Holy Week 2020

Palm Sunday

Matthew 21.1-11

There must have been a moment on the Mount of Olives, something like the moment when a bride gets into the car next to her father, when there was no going back, when the individual gesture attains collective significance, Jesus on a donkey, the bride at the altar.

The problem is that hindsight shapes historical narrative. What is now needs a thread to a cause back then. What makes us what we are as a species is pattern recognition so it is hardly surprising that we look for patterns in everything, in the way that we are challenged to see patterns in jumble puzzles, we are seduced by what we suppose rather than what we actually see.

But as Jesus came down from the Mount of Olives towards the city walls, Judas might have changed his mind - again; the High Priest might have been diverted to some other nasty little problem; Pontius Pilate might have gone either way. No doubt, once he arrived in Jerusalem, Jesus lived with the constant threat of execution but never knowing when or how.

As the donkey made its way into the city, no doubt the odds in favour of a friendly reception from his followers was very high, but the crowd was another matter. It could have gone either way. We know this because either the same crowd, or a different rent-a-crowd, greeted Jesus very differently after his arrest.

Whatever the particular circumstances, we know in a general way that the religious authorities were uncertain. For a start, they lived in daily fear of the Romans whose only constancy lay in murder and taxes; and the Romans too, were uncertain under the weird and mercurial dictatorship of the Emperor Tiberias, adding an extra layer of instability to an always volatile situation; the imperial dictatorship after the death  of Caesar Augustus was never very sure; you only have to look at 69 AD and what became known as the War of the Four Emperors after the suicide of the even more mad and louche Emperor Nero. But the dilemma of the religious authorities was made much worse by their own sullen complicity, forced to concur with Roman rule in order to maintain their situation, simultaneously knowing they should do no such thing, not dissimilar to the situation in which the Vatican found itself after the burning of the Reichstag in 1933 and even more so after Kristallnacht in 1938. Equivocation of that kind causes enormous insecurity which we can hear in their cry to Jesus to tell the people not to shout his praises. His reply, that the very stones would cry out (Luke 19.40), was hardly encouraging.

At another level still, there was the problem of the Messiah. Strangely, in the almost half a millennium since Second Isaiah, Temple Judaism had not worked out a process for recognising the Messiah should he arrive; this was partly because the Temple authorities were quite rightly deeply suspicious of prophets, in a way that Western Christianity is today, but the omission was a permanent flaw in the religious fabric. Young zealots proclaiming Messiahship came and went, irritating Temple equivocation but at least their trajectory was uniform: they came, they failed to conquer and they were executed. But this Jesus was quite another matter.

For a start, in spite of his apparent pacifism - you never knew with conspirators - he was learned in the Law and the Scriptures and he was clever, funny and a crowd pleaser. He was popular in a way that his precursors had not been and, what was worse, he performed miracles. Killing a bandit was one thing, killing a healer was quite another.

So here we are, outside the Temple with Jesus about to dismount from his donkey, not the humble beast often cited in commentaries but the exact replication of the confirmation of the Kingship of Solomon which David proclaimed from his sick bed. But that was not where the uncertainty ended. Jesus had a clear idea by then that he must die to secure the forgiveness of the Chosen People from their sin, according to the Scriptures (Wright), but it is by no means clear that his followers knew what was going on. In spite of repeated warnings of the two-stage process of Jewish condemnation and Roman execution, perhaps too clear cut in retrospective Gospel accounts, his followers, quite naturally, did not understand. Jesus called for the mutual forgiveness of sins and for people to follow him: the first was somewhat alien, given the Temple tariff system; but what did it mean to follow this man?

Mix all these uncertainties together and the Gospel accounts are much less clear cut than we assume from repeated reading in the context of two thousand years of tradition. The fate of Jesus might have been written, so to speak, by God but the rest of the drama was subject to human whim.

Nonetheless, in spite of any inner doubts, the authorities spoke as if everything was under control. The Roman soldiers patrolled the streets and the Temple authorities supervised the purchase and preparation of Passover lambs but in spite of what they did and said, they knew that there was trouble brewing which the Jesus phenomenon, in spite of his gentleness of character, made more rather than less likely.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that, regardless of how we view the Bible in terms of its authorship, there is a proper distinction to be made between symbolic characters and stories, created to emphasise a theological or ethical point, and the real, complex stories, made up of real, complex people. Both kinds of stories deserve scrupulous attention and our lifelong dedication to seeing them from every angle; but what makes the real stories different from the symbolic stories is precisely the range of human emotion, calculation and motive in the real stories, a set of human characteristics incapable of computation. The worlds of Adam and Eve and Sampson and Delilah are worlds apart and, not surprisingly, we will wrestle with the later couple long after we have reached an approximate accommodation with the earlier.

The outcome to be avoided most of all, however, is reading ourselves into the text rather than letting it speak for itself, with all its narrative and syntactical imperfections, more in the manner of archaeologists than physicists.