09 April 2017

Broken Hosannas

Matthew 21:1-17

Palm Sunday

As Jesus made his way up to Jerusalem, the crowds ahead of him and behind him shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest heaven!” The crowds swarm around, almost swallowing him.  He’s surrounded by hosannas. Not unlike us, in our worship this morning.  We’re swimming in hosannas. Why was the crowd chanting, “Hosanna!”? What are they saying?  Why are we saying, “Hosanna!”? What are we saying?  Should we be shouting “Hosanna!”?

It’s a curious word that has changed in meaning over time.  Originally, in Hebrew, hosana was an invocation, an address to God.  It was a prayer of petition, meaning,“Help!” or “Save!” or “Save now!” or “Rescue!”  We hear it embedded in Psalm 118:25, “Save us, we beseech you, O LORD!  O LORD, we beseech you, give us success.” Followed these words, in verse 26, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD.”  Hosanna is a cry for divine deliverance, for liberation.  Save us!  In Jesus’ time, the meaning of the word had morphed into something else. It had become an acclamation of joy, adoration, praise.  In the Gospels (and the Church) it’s become a synonym for “hurrah” or “hooray” or, as the British would say, “huzzah!”

It’s a fun word.  It’s fun shout and chant in festive procession.  It’s a fun word to say.  I remember as a boy singing along with the soundtrack from the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar:
I sang it over and over again, playing with the words.

Today, hosanna is almost synonymous for hallelujah.  The story is told that architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), after finally securing a commission, breaking a dry spell in his career, once shouted, “Hosanna! A client!”.  Hosanna.  Hallelujah.  They’re almost interchangeable, aren’t they?

So, which is it here in Matthew?  Does hosanna suggest praise, adoration, or does the word carry something of its older meaning, a cry for liberation? Pay attention to who’s voicing these words and pay attention to the entire flow of Matthew’s narrative.

The suggested lectionary for this morning ends at verse 11, before Jesus enters the Temple.  This doesn’t make sense to me because stopping at verse eleven obscures the reason Jesus entered the city in the first place, which was to go directly to the Temple, which is what it says in verse 12.  And when he entered the Temple all heaven broke loose!  He drove out those who were selling and buying in the Temple, he overturned the tables of the moneychangers.  He said, “My house shall be called a house of prayer and you are making it a den of robbers” (Mt. 21:13).  Then we learn that the blind and the lame arrived at the Temple, and he cures them. 

The chief priests and scribes, the religious authorities, were furious to see such praise being given to Jesus from the children, “Hosanna to the Son of David” (Mt. 21:15).  Now, this wasn’t harmless pious musings of children.  Why are the religious authorities troubled? Because the children are shouting politically-charged theological slogans about Jesus—the children are doing this!—in the Temple precincts.  The religious authorities asked Jesus, “Do you hear what these children are saying?” (Mt. 21:16). “Hosanna to the Son of David.”  Who was David?  The king of the Jews!  Right?  And who was the King of the Jews at the time of Jesus?  Tiberius Caesar Divi Augusti Filius Augustus. Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus, the Emperor.  Caesar Tiberius (42 BC – 37 AD). 

Remember, the imperial might of Rome conquered Palestine in 63 BC and oppressed the nation. And here in Matthew’s Gospel the Romans are always in the shadows.  The Roman legions stand guard, watching over everything.  Every year extra legions were brought up from Caesarea Philippi, along the coast, to Jerusalem, for Passover.  They were sent to Jerusalem, not because they were Jewish, but because Jerusalem during Passover was a powder key waiting to explode.  The legions were stationed in the Antonia Fortress, built by Herod the Great (37-4 BC) next to and above the Temple, so that from its towers they could keep watch over what was going on down in the Temple precincts.  They were they to keep the piece, to watch for days like this one: when a radical rabbi orchestrates a demonstration, gets the entire city stirred up, overturns the economy of the Temple (which profited Rome), and claims the Temple, itself, as his personal house of prayer!  Oh, and the children are shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” giving to Jesus the honor that belongs to David, King David.  “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look your king is coming to you…” (9:9) Matthew interjects into his account these words from Zechariah (9:9).  This verse alone is a politically charged claim, which should get our attention.  What an entrance.  What a visit.  And after raising this ruckus, Jesus leaves the city and spends the night in Bethany.

Can you see why we need to read all the way through verse 17, to complete the narrative?  Otherwise, we are left with a parade of palms and praises, with no real context or reason for the parade.  So, what was the reason?  To shut down the Temple.  New Testament scholar Obery Hendricks (who was my classmate at Princeton Seminary) writes “that it is no exaggeration to say…the was fundamentally an economic institution.”  Jesus’ outrage was directed, not to a group of merchants who happened to set up shop in the Temple precincts the day Jesus came to town; it was “a very public attack aimed at Israel’s center of power….it was,” Hendricks makes clear, “an overtly political act.”[2]  Jesus and his followers shut down the Temple—they shut it down; it was a religious-political-economic demonstration that sought to expose the corruption at the heart of the Temple authority.  Why?  “Because despite its veneer of holiness and religiosity, beneath its proclamations of justice and concern, the Temple did not treat the people and their needs as holy.”[3] As the prophets have said for centuries, it’s the Temple’s responsibility to care for the needs of the poor.   As Hendricks makes clear, Jesus’ demonstration in the city was a protest, it “was a repudiation of the Temple and those who ran it, repudiation of their abuse of the people’s trust, their haughty dismissal of the people’s worth, their turning the Temple of God into a profiteering enterprise, their exploitation of the people in the name of God and for the benefit of themselves and the Romans.  It was a prophetic pronouncement to the priestly aristocracy that they must change or be judged by God.”[4]

 As we know, by the end of the week Jesus would be judged by the Temple—judged by both the religious authorities and by Rome, and condemned to die on a Roman cross.  We know this.  We might be shouting hosannas today, but we know that Friday’s coming.  And, yes, we know that next Sunday’s coming, resurrection, Easter.  But knowing how the story resolves itself is, at some level, not helpful, because it eclipses, it undercuts the intensity of this text.  Jesus’ arrival into the city was a match to a powder keg.  It’s explosive.  It should make us uncomfortable.

Which brings me back to those hosannas.  Praise?  Adoration?  Joy?  Knowing what we know, these hosannas sound hollow. Save us?  Rescue us?  Help us?  The older meaning of the word makes more sense, given the context.   Although even these sound hollow.  We might say they’re broken hosannas.  I’m intentionally playing with a line from Leonard Cohen’s (1934-2016) song “Hallelujah.”  Cohen wrote this song in 1984, but it wasn’t all that popular.  Other artists, such as John Cale, Jeff Buckley, U2, and Rufus Wainright, later recorded it.  It became very popular with the release of the movie Shrek. It’s the song we hear in the background when Shrek and Princess Fiona part ways as she prepares to marry the tiny prince.  Cohen wrote, “Love is not a victory march/ it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.”  A broken hallelujah.  It’s a powerful image, isn’t it?  I remember singing this song with a group of pilgrims, last year in Spain, at the Church of Santa Maria in Carrión de los Condes, in one of the most moving and memorable experiences on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. 

When I imagine the crowds around Jesus entering Jerusalem, putting so much trust and confidence in him, and knowing what the city will do to him, I can’t help but hear these hosannas as broken.  They praised him for what they thought he would do for them, that he would release them from their suffering.  He didn’t bring about the political revolution they hoped for. 

We could also say that these are the hosannas of broken people, people oppressed, economically impoverished, scared, weighed down by force of Roman power.  For these are the people Jesus came to save, not through a political coup d’etat or military might, but through the stronger force of love and mercy.

Remember, the religious and political authorities were not the ones rejoicing the day when love came to town.  They were not among the people in the streets; they were not in the crowds shouting hosannas, happy to see Jesus. Those in power, the dominant culture, those with authority, privilege, financial means, all those who lived comfortable, undisturbed lives with no theological qualms about being part of an Empire were not glad to see Jesus.  Empire is never happy when Jesus shows up. 

Where would we—you and I—have been on that day?  With the crowds? In the street?  With the religious authorities telling Jesus to keeping it down, the Romans are watching? 

We need to be very careful with our hosannas, especially if we find ourselves in positions of power and authority and privilege, part of the dominant culture, people with financial security, comfortable. Jesus’ humble arrival was political statement about the proper use of power, as it mocked the pomp of imperial Rome.  I’m not trying to give a politically, socially charged spin on the text.  Instead, a politically, socially, economically charged reading of the text is there in plain sight.  It’s there for us to see when we remove the wall between religion and politics and economics—a wall that the West erected in the 17th and 18th centuries.  A wall, by the way, that often serves those with political and financial power and separates those with power from those without it.  I’m not saying that we shouldn’t support the separation of church and state in this county, because we should.  I’m saying that this separation, of dividing religion and politics is alien to the Bible.  In the Bible, there is no separation between sacred and secular domains, between faith and politics and economics.  “The earth and all that it contains belongs to the LORD” (Psalm 24:1).  It’s all one.  Everything is connected.  When we interpret Jesus, his ministry, his preaching, his healings and miracles, his death on the cross as having only to do with spiritual things, as having no direct bearing upon the rest of our lives, including our political and economic choices, then we’re guilty of spiritualizing the gospel, of distorting Jesus’s message; we are guilty of undermining the gospel, and, therefore, cannot hear and see the radical and scandalous message of the cross. 

The feminist theologian Dorothy A. Lee-Pollard writes, “The cross reveals where God’s kingdom is to be found—not among the powerful or even the religious, but in the midst of powerlessness, suffering and death.”[5]  This is not good news for those in power.  But it’s really good news for those with broken hosannas, for those lost in grief and pain and sorrow, for the oppressed, for the marginalized. 

The theologian James Cone, father of Black theology, wrote in his recent work The Cross and the Lynching Tree, a theological tour de force, “God’s salvation is a liberating event in the lives of all who are struggling for survival and dignity in a world bent on denying their humanity.”[6]  In other words, the cross is for people whose hosannas are broken.  “We cannot find liberating joy in the cross,” Cone says, “by spiritualizing it, by taking away its message of justice in the midst of powerlessness, suffering, and death.  The cross, as a locus of divine revelation, is not good news for the powerful, for those who are comfortable with the way things are, or for anyone whose understanding of religion is aligned with power.  The religious authorities of Jesus’ time were threatened by his teachings about the reign of God’s justice and love, and the state authorities executed him as an insurrectionist.”[7] 

So, yes, the cross is good news—but it’s not good news for everyone.  But it’s most definitely good news, maybe especially good news, for those whose hosannas are broken, because the message of the cross tells us, shows us, that the Lord of the universe shares in the suffering of God’s people, participates in our inhumanity, and can and will triumph over death and sin and evil, not through brute force, but through the force of love.

What about us? What’s behind our “Hosannas!” this Sunday?  Praise?  Adoration? Hallelujah?  Rescue?  Save us?  Liberated me?  Perhaps a little of both? 

How you answer, how you understand this cry is crucial, because it will inform how you approach all the events of Holy Week.  It will shape how you understand the cross.  It will shape your understanding of Jesus.  And how you understand Jesus shapes everything else.

Image: Triumphal Entry from the Codex Purpureus Rossanensis, the Rosanno Gospels, Rosanno, Italy, 550 AD.
[1] Jesus Christ Superstar (1970), written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.
[2] Obery Hendricks, The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of the Teachings of Jesus and How They Have Been Corrupted (New York: Doubleday, 2006), 114
[3] Hendricks, 114.
[4] Hendricks, 122.
[5] Cited in James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Orbis, 2013), 157.
[6] Cone, 151.
[7] Cone, 157.

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