Sermons Based on the Lectionary of the Syrian Orthodox Church
Sermon / Homily on Matthew 21:1-11
Homily For Palm Sunday
by William Barclay
With the gospel's passage of Matthew 21:1-11, we embark on the last act in the
drama of the life of Jesus; and here indeed is a dramatic moment.
It was the Passover time, and Jerusalem and the whole surrounding neighborhood
was crowded with pilgrims. Thirty years later a Roman governor was to take a
census of the lambs slain in Jerusalem for the Passover and find that the number
was not far off a quarter of a million. It was the Passover regulation that
there must be a party of a minimum of ten for each lamb which means that at that
Passover time more than two and a half million people had crowded their way into
Jerusalem. The law was that every adult male Jew who lived within twenty miles
of Jerusalem must come to the Passover; but not only the Jews of Palestine, Jews
from every corner of the world made their way to the greatest of their national
festivals. Jesus could not have chosen a more dramatic moment; it was into a
city surging with people keyed up with religious expectations that he came.
Nor was this a sudden decision of Jesus, taken on the moment. It was something
which he had prepared in advance. The whole tone of the story shows that he was
carrying out plans which he had made ahead. He sent his disciples into" the
village" to collect the ass and her foal. Matthew mentions Bethphage
only. But Mark also mentions Bethany (Mark 11: 1). No doubt the village
was Bethany. Jesus had already arranged that the ass and her foal should be
waiting for him, for he must have had many friends in Bethany; and the phrase, "
The Master needs them," was a password by which their owner would know that the
hour which Jesus had arranged had come.
So Jesus rode into Jerusalem. The fact that the ass had never been ridden before
made it specially suitable for sacred purposes. The red heifer which was used in
the ceremonies of cleansing must be a beast" upon which a yoke has never come"
(Numbers 19: 2; Deuteronomy 21: 3); the cart on which the ark of the Lord was
carried had to be a vehicle which had never been used for any other purpose (1
Samuel 6: 7). The special sacredness of the occasion was underlined by the fact
that the ass had never been ridden by any man before.
The crowd received Jesus like a king. They spread their cloaks in front of him.
That is what his friends had done when Jehu was proclaimed king (2 Kings 9: 13).
They cut down and waved the palm branches. That is what they did when Simon
Maccabaeus entered Jerusalem after one of his most notable victories (1
Maccabees 13: 51).
They greeted him as they would greet a pilgrim, for the greeting: " Blessed be
he who enters in the name of the Lord" (Psalm 118: 26) was the greeting which
was addressed to pilgrims as they came to the Feast.
They shouted " Hosanna! " We must be careful to see what this word means.
Hosanna means Save now! and it was the cry for help which a people in distress
addressed to their king or their god. It is really a kind of quotation from
Psalm 118: 25: " Save us, we beseech Thee, 0 Lord." The phrase, " Hosanna in the
highest! " must mean, " Let even the angels in the highest heights of heaven cry
unto God, Save now! "
It may be that the word hosanna had lost some of its original meaning; and that
it had become to some extent only a cry of welcome and of acclamation, like"
Hail! "; but essentially it is a people's cry for deliverance and for help in
the day of their trouble; it is an oppressed people's cry to their savior and
THE INTENTION OF JESUS
WE may then take it that Jesus' actions in this incident were planned and
deliberate. He was following a method of awakening men's minds which was deeply
interwoven with the methods of the prophets. Again and again in the religious
history of Israel, when a prophet felt that words were of no avail against a
barrier of indifference or incomprehension, he put his message into a dramatic
act which men could not fail to see and to understand. Out of many Old Testament
instances we choose two of the most outstanding.
When it became clear that the kingdom would not stand the excesses and
extravagances of Rehoboam, and that Jeroboam was marked out as the rising power,
the prophet Ahijah the Shilonite chose a dramatic way of foretelling the future.
He clad himself in a new garment; he went out and he met Jeroboam alone; he took
the new garment and tore it into twelve pieces; then of the pieces he gave to
Jeroboam ten and two of the pieces he kept; and by this dramatic action he made
it clear that ten of the twelve tribes were about to revolt in support of
Jeroboam, while only two would remain faithful to Rehoboam (I Kings 11:29-32).
Here is the prophetic message delivered in dramatic action.
When Jeremiah was convinced that Babylon was about to conquer Palestine in spite
of the easy optimism of the people, he made bonds and yokes and sent them to
Edom, to Moab, to Ammon, to Tyre and to Sidon; and put a yoke upon his own neck
that all might see it. By this dramatic action he made it clear that, as he saw
it, nothing but slavery and servitude lay ahead (Jeremiah 27: 1-6); and when
Hananiah, the false prophet with the mistaken optimism, wished to show that he
thought Jeremiah's gloomy foreboding altogether wrong, he took the yoke from
Jeremiah's neck and broke it (Jeremiah 28:10, 11).
It was the custom of the prophets to express their message in dramatic action
when they felt that words were not enough. And that was what Jesus was doing
when he entered Jerusalem.
There are two pictures behind Jesus's dramatic action.
(i) There is the picture of Zechariah 9: 9, in which the prophet saw the king
coming to Jerusalem, humble and riding upon an ass, on a colt the foal of an
ass. In the first instance, Jesus's dramatic action is a deliberate Messianic
claim. He was here offering himself to the people, at a time when Jerusalem was
surging with Jews from allover the country and from all over the world, as the
Anointed One of God. Just what Jesus meant by that claim we shall go on to see;
but that he made the claim there is no doubt.
(ii) There may have been another intention in Jesus's mind. One of the supreme
disasters of Jewish history was the capture of Jerusalem by Antiochus Epiphanes
about 175 B.C. Antiochus was determined to stamp out Judaism and to introduce
into Palestine Greek ways of life and worship. He deliberately profaned the
Temple, offering swine's flesh on the altar, making sacrifices to Olympian Zeus,
and even turning the Temple chambers into public brothels. It was then that the
Maccabees rose against him, and ultimately rescued their native land. In due
time Jerusalem was retaken and the desecrated Temple was restored and purified
and rededicated. In 2 Maccabees 10: 7 we read of the rejoicing of that great
day: "Therefore they bare branches, and fair boughs, and palms also, and sang
psalms unto Him that had given them good success in cleansing His place." On
that day the people carried the palm branches and sung their psalms; it is an
almost exact description of the actions of the crowd who welcomed Jesus into
It is at least possible that Jesus knew this, and that he entered into Jerusalem
with the deliberate intention of cleansing God's house as Judas Maccabaeus had
done two hundred years before. That was in fact what Jesus did. He may well be
saying in dramatic symbol, not only that he was the Anointed One of God, but
also that he had come to cleanse the House of God from the abuses which defiled
it and its worship. Had not Malachi said that the Lord would suddenly come to
his Temple (Malachi 3: I)? And, in his vision of judgment had not Ezekiel seen
the terrible judgment of God begin at the sanctuary (Ezekiel 9: 6)?
THE CLAIM OF THE KING
To conclude our study of this incident, let us look at Jesus in its setting. It
shows us three things about him.
(i) It shows us his courage. Jesus knew full well that he was entering a hostile
city. However enthusiastic the crowd might be, the authorities hated him and had
sworn to eliminate him; and with them lay the last word. Almost any man in such
a case would have considered discretion the better part of velour; and, if he
had come to Jerusalem at all, would have slipped in under cover of night and
kept prudently to the back streets until he reached his shelter. But Jesus
entered Jerusalem in a way that deliberately set himself in the centre of the
stage and deliberately riveted every eye upon himself. All through his last
days there is in his every action a kind of magnificent and sublime defiance;
and here he begins the last act with a flinging down of the gauntlet, a
deliberate challenge to the authorities to do their worst.
(ii) It shows us his claim. Certainly it shows us his claim to be God's Messiah,
God's Anointed One; very probably it shows us his claim to be the cleanser of
the Temple. If Jesus had been content to claim to be a prophet, the probability
is that he need never have died. But he could be satisfied with nothing less
than the topmost place. With Jesus it is all or nothing. Men must acknowledge
him as king, or not receive him at all.
(iii) Equally it shows us his appeal. It was not the kingship of the throne
which he claimed; it was the kingship of the heart. He came humbly and riding
upon an ass. We must be careful to see the real meaning of that. In western
lands the ass is a despised beast; but in the east the ass could be a noble
Often a king came riding upon an ass, but when he did, it was the sign that he
came in peace. The horse was the mount of war; the ass was the mount of peace.
So when Jesus claimed to be king, he claimed to be the king of peace. He showed
that he came, not to destroy, but to love; not to condemn, but to help; not in
the might of arms, but in the strength of love.
So here, at one and the same time, we see the courage of Christ, the claim of
Christ, and the appeal of Christ. It was a last invitation to men to open, not
their palaces but their hearts to him.
Sermons and Commentaries for the Palm Sunday
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