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A Parade Remembered

April 10, 2017

“A Parade Remembered” Matthew 21:1-11 © 4.9.17 Palm Sunday A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Note: This sermon is a fact-based imaginative first-person account from a fictional character.

The events I want to tell you about happened long ago, but it seems to me I witnessed them only yesterday. That’s how vivid my memories are. I’m an old man now, with great-grandchildren, but then I was an excited and excitable boy of thirteen. I say “boy,” but in Jewish tradition I had just become a man, a bar mitzvah, “a son of the commandment.” On the Sabbath following my thirteenth birthday, I was blessed by my father Joseph in the presence of everyone in the synagogue. This was all the more special because he was a Pharisee, a leader who strictly observed the law of Moses. To know he was pleased with the progress I had made was a great joy to me. After my father’s blessing, I was invited by the rabbi to read from the Torah and the prophets, then give a speech to the worshippers. Of course, I was scared to death, but somehow I got up the courage to say what I had practiced for weeks. After worship, there was a big party, and I got lots of gifts.

To say my bar mitzvah was a turning point in my life would be an understatement. I could then be counted among the quorum of ten mature males required before public prayers could be held in a synagogue. I was now accountable for my sins, which meant I was taken seriously as someone who could make decisions. There were also certain duties I had to perform, such as fasting on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, and going to Jerusalem on Passover, Pesach.

That’s why we were heading to the city that time so long ago. With a group of other pilgrims, my father and I journeyed from our village of Arimathea to Jerusalem. He had been there on many occasions, whether to celebrate Passover or sit on the governing council, the Sanhedrin. But it was my first time, and I could hardly contain my excitement. I asked so many questions I was surprised my father didn’t get angry with me. But he patiently explained what was going on and pointed out things he particularly wanted me to see. My father had so much knowledge. I don’t mean just what he knew in his head, but in his heart as well. He cared for the poor and lonely, the sick and hurting. Maybe it was his reputation for genuine piety that led to his election to the council.

I had heard my father speak many times of his hope for a Messiah, a deliverer who would come help God’s people find true holiness again. He said that if the people of God proved themselves worthy, and lived in holiness completely for just one day, the Messiah would come. In my study of Deuteronomy, known in Hebrew as Devarim, “the words,” I had learned that God promised to send another prophet like Moses to teach us. My father even thought that the now almost defunct line of David would produce a good king. But no one like that had appeared.

The hopes of others were very different.

For one group called the Sadducees, it was hard to tell if they had any hopes at all for a Messiah. They only accepted the five books of Moses as scripture, and there was nothing explicit there about an anointed leader to come, only the promise of the prophet that I just mentioned. All the material about a future king was in the prophets and the writings. The Sadducees were professional clergy and rich aristocrats who seemed content with assimilation to the prevailing culture, cozying up with the Romans or whoever happened to be in charge. My father served with some of them on the council. Though he was also rich, he often disagreed with their views and became disgusted with their attitude of “go along to get along,” their acceptance of the Roman overlords in exchange for power and privilege. They were snobbish and rude people, he said, who did what was politically expedient. They talked very little about relying on God, and instead, depended on themselves. The Sadducees had little influence among the common people, which was no doubt just fine with them; they wanted nothing to do with the great hordes of the unwashed.

Another group kept to themselves in little isolated pockets in cities or else in villages or even out in the desert. They were the Essenes. Regarded even by Gentiles, the goyim, as examples of holiness, they cared for justice and resisted evil. They criticized the Temple system and said it needed to be purified. The Essenes were known as very strict and very brave. They expected not one, but two messiahs. One would be a priest, the other a king. Under the leadership of these righteous people, who would be helped by angel armies, the enemies of God would be defeated. Then the Essenes would be seen and rewarded as the true people of God in a new covenant with him. My father respected these folk and their commitment even though he had chosen a different path of engagement with the world, rather than withdrawal from it.

Then there was a group called the Zealots, violent men who wanted to throw out the Romans who occupied our land. Their idea of a Messiah was someone armed to the teeth who could lead an army of common people against the world’s strongest and best-equipped military force and win. In the meantime, until someone like that came along, the Zealots used hit-and-run guerilla tactics like assassinations and burning arms depots. The Romans had their hands full even finding out who these people were, much less stopping their attacks. My father thoroughly disapproved of the Zealots and called them “terrorists” rather than freedom-fighters. He said their tactics would end in disaster, and he was right. Eventually the Romans came under Titus and destroyed Jerusalem, then surrounded the Zealots in their mountain fortress. They and their families all committed suicide rather than surrender.

But I’m way ahead of myself. Those events were still forty years in the future when I traveled to Jerusalem. On the Passover, everybody was talking about a man from Galilee whom some thought could be the new prophet, maybe even the Messiah. He had been doing some pretty amazing things, even raising the dead, and my father was part of a delegation that went from Judea to Galilee to investigate this man’s teaching and alleged miracles. While his colleagues remained unconvinced, even hostile to this Jesus of Nazareth, my father was open to learning more about him. Certainly what he was saying was well within the limits of our law, though he did push against them a bit. And who could complain about somebody who told great stories, asked questions, healed the sick, loved children, fed the hungry, and even cast out demons that tormented people?

As we came nearer to the city, I remembered what my father had told me about what it would be like. The place would swell from a population of 40,000 to over 100,000. My father owned a house to stay in during meetings of the council, so we would be among the lucky ones with good lodgings. Others would be taken in by relatives or camp on the outskirts of the city. Those who could find nothing else would have to stay in one of the inns, which were full of filth, vermin, crime, and debauchery. I shuddered to think of the fate of people who had to resort to such places. Better to stay in the stable, away from the low-life clientele.

Of course, the festival of Passover was a boon to merchants of every kind. There were kiosks everywhere, selling food and drink or clothing or jewelry or leather goods. Then there were the booths offering sacrificial animals and birds. The prices were sky-high and buyers had to be really savvy not to get taken by the dishonest people who ran the shops. And, since people came from other countries to Jerusalem, there were tables set up by money-changers. The only currency accepted at the Temple was that minted by the Jewish authorities, so the men at these tables did a booming business swapping foreign coins for the Temple money. They were generally regarded as thieves and cheats, and my father was disgusted that such men set up within the walls of the Temple. Imagine—cheating people in the house of God! It should be a place of prayer for all nations, a gift of the Jews to the world!

The Roman garrison in Jerusalem was on alert, ready for anything. The small contingent of soldiers regularly stationed at Fortress Antonia near the Temple was reinforced with extra men from Caesarea Maritima, the seacoast headquarters of Pontius Pilate, the brutal and cruel Roman governor. With all those people in the city, the pot could boil over, so to speak, at any moment. Somebody could ride in, proclaim himself king, and there would be a riot before you knew it. Religious fervor coupled with nationalistic pride and years of pent-up anger was a volatile mix. It could lead people to all sorts of acts of stupidity and violence.

So it was frightening and exciting for a small-town boy, fresh from the bar mitzvah ceremony, to be in the city with so much going on. Little did I know that I would be present at a historic moment. My father’s life, my life, would be changed forever, all because of what happened as we came into the city from the west after visiting friends in a suburb called Bethphage. There was a lot of shouting, and I could just make out the lines from a psalm hailing a king after victory in battle. “Hosanna! Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” People were running to cut branches and spread them on the road. Others shed their cloaks and placed them across the path. We strained to see who it was getting all the praise.

Then Jesus of Nazareth came into view. The lines from the psalm, as least as I had heard them interpreted, didn’t seem to match the scene. Here was a man riding a donkey, hardly a war horse. He had no weapons, unless they were concealed under his cloak, which could have been possible. The men with him were ordinary civilians, not soldiers, although a couple of them were so big, burly, weathered, and rough they looked as if they could win any fight they got into.

I had seen parades before. There was the day when Roman soldiers had come through Arimathea on their way somewhere else. That was quite an impressive sight to a little boy. All those colorful insignias and flags, the swords and sharp spears and polished shields, the creaking of leather armor. But this parade was like nothing else I had witnessed. What could it mean: a man many thought was a prophet, riding into the city of God on a donkey, being greeted by shouts of praise? Was this what Zechariah had predicted, the coming of the gentle king? I looked up at my father. He was shouting, like everyone else. So I started crying out as well.

But I couldn’t really see Jesus from so far back in the crowd. Maybe I still had time to get to the front! Pushing my way forward, I managed to arrive at the roadside at just the time Jesus was turning his head to look in my direction. Oh, Jesus, this must be exciting for you, I thought. All these people who love you, wanting you to be their king and leader. Look at this spectacle: thousands at your command!

With so many people shouting his praises, he should have been happy. I know now, but then I could not understand why, when he looked at me there was so much sadness in his eyes.

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