Room for Subtlety

Welcome to the Knox Talks blog. Here you can find recent and past sermons relating scripture to a wide variety of topics. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

Room for Subtlety

Scripture: Matthew 21:1-11

A lot of people want religion to be unadorned, to be plain-spoken and crystal clear about beliefs and doctrines. Many consider stark simplicity to be an important element of the truth. They want crystal clarity.

I can understand this desire. Clarity is part of the Scandinavian culture that produced me and very much part of the religious household I grew up in. When examples of subtlety appeared, my mother might admire them. Clever phrases with multiple meanings or even double-entendres would catch her imagination, although it might also be criticized as being naughty if that’s what she thought was going on.

Insisting on clarity is a privilege, really; something of a luxury. For some, it might even be laziness. We don’t want to have to work to interpret a lesson. We don’t want to have to think too hard. But when I say privilege, that’s not what I mean: only people who are accustomed to being in the majority can dismiss subtlety easily.

For people who are being oppressed, who have to live within a very dominant culture but are trying to keep their own identity, it is necessary to have more subtle ways of communicating. That’s where inside jokes come from: a small group trying to distinguish themselves from the majority, often in ways that fly under the radar as the majority carries on in blissful ignorance.

That was part of what was going on during the Triumphal Entry that Jesus made on Palm Sunday.

Of course, Prophets in Israel already had a tradition of using symbolism that required interpretation, not because they wanted to be obscure, but because they wanted the message to sink in.

You will remember a message better if you have to work to comprehend it. Sometimes they used other methods of being memorable, such as graphic imagery that sears itself on the imagination – remember the lesson of the Dry Bones? Or they might use high drama. Many prophets acted out their messages: Jeremiah bought a field; Hosea married Gomer, the prostitute. Sometimes humour was useful to get past people’s initial defences. The prophet Balaam being outsmarted by his own donkey was very funny and yet still managed to convey a deep message.

On other occasions, the prophets could be pretty blunt, especially when they were addressing some of the more stubborn rulers. Jesus was operating in the tradition of the prophets, so when he chose how to make a statement when he entered Jerusalem, he had a lot of options.

Jesus opted for a subtle, multi-layered message which has made this a challenging lesson for centuries. Jesus knew he had to hide at least part of his message from the occupying Roman forces who had been in control of Judea and Jerusalem for around 25 years. If he made too open a claim of authority, he would be arrested at the very gates of the city.

But Jesus also wanted to make a prophetic statement that people would hear, about God’s way being greater than any human empire. So, he rode in on a donkey.

It was a kind of code that the Romans would never get, but a Jewish person who read the prophet Zechariah might remember the passage about the king riding in on a donkey. The original Zechariah prophesy Jesus was referencing set the tone of his message well: it was an image of kingship that was tied closely to modesty, not a king on a warhorse but a king on a humble beast of burden.

Every aspect of Jesus’ ministry challenged standard human assumptions about power, worth, who was really “blessed”. Jesus talked about the first being last, so the image of a king on a donkey was perfect. It fit with his whole ministry.

It is hard to know how exactly the crowd was reacting. The branches and cloaks we hear about might have been welcoming Zechariah’s promised king, or they might have been mocking the Romans in power by celebrating this prophet on a donkey and playing along with Jesus’ challenge to worldly authority while the Roman soldiers looked down from the walls of the holy city, unable to intervene without starting a riot.

There are so many layers here that it has confused us over time. I can remember as a child in Sunday School that the excitement of this day was presented like people were really recognizing Jesus as king. It felt like it was really triumphant, worthy of royalty instead of a prophetic statement challenging the very core of the values that make Pomp and Circumstance possible.

It took the church years to transform this event from a day of triumph to a day of irony and challenge. In order to figure that out, we had to back away from the idea of Christendom: the idea of Triumphant Christianity where Jesus rules as king in a very traditional human way;

to re-discover the message Jesus brought from the beginning that denies all those assumptions of human power and glory and replaces them with equality, justice, grace and love.

Jesus’ prophetic message had to be subtle enough that the Romans wouldn’t arrest him right away. He had some things to do in Jerusalem

before he could afford being put on trial – more prophetic actions like clearing out the temple, which he did the day after Palm Sunday. There was no subtlety in that message. Jesus chose to be totally blunt in that holy place.

But on Palm Sunday there was room for subtlety, enough that his own disciples were not sure what he was doing. That wasn’t really new, they often didn’t understand his parables and had to ask for help in understanding them.

But this is all a good reminder that not all of our faith is plain and obvious. Many messages require interpretation. We need to look deeply, beyond the surface, if we want to get the full picture of what God wants.

Churches that offer simple answers are doing both God and their members a disservice. When we have to work to understand a message, when we have to dig deep and work through a mystery, we will have learned something that will stick with us, something that goes beyond lists of rules and commandments, that goes beyond black and white simplicities.

Jesus still invites us to dig into the deeper message of Palm Sunday: the challenge to human assumptions about power; the claim that God has something better in mind; that real authority begins with something as basic as a donkey; and that understanding should roll out to influence everything we do, and every relationship we have.

We do have one advantage over the people who saw Jesus ride in on that first Palm Sunday. We know about Good Friday. We have seen Jesus challenge the power of the mightiest empire of the world by dying on the cross.

That challenge looked like a defeat until we saw the message of Easter: that out of the humiliation of death on a cross comes new life that has no end; a spiritual life that casts a new, transformative light onto every part of this material world. It is only in that light that the subtlety of Palm Sunday reveals its message.


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