Sunday reflection: Matthew 21:1-11
posted at 10:01 am on April 13, 2014 by Ed Morrissey
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection only represents my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion.Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.
Today’s Gospel reading is Matthew 21:1–11 (for the procession reading):
When Jesus and the disciples drew near Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find an ass tethered, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them here to me. And if anyone should say anything to you, reply, ‘The master has need of them.’ Then he will send them at once.” This happened so that what had been spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled: Say to daughter Zion, “Behold, your king comes to you, meek and riding on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.” The disciples went and did as Jesus had ordered them. They brought the ass and the colt and laid their cloaks over them, and he sat upon them. The very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and strewed them on the road. The crowds preceding him and those following kept crying out and saying: “Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; hosanna in the highest.” And when he entered Jerusalem the whole city was shaken and asked, “Who is this?” And the crowds replied, “This is Jesus the prophet, from Nazareth in Galilee.”
For the Mass, the Gospel reading is Matthew 27:11–54 (short form):
Jesus stood before the governor, Pontius Pilate, who questioned him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You say so.” And when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he made no answer. Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many things they are testifying against you?” But he did not answer him one word, so that the governor was greatly amazed.
Now on the occasion of the feast the governor was accustomed to release to the crowd one prisoner whom they wished. And at that time they had a notorious prisoner called Barabbas. So when they had assembled, Pilate said to them, “Which one do you want me to release to you, Barabbas, or Jesus called Christ?” For he knew that it was out of envy that they had handed him over. While he was still seated on the bench, his wife sent him a message, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man. I suffered much in a dream today because of him.” The chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas but to destroy Jesus. The governor said to them in reply, “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” They answered, “Barabbas!” Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus called Christ?” They all said, “Let him be crucified!” But he said, “Why? What evil has he done?” They only shouted the louder, “Let him be crucified!” When Pilate saw that he was not succeeding at all, but that a riot was breaking out instead, he took water and washed his hands in the sight of the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. Look to it yourselves.” And the whole people said in reply, “His blood be upon us and upon our children.” Then he released Barabbas to them, but after he had Jesus scourged, he handed him over to be crucified.
Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus inside the praetorium and gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped off his clothes and threw a scarlet military cloak about him. Weaving a crown out of thorns, they placed it on his head, and a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They spat upon him and took the reed and kept striking him on the head. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the cloak, dressed him in his own clothes, and led him off to crucify him.
As they were going out, they met a Cyrenian named Simon; this man they pressed into service to carry his cross.
And when they came to a place called Golgotha —which means Place of the Skull—, they gave Jesus wine to drink mixed with gall. But when he had tasted it, he refused to drink. After they had crucified him, they divided his garments by casting lots; then they sat down and kept watch over him there. And they placed over his head the written charge against him: This is Jesus, the King of the Jews. Two revolutionaries were crucified with him, one on his right and the other on his left. Those passing by reviled him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, if you are the Son of God, and come down from the cross!” Likewise the chief priests with the scribes and elders mocked him and said, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. So he is the king of Israel! Let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusted in God; let him deliver him now if he wants him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” The revolutionaries who were crucified with him also kept abusing him in the same way.
From noon onward, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Some of the bystanders who heard it said, “This one is calling for Elijah.” Immediately one of them ran to get a sponge; he soaked it in wine, and putting it on a reed, gave it to him to drink. But the rest said, “Wait, let us see if Elijah comes to save him.” But Jesus cried out again in a loud voice, and gave up his spirit.
Here all kneel and pause for a short time.
And behold, the veil of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth quaked, rocks were split, tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised. And coming forth from their tombs after his resurrection, they entered the holy city and appeared to many. The centurion and the men with him who were keeping watch over Jesus feared greatly when they saw the earthquake and all that was happening, and they said, “Truly, this was the Son of God!”
Today is Palm Sunday, the beginning of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Passion will play out in our Gospel reading at Mass; most will get the longer form of Matthew 26:14-27:66 rather than the short form from the lectionary above, the full and rich reading that begins with Judas’ initial act of betrayal of Jesus, and ends with the sealing of the tomb. For today’s reflection, though, the focus will be on the procession Gospel — and perhaps the first part of the longer reading as well.
Both readings are from Matthew, but let’s take a look at what precedes the procession Gospel in John. In John 11, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead in front of a large crowd in Bethany. He stayed with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus for a few days afterward, while John reports that the authorities in Jerusalem plotted to have Jesus killed after hearing of this miracle. In fact, they also plot to have Lazarus killed, John tells us in chapter 12, after wondering in the previous chapter whether Jesus would dare to show up in Jerusalem at all for the Passover.
Despite all of this, the large crowd noted in Matthew that attended Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem came mainly because of this mighty miracle performed in Bethany. In John 12:17-18 (Ignatius), we read that “The crowd that had been with him when he called Laz’arus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead bore witness. The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign.” Some of the crowd may have been from Jerusalem or other areas, but a large part of those hailing his entry into the city had either direct or second-hand knowledge of Jesus’ calling of Lazarus from the tomb.
All of these people celebrated Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. By the end of the week, not even all of His disciples stood by him as he was put to death. In just a few days, one of them would accept a bribe to help capture him, and the next day the crowds in Jerusalem would shout for Barabbas rather than the man who raised Lazarus from the tomb. The abandonment of such a figure in such a short period of time is nothing less than astonishing — especially considering the singular nature of Jesus’ final miracle in Bethany just the week before. The rejection of Jesus was all but total, even among those who knew He was at least a mighty prophet, and one has to assume that they must have spoken of what they had seen in Bethany and elsewhere to others in Jerusalem.
What happened? The Pharisees feared that Jesus would proclaim Himself the Messiah, while the crowds in Jerusalem hoped he would do so — but neither group was prepared for the true nature of the Messiah. They expected Jesus to expel the Romans from Jerusalem, but His first act on arriving in the city was to eject Jewish moneychangers from the Temple, and then left the city for the evening (Matthew 21:17). Jesus didn’t challenge Roman authority; he challenged the Temple authorities. Instead of going to war to make Judea rise again, Matthew 23 consists of Jesus condemning the scribes and Pharisees and predicting the destruction of Jerusalem to start chapter 24.
Do we not also do this, though, especially when the Messiah does not meet our definitions? Certainly, it’s easy to craft our own image of Jesus in a way that suits our comfort best — as a kind teacher, a healer, a mediator — and rejecting the Jesus that challenges our assumptions and our desires. When Jesus works for us and coincides with our own ambitions, we grab palm branches and pay homage. When Jesus reminds us of our duty to God and each other, we suddenly find somewhere else to be, or worse, find a lesser figure to champion instead.
Too often, we either want to compartmentalize our faith, or worse yet, think of faith as justifying our own worldview rather than having our worldview informed by our faith. When faith challenges part of that worldview, especially if it means standing with few of our friends on a point of faith and practice, we all struggle with which to give our loyalty. That’s true even for those of us who have felt Jesus’ presence in our lives, and have seen God’s hand in events that have unfolded for us. During those times, waving a palm branch and praising the Lord is the easiest thing in the world. When our agendas get challenged by our faith, we sometimes lose enthusiasm for waving those palm branches. That’s when we try to fit Jesus into agendas, or reduce His teaching to bromides and philosophy.
Two other Gospel stories are parallels to this. One is that of the young, wealthy man who has such enthusiasm for Jesus. He wants to become a disciple, and excitedly tells Jesus that he already follows the commandments. Jesus asks him to leave everything behind and follow him, at which point the young man becomes “sad” and walks away. That story teaches us about material attachment, but this rapid change from being hailed triumphantly to utterly abandoned demonstrates a similar problem with attachment to our own interpretation of God’s will rather than obediently submitting to His word.
Another comes from John 6:51-69 (Ignatius). While in Galilee, Jesus’ many disciples at that time clung to their own narrow understanding of the Messiah. Jesus tells them that He will be “the living bread” and that eternal salvation is the mission of the Messiah rather than political triumph. When they object, Jesus refuses to explain this away as a parable, instead intensifying the image by insisting that “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; 54he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” Not only did many walk away, but even the original twelve disciples “murmured at it,” and Jesus had to reinforce this instruction with them.
When confronted by the mysteries of faith, too often we just turn our back to return to the familiar. It is easier for us to walk away rather than hear the truth, especially when we are so invested in other priorities. Even with Jesus among them and working miracles for all to see — and which many did see — it turned out to be very easy to walk away. On this Palm Sunday, while we recall Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem and ponder His Passion afterward, perhaps we should ask ourselves when we’ve waved the palm branches when it was just easy to do so, and how many times we’ve put them aside or walked away when being a disciple was too uncomfortable.
Have a blessed Palm Sunday.