-Palms, Pilate and Protest By The Prince of Peace- *
A Palm Sunday Sermon based on Matthew 21:1-11
April 13, 2014 at Mount Vernon, OH
by Rev. Scott Elliott
Staying seated, those of you who are able are invited to raise your hands and move them about your head. Put them down. Thank you. I wanted to make sure we all got a chance to waive “palms” on Palm Sunday!
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner makes the claim that “religion without humor is blasphemy.” 1 I don’t think the good Rabbi was referring to preachers making fools out of themselves by tripping on the way up to the pulpit, over scripture, over goofy theologies or even over bad puns.
What I think he meant was that God is in all of life and shines most particularly in the good and the joyful and if we stifle humor in our religion we do a great disservice to God and ourselves. Humor is a good and Godly gift, and to deny it is to deny a part of God’s creation and a blessing.
Those of you who have been here before have probably figured out by now that I love humor. I look for it and embrace it whenever I can.
I used to read the Bible and privately laugh at the humor that is embedded in a surprising number of places. I did this in private for years out of fear we were not supposed to guffaw while contemplating the Sacred stories of our faith. But in seminary I decided to come out of that comedic canonical closet. Mainly because in seminary I kept seeing more and more humor in the Bible and I began to wonder about a theology of humor being laced in it. “Theology” is the study of “divine things or religious truth.” Humor is a “comic [or] absurd situation causing amusement.” 2 So, if you will, a theology of humor amounts to the study of divine things or religious truth in comic and absurd situations.
Not all of the Bible is funny of course, but there quite a bit of humor placed in there, however, as a whole churches don’t often consider the Bible as containing both religious truths and humor. But it does.
It is sad to me that our cultural ethos of piety seems to keep us from seeing or acknowledging the Biblical humor. We’ve been taught to to check our sense of humor at the church door. Oh, we laugh at little jokes, but churches by and large usually stick with serious views of the Bible. By doing so we miss out on some fun stuff in there. This leads me to ask, if God and the authors did not put it in there for us to use, what’s it doing there?
Think about it, humans in the Bible are often involved in the comic or the absurd. From a talking serpent in Eden to David donning an over sized suit of armor (1 Sam 17:38) to Balaam’s arguing with a talking donkey (Num 22:28) to Jesus asking how we can see a speck in our neighbor’s eye when we have a log in our own (Matt 7:4), the absurd and the comedic are woven into parts of the Bible.
In fact a number of stories in Bible use humor to teach, not just to amuse. A good example is Jesus who uses humor to teach, preach and protest. Humor is a great teaching too it can help us see ourselves better sometimes in laughable situations than through direct criticism.
But it is more than just teaching, laughter is good for us and apparently for God. Psalm 2 (4) states that the God who “sits in the heavens will laugh.” As images of God we also laugh. It is a gift from God. As Job 8(21) notes, “God fills our mouth with laughter.” 3
And indeed there is much power in humor. Science has long reported that laughter is healthy. Friends, families and life-long mates share humor together. And so do communities. It helps teach. It helps in our bonding, relieves stress and allows us to share in common a good laugh.
I think God laughs with us, and Jesus as well as we gather two or more in his name. And humor does more than make us feel good and teach. Humor can be subversive, if it is used to point out the absurdity of oppressor’s positions, to make the oppressors less than the lofty gods of power they or we might imagine that they are and to give us new vision to alter standards of what is truly powerful.
We know that God acts in ways that are subversive. 4 From the Exodus to the Cross God subverts the status quo, and calls us to do so too. God and God’s people often use humor to subvert the status quo in the Bible.
In the Old Testament mighty Pharaoh’s family unknowingly rescues adopts and raises a poor Hebrew child who ironically ends up as Moses the leader of liberation and law.
In the New Testament mighty Herod is driven nuts in his unsuccessful hunt for a weak poor little baby born to be a king in a stinking stable.
The powerful and oppressive rich of Jesus’ day have as good a chance of getting to heaven as – now really picture this– stuffing a camel through the eye of a needle.
It’s not just people, the powerful reign of heaven is like a tiny mustard seed, not a golden palaces on high. It is like yeast spreading in flour, not like having more wealth or armies than others.
All of the images I just listed have an ironic humorous edge to them.
Just like a bad Hell’s Angels-like Samaritan can be a better neighbor than religious leaders. The story of The Good Samaritan is more than just humorous it calls us to see the world differently, Samaritans were known to be bad hombres in Jesus’ culture, they were loathed enemies. Jesus uses irony to flip that notion around. Those we loath are not only as human as us, but capable of being God’s agent for good and even better than culturally exalted religious elites. Putting it in today’s context: a story titled something like “The Good Hell’s Angel,” has got a cognitive dissonance sort of humor to it.
If you have ever seen the Musical Godspell you have experienced a good deal of humor straight from the Gospels. Properly done the first act of that Broadway show is virtually one punch line after another mostly from the book of Matthew, and if properly done it is also very Love centered and spiritual, as well as scriptural and full of teaching moments. If we ignore our culture’s piety it really does not take much to see the humor in Jesus’ stories. For example, in Godspell the story of Lazarus and the rich man plays out just like it can when we read it, with the selfish non-neighbor-loving rich guy haughty as all get out before death, and then in death just as haughty, only more foolishly so. Through Jesus’ humor we see that rich man’s selfish conduct is foolish not only in Hades, but in life as well. There’s humor in Jesus’ stories.
And that brings me to today’s reading. I have to give you some background to understand why the Palm Sunday story is not just poignant, and powerful, but, can also be heard as laced with humor.
It’s the start of Passover week. Everybody who is anybody is arriving in Jerusalem for the celebration. Not just devout celebrants, mind you but rabble rousers and rebels. Not just Jews, but, Roman legions. Pilate, the Roman governor of Palestine, arrives from Caesarea to oversee the added troops and volatile multitudes. Pilate’s procession into Jerusalem was no doubt in a stately fashion, mounted on a well groomed horse leading an entourage of spiffed up legions with all the pomp and circumstance and shiny gleaming metal befit a man of worldly power and wealth. Pilate comes into Jerusalem from the west in an imperial pageantry representing not just imperial power, but, imperial theology. In Rome Emperor Augustus was understood to be the son of god and so were his successors.
Augustus’ successor in Jesus’ day was Tiberius who bore the same divine titles as Augustus. So Pilate embodied not only the power of Rome in the worldly reality of the very-few-wealthy-oppress-the-rest social order, but he also represented a rival theology to Judaism, and rival gods to Yahweh. 5.
Pilate’s entry to Jerusalem is met – is countered by– Jesus’s supremely ironic and symbolic entry as the representative of a reign in conflict with Rome: the Reign of God. God v. Human Power. Peace v. War. Non-violence v. Violence. Christ v. Caesar. Pilate’s parade is met in every way with opposite visual splendors by a parade of Jesus and his multitude of adoring followers.
Think about it. How does Jesus come marching in in today’s story? Matthew tells it a little different than the children’s version I read. In Matthew we are told that the disciples (quote) “brought [him] the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them!” . . . According to Matthew Jesus sat astride a big and small donkey! Lot’s of folks see the description of Jesus riding two animals at once as an oversight or lack of care by Matthew. But see, I am like Uncle Albert in Mary Poppins, I love to laugh and it seems to me a fair read that Matthew is bright enough to get the absurdity of the visual image his words paint. Jesus humbly seated simultaneously somehow astride both a grown donkey and a smaller colt. It’s like a circus clown parody, a first century Saturday Night Live lampoon.
Jesus’ arrives from the east in opposite fashion than the pompous promenade with Pilate parading in on a prancing over-preened pony. T his is an image of Jesus having fun with the over-the-top opulence of the pomp and circumstance of Pilate, by being over the top in his own way, an OPPOSITE WAY to Caesar’s show of authority. Like a lot of comedy it is humor used to carry a serious message: God’s reign is not anything like earthly power’s reign. That’s Jesus message over and over again in the Gospels.
John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg in their remarkable book, The Last Week, suggest that Jesus’s entry to Jerusalem was a staged a political demonstration. What could Jesus have been demonstrating against? How about the notion that might makes right, that wealth rules the world and that God supports such injustices? Jesus’ statement seems to be God’s leaders, God’s Son, are not in Rome’s power, are not in Caesar. God does not does not reign with worldly ways of military might and oppressive wealth. God’s chosen are way, way different than the men who lead Rome.
The real Son of God comes from the opposite direction as Pilate and He protests with scorn, even a fun sort of mocking of the ways of oppression and violence. That’s why in Matthew Jesus comes all goofy looking, humble and poor (not mighty) and awkward to boot on two animals, inexpensive ordinary beasts of burden, a donkey and a colt whom someone else owns. Understanding this helps us understand Jesus comes to people full of fun and life and care– and love. This is a fun and compassionate King willing to stand up to Rome. He’s got guts!
Jesus comes to people who lay before him the very coats off their backs and natural limbs – palms fronds– from God’s creation, a traditional first century Palestine red carpet, if you will .
We are told as Jesus entered the city
The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed [him] were shouting,‘‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’’
I guarantee you no crowd in Jerusalem greeted Pilate with that type of genuine fervor! Genuine fear perhaps, but not fervor.
“Hosanna” is a joyful sound, a word that means “O save now.” 6. Jesus on his humble and humourous gutsy ride into Jerusalem is understood to be one who can save. Jesus’s Way of love and non-violence and inclusivity is radically in opposition to Rome’s show of crushing human power and opulence, Jesus’ extremely different Way is understood as the Way of salvation.
On that first Palm Sunday there was a choice, the same choice we have today. The way of unjust imperial violence offered by the Pilates of the world who dominate by exclusivity, elitism and force; or the radical way of God’s inclusivity, the God who reigns through non-violent justice and love. Who aims us toward a peace where all have well being. 7. . . . All. Have. Well being!
Jesus can be understood to have made a seriously funny entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, so funny we can smile at it still, so effective in its underlying serious message that it caused the oppressed multitude to yell out “Hosanna!” O SAVE NOW.
Jesus’s humorous protest made his point: choose Caesar or choose God. This are two very, very different choices. Caesar’s peace through violence or God’s peace through non-violence. Those yelling “Hosanna” made the joyful sound of choosing God’s peace.
We can make that choice and choose to yell out Hosanna too! In fact lets do it. Humor me. Hold your palms up and wave them! Now on three shout “Hosanna!” 1….2….3 HOSANNA !!!! I don’t know about you, but I can think of no better prayer than “O save now!” HOSANNA! AMEN.
* This sermon is based in good part on a sermon that I preached in 2008.
1. Kushner, Harold, I recall Rabbi Lawrence Kushner stating this during an interview in Corvallis, Oregon at the “God at 2000″ conference in the winter of 2000.
2. Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary (2001),“theology” and ‘humor.”
3. I got the ideas and the cites and/or quotes in this paragraph from Lee van Rensburg’s book The Sense of Humor in Scripture, Theology and Worship, (Lima, Ohio:Fairway Press, 1991) 21, 33-34.
4. I got this idea primarily from Yehuda Raddy and Athalya Bremmer’s book On Humour and the Comic in the Hebrew Bible, (Sheffield: Almond Press, 1990), 100.
5. Borg, Marcus, Crossan, Dominic John, The Last Week, (HarperCollins, 2006 ). This book’s chapter on Palm Sunday, (along with Matthew 21:1-11) is the source of the descriptions in this sermon of the parade at either end of Jerusalem. This book gave me the insight and inspiration for a sermon that compared the two contrasting parades and the protest angle to Jesus’s ride. This made me think of Rabbi Kushner’s quote about religion and humor and basically the whole idea that Palm Sunday celebrates Jesus’s cleverly ironic and humorous entry into Jerusalem.
6. Westminister Dictionary of Theological terms “Hosanna.”
7. The Last Week, 215-216.
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