On Palm Sunday we tell the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem almost 2000 years ago, with people strewing palm branches before him. We call this Sunday "Palm Sunday" because of the palm branches. A hymn often sung on Palm Sunday is more than a thousand years old. The first line of this hymn says: "All glory, laud, and honor to thee, Redeemer, King, to whom the lips of children made sweet hosannas ring!" There are many difficult words in that line which we need to understand, if we are to know what we are celebrating today.
Glory means "honor and praise," "laud" comes from a Latin word meaning praise, and honor means to respect someone very much. So when we say "all glory, laud, and honor to thee, Redeemer King" we are praising and expressing our highest respect for the person, who is our Redeemer King. Today, we might use words like "awesome," "brilliant," and "cool" to express the same idea.
The Redeemer King is so awesome, brilliant, and cool, our hymn tells us, that children are singing "sweet hosannas" to him. The word "hosanna" comes from a Hebrew word, "hoshi’a na" which reminds us that the people in the story we heard this morning are living in Jerusalem where people understand Hebrew. Psalm 118:25 begins with the word "Hosanna" which means "O save!" or "save us!" So the children are singing praises to the Redeemer King, who is awesome, brilliant and cool, because they hope he will save them.
And that's the key to what "Redeemer King" means. "Redeemer" means "Savior" or "one who saves us." And by saving us, we mean the one who brings us closer to God. Sometimes we feel far away from God, like we feel separated from our parents when we’ve been angry with them or they've been angry with us. If we say we’re sorry, or if they say they're sorry, then we feel closer again, and we feel better. Jesus is our Redeemer King because he "says" for all of us in his life and death that we are sorry for being angry with God. And that means we can feel closer to God again, and know that God loves us, even if at times we still get angry.
The story of what we call Palm Sunday is good reading. Jesus is approaching Jerusalem. He sends disciples to find a colt, which is waiting for him, and then he mounts and rides into Jerusalem to the acclaim of crowds spreading cut branches and their cloaks and branches. In Mark’s account he then enters Jerusalem and the temple, looks things over, and retires for the night before returning the next day to drive out the money-changers. In the gospels of Matthew and Luke he drives out the money-changers immediately after entering the city at the head of a triumphant procession.
Luke’s gospel contains one other significant difference. As he enters Jerusalem, Jesus stops and weeps for the fate of the city. John’s gospel places the entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of his ministry rather than at the end. In the gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke Jesus goes to Jerusalem only once, at the end of his ministry. But in John’s account he goes there many times and enacts his "symbolic destruction" of the temple the very first time.
I call his act a "symbolic destruction" of the temple, because it is an attack on the temple itself. It is not merely a cleansing of corruption from the temple. Under Jewish law the money-changers are not doing anything wrong. They are not necessarily cheating the people. By selling animals without blemish for sacrifice and changing foreign money into Jewish shekels, they are helping Jews keep the commandments.
Jesus enters the temple and all three synoptic gospels report that he quotes from the prophets: "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations" (Isaiah 56:7) and "But you have made it a robbers’ cave." (Jeremiah 7:11) Isaiah’s text does not involve criticism of animal sacrifice in the temple. Chapter 56 begins, "These are the words of the LORD: Maintain justice, and do what is right; for my deliverance is close at hand...." (Isaiah 56:1) The prophet proclaims that all those who keep the sabbath and the will of God, including "foreigners who give their allegiance" to God and keep the covenant will be received in the temple. "There offerings and sacrifices will be acceptable on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations." (Isaiah 56:6-7).
The prophecy of Jeremiah, however, is judging temple worship because of the hypocrisy it represents, when the leaders and the people do not do the justice that the LORD requires. We read in the book of Jeremiah:
"This word came from the LORD to Jeremiah. Stand at the gate of the LORD’s house and there make this proclamation: Hear the word of the LORD, all you of Judah who come in through these gates to worship him. These are the words of the LORD of Hosts the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, that I may let you live in this place. You keep saying, ‘This place is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!’ This slogan of your is a lie; put no trust in it. If you amend your ways and your deeds, deal fairly with one another, cease to oppress the alien, the fatherless, and the widow, if you shed no innocent blood in this place and do not run after other gods to your own ruin, then I shall let you live in this place, in the land which long ago I gave to your forefathers for all time."
"You gain nothing by putting your trust in this lie. You steal, you murder, you commit adultery and perjury, you burn sacrifices to Baal, and you run after other gods whom you have not known; will you then come and stand before me in this house which bears my name, and say, ‘We are safe’? Safe, you think, to indulge in all these abominations! Do you regard this house which bears my name as a bandits’ cave? I warn you, I myself have seen all this, says the LORD." (Jeremiah 7:1-11)
In the gospel stories Jesus enters the temple and quotes Isaiah and Jeremiah, as he destroys the operation of the temple by disrupting the work of the money-changes. The gospels portray Jesus as taking up the ancient prophetic attack against worship as a substitute for justice and compassion. He is not attacking Jewish worship in order to promote Christian worship. He is attacking religious hypocrisy and promoting faith in God.
The strange story of Jesus cursing a fig tree may make this clearer. Jesus looks for figs on a tree that only has leaves, and curses it when he doesn’t find any fruit. The text notes that "it was not the season for figs," but that makes it very odd for Jesus to become angry. When Peter remarks that the fig tree cursed by Jesus has withered, Jesus replies: "Have faith in God." (Mark 11:22) Jesus urges the disciples to trust in God and assures them that such trust will bear fruit. "I tell you, then, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it and it will be yours." (Mark 11:24) The image implies that if they do not bear fruit, then they will wither as the tree withered.
Moreover, Jesus teaches, their prayers for forgiveness will not be answered, unless they forgive others. "And when you stand praying," Jesus says, "if you have a grievance against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you the wrongs you have done." (Mark 11:25) Even as temple worship is no substitute for justice, so prayers for forgiveness will not be effective without forgiving others.
Palm Sunday is a triumphant celebration in the life of the church. But we should not celebrate the triumph of Christian worship over Jewish worship, or the triumph of the New Testament over the Old Testament, or the triumph of Christianity over Judaism. We are tempted to read this meaning into the accounts of Palm Sunday, especially in John’s gospel because it refers to the adversaries of Jesus as "the Jews." It is a tragic fact that Christians have fashioned the cross into a sword to use against the Jews, because Christians have believed that the triumph of Jesus was over the Jews who rejected his message. To our shame Easter week for centuries has been a time when Jews remained in doors in order to avoid being persecuted by celebrating Christians.
The one who drove the money-changers out of the temple, quoting the prophets who condemned the hypocrisy of religious worship without justice and compassion, would drive the Christian priests and their people out of the churches, were he to come and find Christians celebrating their triumph over Jews. Palm Sunday is a celebration of the triumph of God in Christ, not of our triumph as Christians. As always, in our worship we begin with our confession of sin and then receive the good news that we are forgiven by the love of God in Jesus the Christ. That is the triumph we celebrate on Palm Sunday. We sing "all glory, laud, and honor" and "sweet hosannas" to "our Redeemer King," knowing that if we have faith in God, live justly, and forgive those who have wronged us, then we will be forgiven the wrongs that we have done. Amen.
31 March 1996, United Reformed Church in Summertown, UK
1 in Faith: A Christian Bible Study † Copyright © 2000 by Robert Traer