Ponies, Palms, and Murder Plots

A photograph of palm branches
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Ponies, Palms, and Murder Plots

(Palm Sunday)

April 10, 2022*

By Pastor John Partridge

Luke 19:28-40

Today we begin the final week of our preparations for Easter.  We remember the time that, as the church, we refer to as “Holy Week.”  This is that time of remembrance that begins with the joy of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem that we remember today as Palm Sunday but continues with Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, his arrest, illegal trial, crucifixion, death, burial, and his resurrection on Easter morning.  I hope that you will join us, not just for the bookends of Palm Sunday and Easter, but for the entire journey through Holy Thursday, Good Friday, the Easter Vigil on Saturday, and then, after we have walked through that season of frustration, anger, despair, and darkness, to arrive together and celebrate the joy of Easter morning.

But this morning, we remember the story of Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem for the celebration of the Passover as recorded in Luke 19:28-40.

28 After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 29 As he approached Bethphage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, 30“Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here.  31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it.’”

32 Those who were sent ahead, went, and found it just as he had told them.  33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”

34 They replied, “The Lord needs it.”

35 They brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it.  36 As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road.

37 When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:

38 “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”

40 “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”

For such a short passage, there is a lot going on.  First, Jesus knew what the disciples would find when they went into the village ahead of them.  He knew that they would find a colt that had been tied out, he knew that it was such a green colt that it had never been ridden, and although this last one is hardly surprising, Jesus also knew that the owner of the colt would want to know why they were taking it.  Just as Jesus had seen Nathaniel sitting under a fig tree before Philip called him to follow Jesus in John 1:48, Jesus knew what the disciples would find when they went into the village.  But what is even more surprising, and to my skeptical and sometimes a little cynical mind, even more miraculous, was that the owner of the colt allowed the disciples to borrow it.  Think about that for a minute.  We take it for granted because it was Jesus, because we are reading the Bible, and because we’ve heard the story dozens of times. 

But seriously?  The disciples meet a random stranger, whose horse or donkey has only recently had a baby.  That baby hasn’t been ridden, it wasn’t old enough to take to the trainer, or to start working at its training, two total strangers off the street start untying it, and the only explanation they offer is that their boss needs it.  Seriously?  If you owned a new car, that the dealer just delivered to your house on a flatbed trailer, and you hadn’t even had time to drive it yet, how likely are you to loan it to a total stranger?  Think about that.  If your dog had puppies and they had barely started eating solid food, what the chances that you’d let a stranger “borrow” one?  This wasn’t just a baby, horses and donkeys were valuable and they typically only have one baby every 12 to 18 months.  So, as I think about this story, and think about what we all know about human nature, I think that although there might be more to the story than Luke chose to tell us, I also think that this might just be one of the greatest miracles in the Easter story next to the resurrection itself.

In any case, the owner allows the disciples to borrow the colt, they bring it to Jesus, throw their outer garments over it’s back, and Jesus rides it.  And that, if you know anything about horses, may also be a significant miracle.  Ask your friends who know horses, what’s likely to happen if you just jump on the back of a horse that’s never been ridden.  The odds are good that, outside of that rider being Jesus, that such a story isn’t going to end well.

And as Jesus came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives toward the gates of the city of Jerusalem, the crowd that was with Jesus began to praise God, in loud voices, for all the miracles that they had seen.  They pulled palm branches from the trees and laid them in the road in front of Jesus, and if Palm branches weren’t handy, they laid down their own shirts so that even the animal upon which Jesus rode would, symbolically, not get its feet dirty.  And more than that, they began to shout an historic welcome found in scripture, notably in Psalm 118, that the people of Israel had used as kings entered the city of Jerusalem.  They shouted, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” and they said, “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” 

And the Pharisees who saw what they were doing, and who heard what they were shouting were displeased.  They recognized that the disciples were offering Jesus a king’s welcome.  They understood that these symbols were used, and were reserved for, the recognition of kings.  And they knew that not far away, inside of the city, sharing a wall with the temple itself, was the Fortress Antonia and a detachment of Roman soldiers.  They knew that those soldiers were there to keep the peace, they knew that the only king that could ever be accepted was Caesar, and they knew that blood had been spilled the last time someone claimed to be the king of Israel.  The arrival of Jesus, and his disciples’ cries proclaiming him to be king, was threatening to upset the status quo.  And the people who had the most to lose from a change in the status quo were the Pharisees.

They insist that Jesus tell his disciples to stop before too many people hear, or at least before the wrong people, the powerful people, the people with swords, could hear them.  But Jesus stares them down and declares that if the disciples keep quiet, the stones along the sides of the road would cry out instead.

And so, the actions of the disciples, and Jesus’ refusal to stop them, combined with all the previous interactions that Jesus had with the Pharisees, had reached a climax.  The Pharisees could no longer look the other way, there was no longer any doubt, they absolutely knew that Jesus was going to upset the status quo.  If Jesus lived, more people were going to follow him.  And if those people were going to label Jesus as a king, it was going to stir up the worst kind of trouble.  The deal that the Pharisees and the other leaders of Israel had made with Rome was that they could remain in power if they helped Rome to rule over Israel and if they helped them to keep the peace.  If the disciples proclaimed that Jesus was a king, then this contract would be broken, and the Romans would blame the Pharisees.  It was their necks, their jobs, their careers, their lives, that were on the line.  It was no longer an intellectual argument.  In this moment, the Pharisees had to choose between themselves, and Jesus.  And they knew what had to happen.

Jesus.  Must.   Die.

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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page.  Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio.  Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you.  Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601.  These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership.  You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org.  These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.com .  All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.