Jesus knew what was coming. He knew the crowds – for all of their “Hosannas” that day – didn’t understand what was about to happen. He knew many would turn on him in the end. After all, the word “Hosanna” in Hebrew means “Save us!” And if it was salvation from Roman rule they were after, that wasn’t what Jesus was about. If they wanted a revolution, he certainly offered one, but not the kind they expected. So as you know, if you’re familiar with the rest of the story, Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey was in a sense the beginning of the end. It was a dangerous ride, because once he was inside the city – to invoke another biblical story we read together recently – he had entered the lion’s den. He was handing himself over, knowing “the powers that be” would finally have their chance to get rid of him. Granted, only for a while, but that’s next week’s story. And if we know that happy ending, we also know what he had to endure first, to get there. It was truly a dangerous ride Jesus took into Jerusalem that day.
What struck me this week, rereading the familiar Palm Sunday story in conversation this time with the final portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, is how long he’d been trying to prepare his disciples for that danger.
If we were to have done a quick poll before we began our Lenten series on the Sermon on the Mount, asking what any of us recalled about it, I wonder what would have come to mind. Perhaps the beautiful blessings or Beatitudes at the beginning? Blessed are the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, and so on? Or perhaps those inspiring words about our calling as followers of Christ to bring salt and light to the world? But having spent the whole season of Lent studying Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we can’t really get away with selective memory anymore, can we? Because we’ve just been reminded what else is in there.
Even in the Beatitudes, you’ll remember reading: “blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’s sake… blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” (Matthew 5:10-11) Up next were all of those difficult teachings – “you have heard it said, but I say to you” – reminding us that we are accountable for our lingering resentments and lustful thoughts, just as we are for sins like murder and adultery. Jesus then made the outrageous demand that we love our enemies. He warned that we must step away from money as our god, and cease worrying about material things. He told us not to judge others, without first noticing our own sins. And urged us to pray persistently, not only when we are given fabulous answers to prayer, but even when it appears we are not getting what we are asking for, at all.
In today’s text, the conclusion to that same sermon, the hard teachings continue. New Testament scholar N.T. Wright compares making our way through this section of Matthew’s gospel to making our way along a treacherous drive, saying: “Jesus ends the great Sermon on the Mount with a set of warning signs. If you’ve come this far with him, you need to know it’s not just a matter of holding on to the steering wheel and hoping for the best. You need to concentrate, to take note of danger, to realize that you can’t presume on anything. You’ve got to keep your wits about you. This passage has three of these warnings, coming in quick succession like road-signs on a motorway. Make sure you get through the gate – it’s not very wide! Watch out for people who will lead you off the road! Don’t think that because you’ve been tagging along with the others that you’ll get there in the end! These are sharp and worrying. We need to take them seriously.” (N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone, p. 75) In fact, Jesus says, hearing my words and not acting on them is self-destructive foolishness, akin to building a house on a bed of loose sand. (Matthew 7:24-27)
In other words, anyone who thinks Jesus just was a nice, friendly guy inviting his followers to a simple life hasn’t read the gospels very closely. Because he’s been saying all along: it’s not easy to follow me. Sign on, and you’re signing up for all kinds of trouble. The journey of discipleship – like Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem - is a difficult and dangerous ride.
I’m guessing Jesus didn’t wait for polling data or consult a press secretary before he launched into his Sermon on the Mount. Because it’s clear to any of us that he’d scare off more people than he’d win, with this kind of talk. No matter. His concern was to offer his listeners the cold, hard, challenging – and life-giving – truth of the kingdom of God.
His risky behavior continues, in the chapters that follow the story we just read about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on the back of that donkey. His very next recorded action, according to Matthew, is furiously to overturn the tables of the money-changers in the temple. Then he tells a bunch of parables about those who think they’re in the kingdom of God really being the ones who are out, follows that up by telling the religious leaders they’re all going to hell in a hand basket, and brings it all home by foretelling the destruction of their beloved Jerusalem temple.
Jesus, listen, you had them back there. The crowds were cheering you on, waving palm branches, throwing down their cloaks for you. Let’s be a touch more diplomatic, shall we? At least don’t take on everyone all at once. Maybe if he’d listened to that kind of advice, Jesus wouldn’t have found himself in such deep trouble later in the week.
But again, Jesus knew from the start that telling people the truth isn’t about winning popularity contests. And ushering in the kingdom of God doesn’t generally involve caving in to the demands of the crowds. Truth telling requires a strong backbone. Kingdom building requires tremendous strength of character. And it often brings with it tremendous risk. Jesus rode into Jerusalem that day with his eyes wide open. He knew how dangerous that ride would be, from the very start of his ministry.
It’s clear from his Sermon on the Mount that he knew we’d be in for a dangerous ride too, if we signed on as his followers.
Which is why he offers us these critical warnings as he concludes his Sermon on the Mount. Don’t get confused and think “you can simply ‘go with the flow,’ allowing the crowed to set the pace and direction…You really have to want to get in through this gate. If you just drift, allowing the current to take you where it will, you’ll miss it…. Choices matter; actions and motives matter. Learning to follow Jesus and to know God … matter. Eternal issues are at stake… And as soon as you hear a little voice saying ‘maybe Jesus didn’t mean it – surely he can’t have been that strict – maybe it’ll all come right in the end no matter what we do’, you need the next warning.” (Wright, p. 76)
“The next warning… is against ‘false prophets.’ In ancient Israel, ‘false prophets’ were people who claimed to be speaking the word of YHWH but actually weren’t. If people listened to them they would end up going the wrong way, and disaster would follow. But the trouble with false prophets is of course that they seem very nice, very reasonable, very trustworthy. No wolf is going to let you see his claws and teeth if he can dress himself up as a harmless sheep – and that’s what they will do.” (Wright, p. 76) Know them by their fruits, Jesus says. In other words, pay attention not just to their appealing words, but to whether their lives measure up to God’s standards.
True knowledge of God, true obedience to God, honest efforts to follow Jesus rather than running off after this fad or after that charismatic leader – that’s what we’re called to as Christians.
And just when we start to despair of ever getting it right, just when we’re most convinced that we might as well throw in the towel because there’s no hope for us, just then, we remember… Palm Sunday may have been the beginning of the end for Jesus, in a sense, but once the events of that fateful week were over, it also turns out to have ushered in the beginning of all beginnings. Not only for Jesus himself, but for us too.
As people of the resurrection we shouldn’t despair of not being Christ’s perfect followers. The whole point of resurrection hope is that we shouldn’t despair, period. Jesus turned out to be plenty strong enough to handle Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial. Turned out to be plenty tough enough to take on death itself; so I’ll wager he can take my personal faults and failures in stride, and still manage to keep his overall kingdom work on track.
The gospels never told us following Jesus would be easy. The demands of discipleship are huge, and if we sign on, we’re in for a dangerous ride. But look around you this morning – we’re not, any of us, doing this alone. We can cheer each other on, and pick each other up when we fall.
We can also remind one another that we’ve got all the help in the world – and then some – standing by to get us through it. And for that, gracious God, we thank you. Amen.