Palm Sunday: Paths of peace?

Dr Clare Amos, Diocesan Director of Lay Discipleship, reflects on Luke’s portrayal of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, based on the lectionary Gospel reading Luke 19.28-40.

Traditionally we call the Sunday coming up ‘Palm Sunday’ – but this year, the year when the Gospel of Luke provides the lectionary reading, perhaps it isn’t and perhaps we shouldn’t. Because if you look carefully at the appointed reading, Luke 19.28-40, you will find that – unlike Matthew, Mark and John – there are no palms mentioned in Luke’s story, not any other sort of greenery. In fact Luke’s account of Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem is far less triumphalist than that of any of the other gospel writers. Although Jesus is proclaimed as a king (19.38) it is clear that he is a very different sort of king from people’s normal expectations.

One of the striking features of these verses in Luke is the use of the word ‘peace’ – it appears in 19.38, and then is repeated in verse 41 (technically beyond the lectionary reading – although it clearly links to it). The word ‘peace’ is not used at all in the story as it is told by the other Gospel writers. Yet it is fundamental to Luke’s understanding of the meaning of these events.

It is also, I suspect, no accident, that Luke more than any of the other Gospels emphasises that these events are taking place on the Mount of Olives (19.29, 37) since the olive itself is an ancient symbol for peace. Did those who celebrated Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem that day realise that they were welcoming a prince of peace? At first sight it looks as though they must have done, with their song of celebration, ‘Peace in Heaven’. Yet look carefully: for the song is an ironic counterpoint to that sung by the angels at Jesus’ birth. The angelic choir chanted, ‘Peace on earth’, while Jesus’ disciples now sing, ‘Peace in heaven’. Surely we should be on the side of the angels: it is peace on earth that we need and are called to struggle for! ‘Peace in heaven’ can become all too easily an escapist diversion. Peace-making has to happen on earth, and it is an activity that can be very costly indeed to those who are brave enough to engage with it. With Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem, Luke then goes on to explicitly remind us (19.41-44) of the tragic consequences of the lack of peace. Today is a moment of decision not only for Jesus but also for Jerusalem, and the shadow of the cross is already case firmly across his path. Instead of green foliage, Jesus’ path in this Gospel is strewn with rocks and stones.

dominus flevit

The chapel of the church of the Dominus Flevit which commemorates Jesus weeping over Jerusalem

There are many clues within the Gospel of Luke that the writer took very seriously the political and historical context in which he wrote – the Roman rule in Palestine, which included the Roman claim that they brought to the land the ‘Pax Romana’ = ‘Roman peace.’ Immediately before his entry into Jerusalem Jesus has told a parable which clearly alludes to Archelaus, one of the sons of Herod the Great, initially installed by Rome as client king over Judaea and Samaria after his father’s death, but then exiled 10 years later because his incompetence and cruelty scandalised even his Roman overlords. This parable is recounted by Jesus, we are told, ‘Because he was near Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.’ (19.11). On the one hand Luke clearly believed that the incarnational nature of Jesus’ ministry meant that context was inescapable. Jesus spoke and speaks into specific human situations and needs. On the other hand, however, it seems also that Luke wants to make clear that Jesus’ ministry transcended the normal political answers. Indeed it could be said that Jesus was crucified partly because he refused to follow one of the ‘obvious’ paths taken by others, whether that be collusion with the Roman authorities, or armed revolt against them.

It is interesting to read and write about these New Testament events in this particular week. As I write I do not know whether the United Kingdom will leave the EU in two days’ time or not – which is certainly a political event weighing heavily upon many of us in the Diocese in Europe. Although we may have strong feelings one way or the other, perhaps the message I take from this weekend’s Gospel reading is that there is no easy, obvious, ‘Christian’ answer to the political challenges and turmoil we currently face. Certainly we are called to be peace-makers but we cannot just capture Jesus for our own political point of view. Yet at the same time I am sure to the inmost core of my being that my faith in the Jesus who journeyed to Jerusalem and wept over the city as he approached it demands that however wearying it may be I continue to care passionately about the political turmoil in which we currently find ourselves. For it is in that perplexity that I will find Jesus journeying to Jerusalem, to the cross and eventually to the resurrection.


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