I have spent a lot of my life answering Compare and Contrast questions.
I studied English A Level, then read, but not as much as I should have, for a humanities and social sciences degree. In my forties I studied for my M.B.A. and then spent two years at theological college, where we spent an awful lot of time comparing and contrasting different Old Testament prophets, Gospel accounts and liturgies. I remember comparing and contrasting six different early baptism rites (Rome, Milan, Gaul, Lyon, Ireland and somewhere I can’t remember!). I wrote a paper comparing and contrasting Cranmer’s 1549 and 1552 Prayer Books (I preferred the 1549 Prayer Book, but that’s a subject for another day) and, so it went on.
The Gospel passage we have heard this morning tells of Jesus entering into Jerusalem on a colt, or donkey. Jesus is greeted by his supporters who are hoping for and anticipating ‘the coming kingdom of our ancestor David.’ This of course means, for them, a restoration of independence and an overthrowing of imperial power. Odd then that they are prepared to overlook the fact that Jesus makes his entry on a colt, or donkey. A single man, riding into Jerusalem on a colt or donkey I would want to suggest was hardly likely to frighten anyone; especially the Romans. We are also told in Mark’s account of the triumphal entry that ‘many people spread their cloaks on the road.’ How many, we are not sure. What I do think important to note however is the complete absence of detail. If you think about it the gospel writers weren’t afraid of ascribing a number to the great multitudes; think of 4, or 5,000 for example. Which brings me back to the notion of ‘compare and contrast.’
There were in fact two processions entering Jerusalem that day. Jesus on his humble colt and, Pontius Pilate carried high, on a throne, in his imperial procession. The Roman imperial procession was designed to encourage a sense of awe and fear and to raise money. Rather than being feted with palms Pilate would have been bowed at and rewarded with dosh. Pilate wouldn’t have been greeted simply by ‘many people,’ but by hoards and hoards of people. His entrance would have been stage managed and designed to impress. Anyone who was anyone would have been watching Pilate’s triumphal entry, not Jesus’.
Another point of comparison could be made about the ultimate destination of the two processions; processions after all have to end up somewhere. Think of our own processions today. The procession into church finishes at the altar, the gospel procession at the intersection of the cross in the middle of the church etc. Pilate’s procession on that first Palm Sunday would have ended up at the Imperial Palace at a gala dinner at which he would have, as the emperor’s proxy, sat on a royal throne. Jesus by comparison is of course no proxy. He is himself, the Messiah, God incarnate, as St. Paul stresses ‘he was in the form of God.’ His gala dinner is to be a simple supper, in an upstairs room, where he washes the feet of his disciples and institutes the Eucharist. You see nobody knows what Pilate and his cronies had at the gala dinner that night but 2000 years later we all know and continue to participate in the feast that Jesus held: the Eucharistic feast.
And of course Jesus is to have no earthly throne. Instead he goes to the Cross. No one knows what Pilate’s throne looked like, or what it was made of, but today we still know all about the Cross. But, why did Jesus have to go to the cross? Why was the Cross to be his earthly throne? Michael Mayne put it like this:
‘Because he accepted at his baptism his vocation to be totally open to God, to show God’s undiscriminating love for people of every kind, good and bad alike, to forgive hurts and offences, to eat with those considered outcasts: to challenge established values and views where they denied or obscured the values of God’s kingdom and the worth of every person. And many hated him for it, as perversely, the good, the generous and the vulnerable will be always hated by that within which feels threatened: which finds it easier to settle for the easy option, to protect our rights and interests and not to go the second mile. Jesus came to be the love of God: love that is not an easy emotion but nothing less than a costly giving of yourself for the good of another – giving your time, your attention, if need be your very life itself.’
My final compare and contrasts are simply these: is the account of the first Palm Sunday something we should read as a one-off, or is it a story we can still use to reflect on the misuse of power and authority in the contemporary world? And, where do we, you and me, look for redemption and salvation? Is it in the easy pickings of an off the shelf world view, or in the cult of the seemingly all powerful leader, or is it in the Messiah who entered into his city on a donkey, and then ‘humbled himself (still further) and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross?’
These are comparisons and questions I invite you to reflect on this Holy Week.