Has anyone here ever been to Ireland to kiss the Blarney Stone? I thought so! I have not had that opportunity, but it sounds like just the kind of adventure I crave. Kissing the Blarney Stone is not a casual or fleeting act of affection. Tourists climb to the peak of Blarney Castle, lean out backward over the very scary edge of the stone wall, high above the castle garden, and then pucker up to plant a big kiss on the cold, hard surface of the rock. According to the legend of the Blarney Stone, anyone whose lips make contact with the magical rock will be blessed with great eloquence and especially the gift of flattery. For any who have been there and kissed the stone, how did that work out for you?
On the first Palm Sunday, Jesus said that if those who loudly welcomed him on the streets were silent, the very stones scattered across the earth and holding up the great walls of Jerusalem would cry out in praise. Stones don’t usually talk, let alone shout, but then again if a rock has power to convey words of flattery, maybe there is more here there than meets the eye.
It’s likely that many who shouted in Jerusalem that day were flatterers. They called Jesus a king and shouted out, “Glory in the highest heaven!” Mobs are unpredictable, though, and some of those same voices probably cried out for Jesus’ death just five days later.
There were a lot of people in Jerusalem that day. The annual feast of the Passover was approaching and faithful Jews from through the region gathered to reaffirm their place among the Israelites as they re-enacted the events that preceded their release from captivity in Egypt. Doing so inside or near the temple in Jerusalem was a much-anticipated and powerful spiritual experience for them.
That Passover wasn’t all prayers and peace, though. The simmering unhappiness of a people who again felt oppressed and held virtually captive, this time by the occupying Roman government, was barely contained beneath the surface of Passover piety. The word was out that Jesus was a possible, if not likely, candidate for the Messiah they needed desperately, so people of all ages lined the streets to welcome him and see what would happen next.
I’m a little reluctant to mention on Palm Sunday that palms do not actually appear in Luke’s version of the triumphal entry. The other three gospel writers speak of people tearing branches off of trees and laying them on the ground before Jesus. Luke just says that they took their coats off and arranged them on the ground so that Jesus could ride over them. Maybe Luke was more earth-friendly than the other writers and disapproved of harming trees. He also says that Jesus was riding on a colt, not a donkey. Matthew, however, while also calling the animal a colt, does specify that that the animal was the colt of a donkey, so I think our mental images of Jesus riding into town on a donkey are safe.
A friend of mine who teaches biblical languages at Chicago Theological Seminary and who is a huge animal rights advocate wrote this on his Facebook page yesterday: “Here is a challenge to all my minister friends who are putting final touches on their Palm Sunday sermons today: let's give some attention to the donkey. Donkeys have been working hard for us for a long time.”
In the center of the little South Park community of Fairplay is an impressive monument to Prunes the Burro. A miner named Rupe Sherman paid two retired prospectors $10 for Prunes in 1889. Prunes became Sherman’s companion as they worked all of the mines around South Park. As the story goes, Sherman would pin a shopping list to Prunes’ pack and send him to town for supplies. Storekeepers filled Sherman’s order and sent Prunes up the trail to the mining camp. When Prunes became too old to work, he roamed around the town of Fairplay. In the winter of 1930, a blizzard struck town and Prunes became trapped in a shed where he retreated to escape the storm. He nearly froze to death there. The locals tried to nurse him back to health, but he never recovered. He died that spring at age 63. Town folk built a monument featuring his collar and shoes to honor this faithful servant and friend. Sherman cried when it was unveiled and said "Lord I hate to see him go. I would trust him ahead of any man.”
As a whole, animals are undervalued in our society. I wonder if prunes and Sherman inspired others to appreciate their mining Burros and treat them with kindness and respect. The donkey in our gospel story isn’t given much of a personality by the writer. We don’t know its name, and we don’t know if it was stereotypically stubborn or if it gladly allowed Jesus to ride on its back down the hillside to the city. There is no monument for the donkey on the Mount of Olives. Although the donkey was borrowed from a stranger, I like how each of the gospels relates that a respectful conversation took place with its owner before the disciples essentially absconded with it. I would like to think that it was returned with thanks and maybe a bag of carrots or a bale of hay for the donkey’s involuntary but important work on Palm Sunday.
One of the questions I always have when reading passages like this is “which came first; the prophesy or the fulfillment?” This is a prime example of the stories in the gospel accounts that are presented as the fulfillment of Hebrew Scripture. The reading from the Psalms talks about a festal procession with branches. Earlier verses in that chapter talk about gates being opened and God’s messenger entering. So, a triumphal entry with a parade and branches seems to be foreshadowed in the prophetic words of the Old Testament. Matthew’s gospel is even more specific, quoting Zechariah 9 which says “Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey.” The chicken and egg question I mentioned is one to ponder. Some are certain that Hebrew prophesy accurately foretold very specific events like Palm Sunday or the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem or the arrival of magi or the suffering of Good Friday. Others believe that the various communities that wrote the gospel accounts looked back into the Scriptures and saw parallels with Jesus’ life that could help to reinforce their certainty that Jesus was the long hoped-for Messiah. So stories were either created or adapted to make that connection and embedded in the gospels. Which is right? Which came first? I’ll let you decide that. Maybe it’s a little of each. Or a little like the chicken and the egg – there’s no perfect answer.
That first Palm Sunday was the start of a week in which Jesus went back and forth between Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives. The Gospels record the events of that week which included the upending of tables in the temple, the curious cursing of a fig tree, the telling of parables, the Passover meal in an upper room, the betrayal by a supposed friend, an agonizing prayer in a garden, a kangaroo court and sentence of death, and the march to Calvary for the crucifixion. Each night, Jesus left the city and walked back up the hill where we can assume he enjoyed bed and breakfast accommodations for free thanks to his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. The increasing hostility directed toward him throughout the week made it wise to leave the city at night, but he never abandoned his mission or stopped speaking the truth. He returned again and again until he was forcibly confined.
It all started with a parade. And the fond hope of many people that this man might be the one to change the course of their history. If there was a sign held up with the palms, it would have said “Make Israel Great Again.” There were ardent fans there, and there were protesters in for form of stern Pharisees. Even for Jesus’ most devoted followers, it was hard to understand that Jesus’ kingdom would not be based in any country or affiliated with any religious faction or political alliance. His realm would embrace people of every nation and would include all who share in the urgency of creating a peaceful and just world.
I’d like to think that some who joined the parade that day understood what was really happening. That they knew Jesus wasn’t going to kick the Romans out of Palestine and re-establish the kind of life they remembered fondly. Maybe they understood when Jesus talked that week about the temple being destroyed and rebuilt in three days, that he was talking about his own imminent death and resurrection. Many gave up on Jesus when his poll numbers plummeted from Sunday to Friday, because they were not interested in following someone who was an obvious failure. Heroes aren’t convicted of crime and strung up naked to die.
Those who continue to follow in the way of Jesus know that speaking truth to power has consequences and that Jesus did that faithfully. On Thursday in a garden he showed that he was not so bold and invincible to ever question whether suffering for a righteous cause is necessary. But he did suffer, and he was faithful even to the point of death.
On that first Palm Sunday, Jesus said to the protesters along the road, “If these who are celebrating and shouting praise to God are silent, the stones themselves will cry out.” In the darkest days of the week ahead, there is reason give thanks and to say “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” Jesus came to proclaim a realm where wrong is made right, the oppressed are set free, the lowly are lifted, and where all are included in the great, ongoing parade of all who are created and loved by God. Don’t keep silent! Don’t make the stones do our work! Shout the truth, regardless of consequence, and may your words and your life of faithfulness give glory to God. Hosanna! Amen!