Rev. Sarah Buteux

March 20, 2016

Palm Sunday, Year C

 

 

 

 

“He Said What?!”

Luke 19:28-40

 

Like any married couple, Andrew and I have developed a short hand that helps us keep our relationship on track. Given that we are an eminently distracted minister married to an absent-minded professor, one of the more common refrains in our house is the phrase: “… and so I ordered one in green and they said they could deliver it by Thursday.”

Because, you see, if you’re paying attention enough to begin to wonder – wait, what’s been ordered in green and is being delivered on Thursday? – well, then all of a sudden you’re paying attention enough to know that you haven’t really been paying attention at all. At which point you just say, “I’m sorry, what was that you just said,” and you can get back to the real conversation.

Well, I don’t know what phrases Jesus might have uttered when he suspected people weren’t giving him their full attention, but it’s pretty clear that even those of us who claim to follow him aren’t always sure about what he said.

For instance, our reading for Palm Sunday begins with these words from the gospel of Luke: “After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.” Without peeking, does anyone have any idea what it was that Jesus just said? Anyone? Bueller? (That’s a little cultural shorthand).

He’s just told the parable of the ten minas. (Did anyone else –besides Andrew who has been diligently listening to me talk about this sermon all week – know that?) Probably not. I mean if you did, you’re amazing and if you didn’t, please don’t feel bad. Truth is, I didn’t even know when I first looked at the reading for today, in large part because we never read this parable in church. It’s not part of the lectionary, so it almost never comes up. Which is good… because it’s horrible.

It’s kind of like the parable of the talents from the gospel of Matthew only like 10 times worse. Comparing the two is kind of like comparing “Galavant” – a medieval musical on ABC, to HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”

In the parable of the talents, as told by Matthew, a landowner goes away on a trip after entrusting 5 talents to his most competent slave, 2 talents to his mostly competent slave, and 1 talent to his least competent slave. When he returns the first and second slave have doubled his money and the master is pleased.

The third slave, however, was so scared that he hid his money in the ground. Even though he returns it, the master is furious with him for not even trying to multiply it and has him cast out into the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The moral is as easy to understand as it is hard to swallow: “to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”

It’s not nice parable by any means, but as a preacher I can tell you, there is plenty there with which to work.

Luke, however, recasts the landowner as a nobleman, a nobleman who sets off to a distant country in search of permission from even greater powers to come back and rule his people.

However, this nobleman is so unpopular in his own country that a delegation follows him to try and block his power play. Before he leaves he bequeaths 10 gold minas to 10 of his slaves and their story plays out roughly the same as it does in Matthew. Only when he returns, the one slave who admits he was afraid to risk his mina puts the new king in such a foul mood that he has the entire delegation that tried to stop his coronation brought into his presence and wait for it…slaughtered.

Seriously: that’s the story Jesus tells right before he walks down into Jerusalem and frankly I’m glad it’s not in the lectionary because one of my big jobs these days is giving children’s sermons and teaching Sunday School, and I just wouldn’t want to have to flannel graph that. But, back to the big sermon, as I like to call these…

In Matthew we are given to understand that this parable tells us something about the kingdom of God. Like so much of Matthew, we are encouraged to take a down-to-earth story about a landowner and his slaves and extrapolate till we find a more spiritual meaning. We’re encouraged to wonder if the landowner represents God or Jesus, whether or not we are the slaves in this story, or what those talents really represent.

Luke’s gospel, however, is a very different gospel. Whereas Matthew’s Jesus says things like, “blessed are the poor in spirit,” Luke’s Jesus merely says, “blessed are the poor.” Matthew’s Jesus blesses people for being hungry and thirsty for righteousness. Luke’s Jesus simply blesses people who are hungry.

So when Luke’s Jesus talks about a nobleman who went off in search of power, it should come as no surprise that he’s not talking about how things will play out in the kingdom of God, he’s talking about how things work in the kingdoms of this world. This parable he tells isn’t even a thinly veiled allusion to how people in power behave. This “parable” is literally yesterday’s news.

Turns out, Herod the Great, who was king when Jesus was born, was survived by 3 sons: Herod Archelaus, Herod Antipas, and Herod Philip, all of whom went to Rome in hopes of being made the next King of the Jews. According to the historian Josephus, a delegation of fifty Jews went in protest, not wanting any of Herod’s offspring to rule over them.

Well, this delegation was unsuccessful, to say the least. After the Romans decided to divide the kingdom amongst the three brothers, Archelaus – who became ruler over Jerusalem -had the fifty hunted down and … anyone want to take a guess?…slaughtered. [1]

And that was just the beginning. Soon after taking power, Herod Archelaus sent his soldiers into Jerusalem to keep the peace during the Passover. And I should just say, for those of you who don’t know this, that the Passover celebration was an extremely volatile time in Jerusalem.

You’ll remember that it is the celebration of God’s people escaping their enslavement in Egypt. Remember that story, with all the plagues and the blood over the door and Charlton Heston parting the waters of the red sea so they could all escape into the wilderness? Remember that? Moses? No, it was Charlton Heston. It’s true, he totally did. I read it on Wikipedia. There’s pictures and everything.

Alright, well, let’s just say when people congregate to celebrate their release from one form of oppression, it doesn’t exactly warm their hearts toward their current oppressors, so the Passover was a very tense time. When some of the Jews threw rocks at his soldiers, Archelaus sent in a thousand more and a massacred 3000 of his own people.

And this is to say nothing of his overlord’s response. Rome also sent reinforcements to Jerusalem every year, reinforcements who would crucify Jewish pilgrims along the way as a pre-emptive warning to anyone who was even considering causing trouble in the city.

Pontius Pilate himself, in full battle regalia with a full legion of peace-keepers at his command, would have been entering Jerusalem from the far side of the city right about the time Jesus was finishing his tale.

And here is Jesus an itinerant preacher from Nowheresville, looking down from the mount of Olives and telling all the pilgrims around him- all the pilgrims who have been accumulating over the last few weeks drawn to his deeds of wonder and power, all the pilgrims who are convinced that Jesus is about to enter Jerusalem as the messiah, kick some Roman booty, and usher in the kingdom of God – that:

“to all those who have, more will be given;

but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”

 

This has got to be the worst pep talk in history… because Jesus…well…just look at him.

 

He is about to enter Jerusalem with nothing and lose everything.

 

He calls for a donkey, not a warhorse.

 

He is surrounded by peasants, not soldiers, palms not swords.

 

He is the messiah with no pomp[2], the king of no circumstance, a hen riding down into the fox house of Herod.

His is the voice of risk and revolution.

But Jesus’ revolution is not one where you get up and fight.

He’s preaching a sort of reverse revolution where you lay down and die.

 

Jesus is playing to lose here. I think he makes himself pretty clear.

 

I’m just not sure that anyone was paying attention.

 

It’s as if they totally missed what he just said.

 

And I understand why.

 

I understand, because expectations are powerful things, so powerful they can easily blind you to the reality right in front of you. These folks believe Jesus is the messiah and if there’s one thing they know for sure about the messiah it’s that he’s a winner – a winner who wins things – sound eerily familiar?

 

A beaten messiah was no messiah.

A crucified messiah was no messiah.

A dead messiah was no messiah.

It’s like rule #1 in the messiah handbook. The messiah is a winner.

 

And the people back then, just like so many people now, were so tired and afraid of being losers. So tired and afraid that they are ready to risk it all in support of someone who can make Jerusalem great again… at least for them. Someone strong enough to crush their enemies, put them back on top, and make tomorrow a safe and prosperous place for them and for their children. That’s all they want. That’s all any of us really want, right? Safety, peace, security; a chance to give our children a better life than we’ve had.

 

So however impossible the odds may seem as they make their way down the hill, however contrary a military takeover would be to everything Jesus has been preaching for the last 3 years, these pilgrims don’t just follow Jesus down into Jerusalem, they march out ahead of him the better to lay their coats on the ground as he passes by. “Blessed is the King,” they cry, “the King who comes in the name of the Lord!” They earnestly believe this man can save them, and the sad irony is that he can, and he will. Just not in the way they expect. And in all fairness to the Israelites, not in the way we expect either.

Because you see, we all want a better world, a whole world that is great again, but a better world is not going to come if we just find the right leader, or the strongest leader, or even the smartest leader to throw our weight behind.  A better world – what Jesus calls the Kingdom of God – is not what we get when we finally have the knowledge and the power to crush those who oppose us, exploit those who would take advantage of us, or wreck vengeance on those who have hurt us. The kingdom will only come when we finally make the courageous decision to just stop hating and hurting and oppressing one another at all. It will come when we choose the way he did, the way of self-sacrifice over self-protection, the way of restoration over retribution, the way strewn with palms not swords, the way of the cross.

That’s the message Jesus himself is heading into Jerusalem to deliver by Friday, knowing even as he does that he can’t just make it happen for us any more than any King, messiah, or leader ever has or ever could.

All he can do is show us the way and pray that we find the courage to follow.

And so he rides on, whether the people at his side really understand him or not.

He rides on and as he draws near to Jerusalem he begins to weep for her.

“If only you knew the things that make for peace,” he says.

He weeps for them as I have no doubt he weeps for us even still.

Because the truth is that we do know.

We know because he showed us.

We know because he told us.

It’s just still so hard to believe that’s what he really said.

 

Amen

[1] See “Jesus for President” Claiborne, p 78 & “Interpretation: A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Luke” Fred Craddock, p 221

[2] I got this great phrase from Alyce Mackenize, http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Palm-Sunday-Alyce-McKenzie-03-18-2013