Not the only game in town

Dore Palm Sunday

Based on Luke 19:28-40 & Zechariah 9:9-12

Some of you may remember a television commercial for a paid television service from a few years ago, which featured two young men who were desperately trying to find somewhere to watch the rugby. They went into a country pub, only to find it was packed full of rural characters intently watching sheep dog trials. They asked if the channel could be changed, and this did not go down well with the locals.


Of course, the situation was a little contrived. I am originally from provincial Aotearoa New Zealand. I know that country folk tend to be pretty serious about their rugby and are not likely to be watching sheep dog trials when the All Blacks are playing. But this commercial was a reminder that what matters to us is not necessarily what matters to others, and it is not always the only thing that is happening in town.


In larger cities, there are often multiple events competing for our attention, in smaller centres, not so much. And they usually occur without getting in the way of each other.


This is not always that case though; in 2014, The Seekers played a much anticipated concert at the Bowl of Brooklands in my home town of Ngāmotu New Plymouth, at the same time as extreme metal bands Bulletbelt and Rising Tide were playing at a tattoo festival just a few hundred metres away. Both venues were run by the Council, but the tattoo festival had booked a year earlier, while The Seekers had only booked three months out. The Council was not going to say no to them. And, not surprisingly, some people who were sitting outside at the  Bowl of Brooklands did not only hear the band they had paid to watch. [1]


Today is, of course, Palm Sunday, the day when we remember Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on a colt in the days leading up to the Festival of Passover. This story is told with some variation in

all four canonical gospels, and we have just listened to St Luke’s version. But what we are not often told is that this is almost certainly not the only public procession taking place in Jerusalem.


Jesus lives at a time when the oppressive occupation of Judea is at about its strongest. It is customary for the Romans to hold a parade, complete with horses and weapons, on the streets of Jerusalem just prior to the festival. The whole idea seems to be to intimidate people and put a stop to any thoughts of insurrection.


It is not only quite likely that on this occasion, this takes place on the same day Jesus rides into Jerusalem, but that the Roman Prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate, is at the centre of it all. Pilate is not usually in Jerusalem; his official residence is at Caesarea Maritima, the Roman civilian and military capital of Judea, which is just over 120 km away by today’s most direct route. However, Roman prefects usually try to be in Jerusalem for major Jewish festivals, in case there is any trouble. And they don’t get much bigger than Passover.


It must be incredibly frustrating for the people. They are oppressed and angry. And there is nothing they can do but watch. But as we know. Jesus also comes to town, riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey. His entry into Jerusalem is pivotal, provocative, and planned. He has previously arranged for his disciples to procure the colt (and also the colt’s mother, according to  St Matthew’s account ;2]). Jesus knows the symbolic significance of riding a colt, and so do those who are watching. They are all familiar with the words of the Prophet Zechariah:


9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
   Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
   triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
   on a colt, the foal of a donkey


Listen to how the people to respond when they see Jesus:


‘Blessed is the king
   who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
   and glory in the highest heaven!


The significance of their responses cannot be over stated. Citizens of Rome make proclamations like “Hail Caesar!” to Roman emperors, rulers who present themselves as sons of God, if not gods themselves. The people are putting themselves at serious risk by praising someone else.


But Jesus knows exactly what he is doing. He knows that he is making an incredibly subversive statement against the power of Rome. He is a colonised person directly challenging the legitimacy of the coloniser. Rome might have wealth and military power, but it’s carefully coordinated show of might does not silence everybody. And this does not go unnoticed.


These two processions in Jerusalem represent two vastly different kingdoms. One is an indulgent display of the power, glory, might, and wealth of Rome.


But the other represents a very different kingdom. Later this week, Jesus will say to Pilate, “‘My kingdom is not from this world,” [5] but today he rides into Jerusalem on a colt that has never been ridden, let alone seen battle, a complete contrast to the Roman war horses. And his radical message of love, forgiveness, justice, and peace is completely at odds with the Roman way of doing things. No wonder he will be dead before the week is out.


Of course, the present I am speaking of is the present of nearly 2,000 years ago. But the contrast between values of those kingdoms and our ability to choose which one we follow has not really changed. The Roman Empire has long ceased to exist. Others have taken its place. And they continue to come and go. But the material values they represent remain, for now anyway. Same horse, different jockey.


But the radical alternative offered by Jesus has never gone away. And Palm Sunday offers us an opportunity to stand with him and show our solidarity with the hungry, the thirsty, the refugee, the homeless, the sick, and the prisoner. For whatever we do for them, we do for him. [6] To say no to the oppressive regimes of our time. To challenge oppression, exploitation, and greed. And to protect our planet, while we still can.


Palm Sunday is not a day to sit back and receive a palm cross to put somewhere to gather dust.


Palm Sunday is a call to action.


There are two competing processions in town today. Which one are we going to?




Darryl Ward
10 April 2022




2 Matthew 21:2


3 Zechariach 9:9


4 Luke 19:38


5 John 3 18:6


6 Matthew 25:31-40


All Bible references are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) unless stated otherwise.