my bishop; it is heavily qualified by the assumption that the bishop is acting honestly within the bounds prescribed by what is lawful. That looks fairly biblical to me.

      • Thanks, Ian.

        If Charles declares that he is “Defender of the Faith”, will you believe him? What do you think he will actually do to defend the faith? I think we know that he will not be a defender of the faith (whatever words he actually utters), since he has said that he wants to change the wording to “defender of the faiths”. So will the Anglicans break their oaths of allegiance and call for his abdication?

        In what ways do you “obey” the queen? What does she get you to do that you would not otherwise do? If Elizabeth or Charles told you to do something that was legal but against the call of God, would you do it, or would you break your oath of allegiance and refuse to do it? Have you broken your oath of allegiance to Charles by calling him out on his adultery (like John the baptist), or have you kept silent on the issue?

        Rom 13 does not really apply since Paul did not have an allegiance or obedience to any human authorities. He stood up to the church authorities on at least one occasion (Gal 2:11-14), and he was frequently punished by the civil authorities.

        • ‘If Charles declares that he is “Defender of the Faith”, will you believe him?’ Well, he won’t be saying those words as a private individual, but in taking on a role of office. So it is not a question of my questioning his personal integrity.

          ‘In what ways do you “obey” the queen?’ In pretty much the same way that Theresa May is the Queen’s Prime Minister. We live in a limited constitutional monarchy, which means that the monarch has a ceremonial role but with little or no actual discretion to act. If Charles were to start saying things that were incompatible with his role as Supreme Governor of the C of E, then it would provoke the same kind of constitutional crisis as if he were to take a public view on government policy.

          Paul was a Roman citizen, and clearly advocates obedience to human authorities in Romans 13–though of course that needs interpreting within the context of his theology of the lordship of Christ as well as within a wider biblical framework…

          • Thanks for the clarifications. If I understand you correctly, you feel that your oath of allegiance requires you to obey the monarch only when she/he sticks to a ceremonial role. There are several problems with this. Firstly, the oath contains no such qualification. Indeed, the oath comes from an era when the monarchs DID have discretion to act and actually wielded political power. The church loses credibility when it claims that words do not mean what they say. Secondly, it robs the oath of all meaning. How can one have allegiance to a ceremonial role? How can one obey someone who doesn’t make any directives or pronouncements? What would such allegiance and obedience mean in practice? Thirdly, the BCP text that you cited refers to Elizabeth by name, and this implies that you are to “faithfully serve, honour and humbly obey” the person and not just an office. Fourthly, if the monarch sticks to a ceremonial role and does not act, then she/he has no power to “bear the sword” and is not an “authority”, so Rom 13 does not apply (it doesn’t apply anyway, for the reason that I gave). Fifthly, the ceremonial role of the monarchy is not entirely benign. I consider it to be quite damaging, like other celebrity culture.

            “If Charles were to start saying things that were incompatible with his role as Supreme Governor of the C of E, then it would provoke the same kind of constitutional crisis as if he were to take a public view on government policy.” But he surely has said such things already. For example, “Do you seriously expect me to be the first Prince of Wales in history not to have a mistress?”

            As your original post illustrates, the vocabulary that is used in reference to the monarch is nearly identical to that used of Jesus and this should give us pause. It sounds like idolatry to me. The message of the church is obscured, at the very least, when it proclaims two reigns, two majesties, and two objects of its obedience, service, and faithfulness.

            About a fifth of your compatriots see through the monarchy. How do you think they feel when they are required to take the oath of allegiance? How would you feel if you could not keep your job or vote unless you took a solemn oath of affirmation of same sex marriage? That is how it feels.

          • ‘If I understand you correctly, you feel that your oath of allegiance requires you to obey the monarch only when she/he sticks to a ceremonial role.’ No, that is not what I said. I pointed out that the role is ceremonial; the function of Supreme Governor in our current constitution includes no executive, leadership or doctrinal role at all.

            Elizabeth is cited by name because that is the name of the monarch. If she was no longer monarch I would cease to obey her. She represents the authority of legitimate government in that role and it is to legitimate government that I metonymically am loyal.

            Whatever Charles might have said, in jest or otherwise, it is worth noting that he conformed to C of E teaching on marriage after divorce by having a civil marriage ceremony to Camilla, which I think is historically unprecedented.

            Same sex sexual relationships do not conform to the teaching of Scripture (to which the C of E is committed) and the long-standing teaching of the world wide church is testimony to this. So if the doctrine of the C of E on marriage were revised, then I would no longer be obliged to obedience to my own bishop, let alone the monarch.

          • “Supreme Governor in our current constitution includes no executive, leadership or doctrinal role at all.” I’m struggling to see how someone with no executive or leadership role could be, in any sense, a “governor”.

            The question that I would like to press is what does the oath of allegiance commit you to, in practical terms. What actions would, for you, constitute a breaking of the oath? You earlier wrote, “‘In what ways do you “obey” the queen?’ In pretty much the same way that Theresa May is the Queen’s Prime Minister.” Are you saying here that you do not obey the queen? I ask because, while Theresa May is called the “Prime Minister”, she is certainly not a minister (servant) of the queen. It seems that there is a lot of doublespeak surrounding the monarchy, isn’t there?

            “She represents the authority of legitimate government in that role and it is to legitimate government that I metonymically am loyal.” Would you like the oath of allegiance to be reworded to make it clear that you are not actually declaring allegiance to people, but to something that you think those people represent? The credibility of the C of E takes a hit when its representatives justify the oath by claiming that its words do not mean what they say. It is hard to take such a church seriously.

            “In jest or otherwise”. Really? His adultery was real.

          • Your struggle doesn’t appear to be with my position, but with the limited constitutional monarchy that we have. Might be worth asking Theresa May ‘In what sense were you the Queen’s minister?’ when she retires. That might be sooner than we think.

        • My struggle is not so much with the constitutional monarchy or with the church that is in bed with it, but with the way they both discriminate against people who do not have a true allegiance to the monarch and her successors. You seem all too willing to turn a blind eye to this. Where is the outrage? Do you think Jesus insisted that Peter swar allegiance to Herod before endorsing his leadership of the church?

          • Remind me: was Herod constitutionally required to uphold the claims of Jesus and the community that followed him? If not, then this is not a legitimate comparison.

          • It does not matter what they are “constitutionally required” to do (or indeed whether “constitutionally required” even means anything). It is what they actually do that counts. Do you think that Elizabeth and Charles “uphold the claims of Jesus and the community that followed him”? Have they given all their wealth to the poor, for example?

            How would you feel if you were forced to take an oath of allegiance to Jeremy Corbyn? Would your concerns be allayed by the fact that Corbyn is required by his oath to have allegiance to the queen, who is required to uphold the claims of Jesus? Would you add yourself to this chain of dishonesty? Your own logic says that you would. I genuinely do not know whether you would.

  4. We are having palms and cloaks on Sunday! Starting at the cross in Bottesford, singing and waving palms as we walk to St Mary’s and then holding a drama presentation of cloaks being thrown down before Jesus down the main aisle. Home made cakes and refreshments at the end of the service. Easter blessings Ian and thank you for your blog.


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