April 14, 2019
Exits and Entrances
Phillipians 2:5-11; Psalm 118:1-2,19-29; Luke 19:28-40
I did my undergraduate degree in English literature, so I have a long-standing interest in words and their meanings. When I began my theological studies in 1978, I took an introductory course in New Testament Greek. The professor gave us the bare minimum of what we needed – not much more than the alphabet! – and tossed us into the gospel of John. It was an easy way to begin because John’s vocabulary is very repetitive, and it was certainly more interesting than a year of grammar exercises would have been. New Testament Greek is different from both classical and modern Greek, mostly in the way words are pronounced, and the fact that New Testament Greek is written mostly in lower-case letters. Still, 40-some years later, I retain a smattering of Greek and can decipher words here and there.
So, I was amused, as Mary and I walked through the Athens airport, to peer at a sign and eventually figure out that the Greek word for exit is – wait for it – exodos! It’s a combination of two words: ex meaning “out” and hodos meaning “way or road”. Exodos is literally “the way out”. (By contrast, the word for entrance is eisodos, or “the way in”.)
Of course, the reason the word caught my attention was because of the importance of exodus in the story of God’s dealings with humankind. The deliverance of the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt is so central to Israel’s history and identity that we call it the Exodus. We will hear that story again at the Easter Vigil. And that seminal event, that foundational event, becomes a theme which echoes through Israel’s pilgrimage with God and is found over and over again in scripture. We heard it last week in the reading from Isaiah: “Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior…Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing…” (Isaiah 43:16-18).
And eventually, the theme of exodus enters the Christian story. We heard it a couple of months ago, although we may not have recognized it. On the last Sunday after Epiphany, when we read the Transfiguration gospel, the Epiphany season was framed by the words we also heard at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my Son”. In Luke’s telling of the Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah speak with Jesus “about his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31). They speak with Jesus about his exodos. And Luke continues, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). That final journey unfolds over many chapters, until Jesus “goes up” to Jerusalem (Luke 19:28). This is where our gospel reading, and the final week of Jesus’ earthly ministry, begins.
Jesus goes to Jerusalem in full awareness of what will happen there, in full knowledge of what he is going to do. The exodos that Jesus will accomplish there will be a new deliverance, a deliverance from the power of sin and death, a deliverance which will be the seminal event, the foundational event in the formation of a new people.
That departure, that way out, that exodos begins today with an entrance. Interestingly, Luke’s story does not mention palms. Nor does Jesus enter the city immediately. It’s too bad the lectionary cuts out where it does. Really, we should be reading further. Jesus, seeing the city as he draws near, weeps over it, lamenting its failure to recognize the signs of its coming destruction. He says, “They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you…because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God” (Luke 19:44). Remember the words of Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father? “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people” (Luke 1:68). Jesus’ arrival at Jerusalem is a divine visitation which will set people free. But the city does not recognize the moment. They do not recognize God among them. Jesus laments a lost opportunity. Only then does he enter the temple and drive out those who are selling things there (Luke 19:41-46). He echoes the prophecy of Malachi: “The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple…But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire…and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness” (Malachi 3:1-3). All three of these actions – approaching the city, lamenting over it, and cleansing the temple – are a single prophetic demonstration of Jesus’s commitment to his mission. Today, though, Jesus stays outside the city. That’s significant. Jerusalem is the place where prophets go to die, but executions happen outside the city walls.
Jesus approaches the city with a “multitude of disciples”, Luke tells us. There are his immediate followers. And it’s likely that he is part of a larger group making the Passover pilgrimage to the city. Luke unfolds the story, detail upon detail. We can see it happening: sending two disciples to find a colt; the question why they are taking it; setting Jesus on the animal; spreading cloaks on the road; the shouts of the disciples; the Pharisees’ attempts to shut down the celebration. There we are, watching, listening. Are we among the cheering disciples? Are we bystanders watching, joining in the excitement? Are we among the nervous leaders, all too aware of what this all means?
We can imagine how the disciples feel as Jesus approaches the city. After three long years, their teacher – and they with him – are finally getting the recognition they feel they deserve. In the excitement of the moment, they most likely forget Jesus’ words that he is going to Jerusalem to die. They probably put it out of their minds, as most of us do with information we simply can’t accept. They look instead with expectation to a near future when their master will assume all the trappings of a royal messiah.
Because Jesus’ approach to the city is the approach of a king. It is full of messianic language and images. Jesus rides a colt, echoing the words of another Zechariah – the Old Testament prophet: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zech. 9:9). The disciples recognize this for what it is. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” they shout. They spread their cloaks like a royal carpet before Jesus. This is dangerous behaviour! Jesus knows exactly what he is doing. This may explain the secrecy with which the two disciples obtain the colt – the conversation with the owners is almost like a code, perhaps pre-arranged with the owners who are sympathetic to Jesus’ mission. They may even be secret followers of Jesus, because they recognize his title: “the Lord needs it”.
The Pharisees also recognize this arrival for what it is, hence, their anxious attempts to shut down the disciples’ acclamation of Jesus. “Tell your followers to stop!” “Ix-nay on the ing-kay anguage-lay, Jesus!” The meaning is larger than the actual event. Jesus threatens the public peace and good order at a politically charged time of year and festival – the Passover, after all, is a celebration of liberation, not just from oppression in Egypt, but for a people groaning under the oppression of Rome. Jesus also threatens the Pharisees’ privileged position of power and influence, both within Jewish society and with the Roman occupiers. And Jesus replies that not only the people, but all of creation, recognizes and welcomes him. “If these were silent, even the stones would cry out.” Jesus is indeed a king, and his reign is cosmic. It is too late for secrets now.
Such are the political tensions around the time of Passover that Pontius Pilate and his Roman soldiers are compelled to leave the relative comfort of Caesarea and make their presence and authority visible in Jerusalem. So, they too understand Jesus’ action for what it is. When a Roman dignitary entered a city, especially after a military victory, they were honoured with a “triumph”. The people would go out to meet them and accompany them into the city with shouts of praise telling what the leader had accomplished. But in typical fashion, Jesus does not enter the city as a conquering military hero in a chariot. He comes in humility, riding a beast of burden. He turns the accepted standards of power and submission on their heads. In the ancient world, honor and shame were the social currency that indicated status, power, and influence. The biggest honor you could receive was a triumphal entry. But Jesus subverts the honor, shuns the trappings of power. And the biggest shame Jesus will face is the procession to place of execution, carrying the instrument of his own death.
What Luke gives us in narrative, Paul gives us in theological reflection in our reading from the letter to the Philippians. Writing from prison, Paul encourages the Christians at Philippi to persevere in their faith in the face of opposition and even threats of death. In the context of the Roman empire, participating in a religion meant that following a deity would give you honor, gain, and power commensurate with the power of that deity to bestow them. For Christians, says Paul, participating in the life of Jesus is not about power. It is all about humility, obedience, loss, and self-emptying to the point of a shameful death. And it is only out of humility, obedience, loss, and self-emptying that exaltation comes. Jesus humbled himself and was obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross – therefore God has highly exalted him.
So Paul’s words transition us to the rest of this week. Today, Palm Sunday, is not a joyful break between Lent and Good Friday. It is intimately bound up with the dying to self that Lent is all about, and it leads us into contemplation of and participation in the great events by which our redemption was won. We will put before ourselves the accounts of the painful and hopeful days which lead to the cross and then to Easter. To live that story, to live with these events and their consequences in human history, is to keep Holy Week. The story of Holy Week is no melodrama viewed through the haze of centuries. It is real. It is our story.
Our focus in the days to come will be on Jesus himself. In John’s telling of Jesus’ passion, Pilate says, “Behold the man!” That is what we are meant to do during Holy Week. We are to look at Jesus, gaze at him, focus on him. He stands before us, and the form of a slave becomes for us the form of God’s own self. And the form of God is visible in the form of the suffering, humble slave of all. This is what God is like. This is who God is. And the exodos, the way out that Jesus accomplishes is our way in to the heart of God.
Lord of the swaying palms, the stones of earth and beasts of burden bear witness to your coming: lead us from the violence of empire and the collusion of crowds to a heart of flesh, a world re-made and a new song for all creation; through Jesus Christ, the Crucified God. Amen.
Steven Shakespeare, Prayers for an Inclusive Church