For many Christians today marks the beginning of the holiest week of the year. That’s not to say that there isn’t any holiness anywhere else but it is a special week. We make a point of remembering the last events in Jesus’ life leading up to his death by crucifixion (Good Friday) and then a little later his being brought to new life in the resurrection (Easter Day).
Palm Sunday gets its name from an event in the gospels when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, not on foot – his usual means of transport – but on the back of a donkey. He was welcomed as a king and where we might roll out the red carpet, in Jerusalem they put their branches from palm trees on his road (a green carpet, I suppose). That sets the scene: Jesus is no longer moving about the country, he is now at the capital city. It would be fairly easy to talk about that event and find some meaning in it. There is something for everyone: Jesus rode a donkey and in that way he showed humility (he could have ridden a war horse, instead, to show that he was a powerful warrior king) and that makes a political as well as a theological point. Meanwhile children might take an interest in the donkey itself: what is it like to be specially chosen by Jesus? However, if we leave Palm Sunday only thinking about the donkey then I think we have missed the point. Jesus is indeed being portrayed as a king but a crucified king.
That leads us to the next part of Palm Sunday which looks at the events leading up to Jesus’ death by crucifixion. It is a fairly long reading. For some it might seem strange that the main focus of Palm Sunday is the events that happened around that first Good Friday. However, the fact is that for many busy people, Palm Sunday is the last chance they get to come to church before Easter and they would miss out on a crucial part of the gospel message: Jesus was executed, dead and buried before the miracle took place which we celebrate on Easter Day.
I probably shouldn’t admit this but I do find listening to or reading about those Good Friday events hard going. Think of it this way, how often could you listen to how a friend of yours died before you found it all a bit too much? As usual, today I found it hard to concentrate during the reading of St Matthew’s version of events. One notorious verse did stand out.
It was the one where the religious authorities reject Jesus in favour of a violent rebel so that Jesus was not released from custody but handed over to be tortured and executed. Pilate washed his hands of the whole affair while the crowd said ‘let his blood be on us and on our children!’ (verse 25 of chapter 27). For centuries this has been taken to mean not just that they take responsibility for their choice but that every generation was to be blamed for putting an innocent man to death. That is a terrible misuse of that verse and moreover, it is not what it is means. In the Bible there is a principle that if anyone should take the blame it is only for what they themselves have done. The rest of that person’s family are not guilty by association. This ancient principle that goes back at least as far as the prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah some 600 years before Jesus’ time in history.
I think there is a better way to understand this verse and it depends on remembering what else was going on in Jerusalem at the time. It was around the feast of the Passover. Every year the Hebrew people remembered (as they still do) the miracle of their escape from slavery in Egypt and the beginning of their long journey to a new land. Part of the story is how the first-born child of every household died. The exception was where the doorway of the house had been daubed with the blood of a sacrificial lamb. The splashing of the blood meant that that house was passed over. To be splashed with blood meant that you would be spared being killed. Splashing with blood in the Old Testament is also associated with religious or holy sacrifices. In other words, blood is associated with God saving lives and with dedicating things to God as being holy. Fortunately, Christians believe that Jesus’ death means the end of any need for animal sacrifices although we do use that Old Testament imagery to try to explain the meaning of Good Friday and Easter.
St Matthew, who we believe started out as a traditional Jew, would have known this. So when the crowd talk about Jesus’ blood being on them and on their children, they probably meant “We take responsibility for our actions”. St Matthew did not have to include this verse, but as he did, I think he means it to be understood that despite what they did, salvation is for them as much as for anyone else. In other words, any benefit there may be had from Jesus’ crucifixion is for them as well as for us.