The Two Ways
Palm Sunday, Passion Sunday (Year B) 4 April 2021; 8 am Spoken Mass on the Labyrinth;
10 am Spoken Mass with Music livestreamed from the chancel; Homily Delivered at Trinity Episcopal Church
The Rev. Dr. Anthony Hutchinson God, take away our hearts of stone, and give us hearts of flesh. Amen.
Passover was a troubled time in Roman-occupied Jerusalem. The festival celebrated the liberation of Hebrew slaves from slavery in Egypt. The Passover lambs required for the feast could only be gotten from the Temple in Jerusalem, so the city thronged with religious pilgrims, at least trebling its population during the feast. And freedom and salvation were on the minds of all.
The harsh Roman occupation was abetted by the wealthy elites of Jerusalem and other cities like the capital of the Roman province of Judea, Caesarea. The Temple establishment itself was part of this group of Jewish Quislings who furthered their own wealth and power by collaborating with the Romans. This was all at the expense of those whom the elites derisively called the “people of the land,” reduced to poverty and landlessness, dispossessed in their own homeland, reduced to day-labor at less-than-living wages.
As a result, Passover had seen multiple disorders, riots, and failed popular uprisings.
The Roman governors and commanders thus were always well advised to leave Caesarea with a hefty contingent of troops and go to Jerusalem for Passover. Their presence would give potential troublemakers second thoughts about a possible uprising.
For weeks now, we have seen Gospel stories where Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem, and tells his disciples that he must go there. Jesus is not going simply to celebrate the festival. He must confront the leadership, and though he does not see the way ahead clearly, he knows he must pursue this path. He has no doubts what the likely outcome will be, death. Despite this, he is determined to go.
So, on the first day of the week before that particular Passover, there were two processions entering the Holy City. One, from the West, brought Pilate the governor with his military security enforcers. Keeping with the propaganda needs of governments since time immemorial, the procession was over the top, seeking public attention: in order to deter rebellion, there had to be a major, awe-inspiring display of Imperial Might, military strength, determination, while ostensibly honoring and respecting the local establishment and its religious scruples. The governor’s entourage was coming to honor the city and its leaders on this, the greatest week of the Jewish calendar. Just don’t get in its way.
From the East, from the Mount of Olives, came a smaller, less pomp-ridden procession with Jesus, a procession spring up from the grass roots, not imposed from the imperial heights above. The coming salvation of Israel was prophesied as arriving from the Mount of Olives to the East of the City (Zech. 14:4; Josephus Ant. 20.167-72). So the people, excited to finally see this Galilean prophet announcing the arrival of the Kingdom of God and who reputedly had the ability to heal the sick, came out to meet him. The greet him throwing their cloaks on the ground, waving palm branches, just as the inhabitants of the city had done when the Jewish army of the Maccabees had freed the city and driven out the Greek Syrian oppressors 170 years earlier (1 Macc. 13:14).
Anticipating and trying to redirect this reaction of the crowd, Jesus performs a prophetic act, an act with a message. He asks to ride into Jerusalem seated on a donkey. Zephaniah 9:9 says that the Coming One to make things right will come in peace and not in war, seated on a donkey instead of a war stallion.
His point is: I am indeed the one you expect, and I am announcing the arrival of the longed-for Reign of God. But I am not the kind of Messiah you think you need. I am no military conqueror. I only seek to advance God’s Reign by passionate and powerful engagement with those opposing God’s reign, peaceful engagement, though it may provoke violence by them.
The people welcome him as the one who will free the nation. “Hosanna, O Son of David,” they say, that is, “Save us NOW, promised one.”
Today is called Palm Sunday, or the Sunday of the Passion, and it is regularly noted to be somewhat schizophrenic liturgically: joyful and triumphant entrance liturgy with palms, followed by the Passion Gospel, Jesus’ betrayal, the crowds (presumably many of the same crowds that welcomed him a few minutes ago) calling for his death, and then his torture and death. Some people dislike that often in these liturgies, the people both sing “Hosanna” at the Liturgy of the Palms and then shout “Crucify him” during the Gospel of the Passion.
But the fact is, there is a deep symbolic unity in this day and in its stories, and a profound teaching about how we Christians see the world.
We see in the contrast between the Palms and the Passion the struggle between those two parades, between the peaceful coming of a humble, donkey-riding Savior and the force-based and crucifying Imperial Power of Pilate’s military parade.
The earliest Christian writing that has come down to us from after the books we find in the New Testament is a short book called the Didache, or the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles. That book gives us the earliest description of a Christian Eucharist we know. Most of it is taken up in describing what it calls the “Two Ways,” the Way of Life versus the Way of Death. Two Parades: Pilate’s and Jesus; Two nations: the Empire or the Reign of God. Significantly, one of the hallmarks for the Didache of the Way of Life is that it is peaceful, non-retaliative, and loving.
But we must not think that the Two Ways here are identified with groups of people. This isn’t an issue of good people on this side versus bad people on the other. The line between good and evil does not lie between interrogator and prisoner, between political parties, between economic classes, countries, or religions. It does not lie between any groups of people, however defined. It is subtle, but clearly defined: it runs down the middle of the heart of every human being.
Preaching Palm Sunday or Good Friday has always been a great moral responsibility for any Christian minister: it is on those two days that historically most pogroms of Christians against Jews have occurred. The passion stories’ use of the word Judaioi, that probably in this context refers to residents of the Roman Province of Judea rather than Galilee (that’s why our translation today uses Judeans rather than Jews), and the shameful anti-Semitic blood libel and accusations of genetic guilt at Deicide, lay behind this. Christians for centuries have on those two days on occasion run out of churches onto the streets, seeking Jews and killing them. But we must remember, in these stories, we are all Jews. We are in this together.
Friends, we are all in that crowd of people welcoming Jesus. And we are all in that crowd calling for his death. In a very real way, it is we who crucified him. We must take the Reign of God whose arrival Jesus announced seriously, and make it the central, governing thing in our lives, despite our fears. We must take this gentle loving figure seated on a donkey as our model, and our Lord, though we possibly fear where he might lead us. Let us be attentive to him, and present in our lives, our experience of God’s call.
In the name of Christ, Amen