Plows, Pruning Hooks and Palm Leaves

March 23, 1997


Plows, Pruning Hooks, and Palm Leaves

The children have reminded us that this day is known in the church calendar as Palm Sunday, a celebration of that day, not long before his death, when Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem in a curious way surely meant to be symbolic. In one of the suburbs that was to Jerusalem what Derby is to Wichita, he sends a couple of his disciples to get a donkey, on which he plans to ride into town. The men who wrote the gospels didn’t always agree on details, and this is a good example. Mark and Luke speak only about a single animal, which makes sense, but Matthew misunderstood an old Jewish prophecy and has Jesus requesting two donkeys and then somehow or other riding on both of them — which would be an interesting exercise! I think we can believe Mark and Luke in this case, but why a donkey at all? It’s hard for a grown man to sit on a donkey without looking comical — legs hanging almost to the ground, the donkey so lazy or stubborn you can’t help thinking the man would do better to just get off and walk. Some of you will remember those donkey ball games we used to see in small town softball parks. They were not graceful or elegant spectacles.
There are at least three possibilities about why we have a donkey in this story, written a long time after Jesus died by people who may not have known which one was the true explanation. The simplest reason could be that people sometimes rode on donkeys, for convenience’s sake, with no symbolic meanings in mind at all. Another reason, more attractive to us, probably, is that perhaps Jesus wanted to make the point one more time that he was not the kind of warrior king his people had been looking for. Some of them had already tried to force his hand, and make him such a king whether he liked it or not, hoping he would lead a revolt against the occupying Roman armies and bring glory back to Israel. He had turned them down, but here they are still hopeful and shouting “Blessings on him who comes as king,” so perhaps he decides to make a statement. Instead of a prancing war horse with glittering harness on which such a king might ride, he throws a leg over a comical bandy-legged little donkey and enters the holy city not as a conquering monarch but as a gentle, unassuming man of peace.
He knew his own sacred scriptures, of course, and one from Isaiah might well have been a favorite. Isaiah talks of a time when the endless wars that made life miserable for his people would finally come to an end, when the nations would beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, when nation would no longer lift up sword against nation, and wars would be forgotten. It was an age-old poignant dream, never realized for very long at a time, and not realized at this late date either, as witness the awful slaughter of those wide-eyed teenage Israeli schoolgirls a couple of weeks ago. It would be pleasant to think Jesus himself consciously chose to make a plea for peace. If I could forget all about probability and scholarship, that’s the explanation I would like best about the donkey.
But there is still another reason why the donkey may show up in this story, and it’s probably the real reason. Any careful Bible student knows that early Christian writers ransacked the Old Testament looking for prophecies that might help convince Jews that Jesus really was the Messiah they had waited for so long. It didn’t matter that the prophecy, in its original context, was obviously about someone else. If some of the words, taken out of context, could be made applicable to the life of Jesus, that was enough. And so, since one of the late Jewish prophets, seeing God’s hand in the victories of Alexander the Great over some of Israel’s enemies, had spoken of how a new king would ride a donkey into Jerusalem to signify his rule over a world at peace, the early church made such a story part of the biography of Jesus. If you were to go home and study the 9th chapter of Zechariah, even without the help of a commentary, it would be obvious to you that it deals with events happening three centuries before Christ was born. But if all other details are ignored, a single verse in that chapter could be uprooted from its context and used by the new Christian community as a description of Christ. So they did what they so often did: “Our Lord,” they said, “is the very man the prophet had in mind.” That way of using ancient scripture to win converts is not very appealing to most of us anymore, but as any serious Bible student knows it was common practice in early Christian writing.
So on the day we are talking about this morning, Matthew and Mark and Luke would have us believe that the old dream of a great king was resurrected once again and the people who believed in Jesus, and the people who wanted to believe in Jesus, showed their patriotism by throwing tree branches on the road in front of the donkey. Fred Buechner, America’s most poetic preacher says it better than I can, so here is the gift of his description:
“We call it Palm Sunday because maybe they were palm branches that were thrown into the road in front of him as he approached the city — a kind of poor man’s red-carpet treatment, a kind of homemade ticker-tape parade. Just branches is all the record states, but maybe palms is what they actually were, and in any case it’s as palms that we remember them; and all over Christendom people leave church with palm leaves of their own to remember him by on the anniversary of his last journey, to pin up on the kitchen bulletin board or stick into the frame of the dresser mirror until finally they turn yellow and brittle with age and we throw them out. Some of the people who were there were so carried away by what was happening that they took the clothes off their backs and spread them out on the road in front of him along with the branches, so that the clip-clop, clip-clop of the hooves of the colt he was riding was muffled by shirts, shawls, cloaks spread out there in the dust as maybe even you and I would have spread ours out too if we’d been there because it was a moment with such hope and passion in it. That’s what the palms are all about.”
So they run along with the donkey, these nobodies in the social register of Jerusalem, shouting their faith that somebody has come at last to save them — even if he doesn’t look exactly the way they thought he would. It has to be one of the oddest parades in history — the world’s most unlikely king riding to what he knows is likely to be his death, while in front and behind and on both sides the ragtag little crowd make a pathetic royal highway for him out of their clothes and the branches they strip from nearby trees. And it’s too much, finally, for some of the calmer Pharisees who are watching. They are good church-going respectable people, much like us, and they are worried about things getting out of control as the excited crowd enters Jerusalem, so they tell the teacher he needs to reprimand his unruly students. Jesus had a highly poetic turn of mind and his enigmatic reply is not unusual. He tells the cautioning Pharisees that if his disciples are made to keep quiet, the very stones lying beside the road would shout — meaning, surely, that Truth will out, one way or another, and if human lips are silenced the inanimate rocks will speak. Unlike many of his modern followers, Jesus was no slave to literalism. He was not afraid to trust the language of poetry and count on people to understand. Whether the Pharisees do understand, we have no way of knowing, but they give up and the parade moves on toward the capitol.
I doubt that any scene in the Gospels is more poignant than what happens next. The dusty road curves or rises, and suddenly the messenger of peace sees the great city which for his people is the most sacred spot on earth. Facing east, it was built on a scarf of rock above the Kidron valley, and when the morning sun shimmered on its front walls the heart of every Jew swelled with pride. Jesus had seen it before, but this time was different. Mixed with pride was an unbearable sadness because of what he saw clearly was going to happen to it. It took no miracle to guess that the Romans who ruled Israel through local kings and governors would probably lose their patience with the constant Jewish rebellions, and would destroy the city.
So this time, while shouts of triumph and hope rang in his ears, Jesus looked at the city and wept. Wept because he knew that in all its beauty, standing there so strong and proud and full of life, the city was doomed. It would be another 40 years before it happened, but he knew that day that he had not changed people’s hearts enough to keep it from happening. In their own moment of expectancy and joy, his friends must have wondered that day about his tears, but when he spoke it was not to them, but to the city he had not been able to teach: “If only you knew the way that leads to peace,” he said, “but you did not recognize God’s moment when it came.”
I think he did not have us in mind, still to come through the unfolding centuries, but how can we hear those words without a sense of our own failure — far too often — to “recognize God’s moment “ when it comes? The chance to help make peace in the world — between nations if we can, between our house and the house next door when we can, and in our own family…..because we can — if, in that beautiful phrase, we recognize God’s moment when it comes, and make sure the people we love hear us say so.
A friend of mine asks why we wait, so many of us, until the last week of someone’s life to tell them what they have meant to us, and he quotes a man who writes his wife in an hour of desperate family crisis to say, “What grieves me now in this time of pain is that I never before put my feelings, my sacred valuing of you, into words.” The words struck home for my friend, who wonders “Why did I wait until the last week to lean down over my 90-pound father, who was racked with cancer, to whisper to him, ‘Dad, you have been a great father, thank you so much. I love you.’ I saw tears fill his eyes, and very quietly from his shriveled lips he forced a response with words I could not remember ever having heard before: ‘I love you too, son.’” Why do we wait, when so many moments to create peace or speak our love come and pass away unrecognized in the course of a lifetime?
This is what Palm Sunday is about, if it is about anything that matters at all: the hope that when the true King approaches the city of our hearts as he once drew near that other city, we will recognize him and say Yes to the love and tenderness that make us fully human. “If I had known what trouble you were bearing,” a poet says, “I would have lent a little love to you, and slipped my hand within your hand, and made your stay more pleasant in the land…..if I had known.”
Have we not all said it more than once, in some moment of regret: “If I had known”?