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Weekly Bible Reflection
Matthew's Communities of Justice

Palm Sunday

Matthew 21.1-11
: Leading by Serving

Begin by using the Method as outlined
Sharing together

Have you seen, or been part of, a crowd of people turning against somebody? In sport this seems to happen quite often: one week’s hero becomes next week’s villain. Public figures and leaders can very quickly find support draining away.

When might this have happened recently? What made people change?

When is it OK to go along with the crowd? When is it to be avoided, and how?

Reflection on the text

Passover was the most important annual festival in Jerusalem. Jews from everywhere crowded the streets, some travelling long distances to get there. Approaching the city, making their way towards the centre, their expectation and excitement would increase.

Matthew describes the arrival of Jesus by referring to Zechariah (9 v 9) and Isaiah (62 v 11). Nationalistic hopes for freedom from the occupying powers ran high at these times. Here was an opportunity to affirm their identity and draw strength from the feeling of shared belonging.

Jesus, with his reputation for messianic claims and performing miracles, would have fuelled their expectations that freedom and independence were not far away.

And the symbolism of a donkey: whilst claiming to be the true king of Israel, Jesus did not enter the city in triumph as a conquering warrior but riding a humble beast of burden. In this act of humility he demonstrated his coming not as lord and master, to be waited on hand and foot, but as the slave of all.

The palm branches may have reminded some of the triumphal celebration when Simon Maccabeus entered Jerusalem and restored Jewish independence on an earlier occasion around 200 years earlier.
Application: some questions for group discussion:
  1. Imagine you are part of the crowd watching Jesus enter the city. How easily one can get carried away with the excitement of it all.

    Have you ever been in a highly charged situation and found, perhaps to your later surprise, that you too were caught up in the emotion of it? For example, in the days following Princess Diana’s death many of us found ourselves deeply affected and it became a focal point for people’s feelings.

    What role do emotions play in enabling us to express our commitment to something? Are there aspects of them we need to guard against?

  2. It has been said that with the declining influence of the church in the West and rise of militant Islam some Christians and churches have succumbed to an unhealthy triumphalism. Share together how this triumphalism is expressed. To what extent is triumphalism evident in your Christian community? Where and how is it expressed in society? How do we guard against the temptation to bring about God's kingdom through a misuse of power?
Praying Together

First, in silence, try to get in touch with those tendencies and feelings which draw you along with the crowd leading to behaviour which you later regretted. Offer those feelings and situations up to God by lighting a tea light/candle. As each lights a candle and places it in the circle all say: Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.

Pray together for situations in society - locally, nationally, internationally – where mob rule prevails. Pray for those in such situations who resist the temptation to go with the crowd and who stand up for justice.

Pray for all who are easily led by the crowd, fearing that they will be considered weak or not part of the group if they acted differently.

Pray for all leaders – especially those who take advantage of situations and use human emotion to gain support, exploit and get their own way.

Going Deeper
  • We live in a world obsessed with image of saviours and which is often demanding strong leadership, clear policies and firm direction.
    Where does the Palm Sunday reading take us when it comes to leadership?
    What does it mean to be successful in terms of Gods purposes?

  • Gandhi led a mass movement which ended British rule in India through acts of protest and non-violent resistance. His action gathered crowds that managed to work for change in a positive way confronting the evils and injustices of the system in ways very consistent with the teaching of Jesus.
    What issues of evil, oppression and injustice might your community address and how?
    What would you lay your down for?
More background information

It is difficult to detach this passage from that which precedes and follows it.

  • Jesus' followers were seriously disturbed by his words about his immanent death (20 v 17-19) and by his demolition job on their understanding of power and their 'place' within God's kingdom ( 20 v 20ff). However, despite these worrying signs for the disciples, things began well enough as Jesus entered the Temple City.
  • It is unlikely the crowd that welcomed Jesus was very big, probably, insufficient to draw the incident to the attention of the authorities. And there is no way we can determine whether this crowd was the same that called for him to be crucified.
  • The Passover celebration would have been muted because, on the eve of this festival to mark the liberation of a people from slavery, Jerusalem was a city under occupation in an occupied territory. You could cut the air with a knife. Feelings were running high in the face of the many stark reminders that Caesar was 'Lord' and in control and that his representative, Pilate, had the power to cancel the festival at the slightest hint of trouble – he held the keys to the cabinet containing the high priest's robes.
  • Perhaps, news of the raising of Lazarus (only found in John's account) had spread among pilgrims, fuelling expectations that freedom and political independence were not far off.
  • The symbolism of a donkey is very important, not least to Jesus himself who was fully aware of the temptation to opt for an alternative path to that of the cross. In this act he demonstrated the upside-down kingdom way to engage with evil and overthrow oppression and injustice – not through hatred and violence but through suffering love. He came 'not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many' (Matt 20 v 28).

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