SCRIPTURE Mark 11:1-11; John 12:12-19; Matthew 21:1-11; Luke 19:28-44
Out in British Columbia there is an ongoing enquiry into the death of a Polish man (Robert Dziekanski) in the Vancouver airport. If you have read of, or heard about it, or been watching the news reporting on that event or on the present commission which is investigating the response to the event, then you may have already formed an opinion about the incident.
What I am about to say is also not an attempt to make the Royal Canadian Mounted Police appear in a bad light. I have two brothers-in-law who are now retired, who served with distinction.
And why would I use this incident as the introduction to a message on a Palm Sunday? I hope that will become much clearer as we continue.
Polish Man Dies in Airport
Some of the events that took place in the airport would not have been believed if written in a novel or put into a film. What did occur is almost like a scene from Tom Hank’s movie “The Terminal.“ Here we had a distraught traveler, who spoke no English and had never before been on an airplane. The man’s mother had travelled from Kamloops and searched the airport for her 40 year old son. However he was still in the restricted international traveler’s section. Finally she gave up and went home where she later heard of his death..
It has been acknowledged that many agencies failed in their responsibilities that day. Due to all of the errors made by so many differing agencies, changes have been already implemented, both by the Canadian Border Services in their protocols, as well as by other agencies in behind-the-scenes areas of the airport.
At the enquiry it was reported that the man had been there many hours before the police were called. Then he was “tasered” and quickly died. The four policemen, as is the usual requirement, made notes following the incident. After presenting those notes and being interviewed, they were exonerated by their superiors of any wrongdoing in the man’s death.
What I wish to zero in on today relates to the notes that the policemen each separately made. When compared, the reports were much more than merely similar; in fact they were not just similar but they were rather identical. They had identical wording. They described identical actions. And they were accepted as factual. End of story.
The Bible and Palm Sunday
Now here we are on Palm Sunday. You know the events that took place on Palm Sunday. They are as familiar to many of you as the local news. This week I read a comment in an eZine called “Rumours” about that familiarity: The writer said that this Sunday and the events of Holy Week are a bit of a challenge for preachers because “people have heard this story before.” He then went on to write: One year, I attended the world-famous Passion Play at Oberammergau in the Bavarian Alps. At lunch break, I overheard the couple seated behind me. “Haven’t I read this story somewhere?” one of them wondered.
I hope that all of you have heard this Palm Sunday story before. It has been recorded by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Now quite often Matthew, Mark and Luke do record similar material. Because they have so much similar material they have been given the fancy name “Synoptic” gospels.
(Sometimes scholars like to use shorthand. When they say that word “synoptic,” it means that they do not have to say “Those three gospels that have much the same stories.” Perhaps it helps them to get to coffee break faster.)
But John’s Gospel is not included in those Synoptic Gospels. It is rare that John has matching material. Instead of using a slightly biographical or historical framework, John has organized his book around a number of “miracle-signs” done by Jesus.
So there are four accounts of the Palm Sunday events in the Bible. But unlike the notes made by the policemen after the incident in the Vancouver airport, there are discrepancies in these Bible stories.
So after our discussion above, we would expect John’s version in Chapter 12, to be different. Even though our NIV pew Bibles title John’s version “The Triumphal Entry;” just like in the other three gospels, look at it more closely. Rather than using the festive Old Testament verses John quotes verses containing the topic of ‘fear.” John, is looking toward Jesus death on so-called “Good Friday.” But that fits his theme. He has been writing of all the signs provided by Jesus to show that he is God in the flesh. Yet people still will not believe and at the end of the week will have killed the One who came to be their Saviour.
Even Matthew, Mark and Luke are a bit distinct as they relate this story.
Matthew 21 quotes a number of verses from the Old Testament to show Jesus’ connections as the much misunderstood Messiah. He also mentions two animals. Not just the colt of a donkey but also its mother.
Luke 19 is a lot more internal. He relates that Jesus actually wept when he looked over Jerusalem and prophesies its future doom.
Mark 11, though, is all about the action, who did what and to whom.
What to Do With This?
Some Bible teachers suggest that in order to get the whole “wide screen” picture, that you try to take this story apart. See if you can separate out the events and smooth them into a harmonious story. See the differences in emphasis. Try to discover why one writer included something left out by another.
But I would also not be ethical if I did not also tell you that some people see this very evidence of difference as a sign that the Bible is not true. For them, differences, or discrepancies, as they refer to them, are to be avoided. The way they see it, any discrepancies in the way these stories are told may mean that they are not true.
But many others, for reasons that I have already given are not troubled by these differences. Yes, there are some minor differences, but Matthew, Mark and Luke still tell very triumphant stories.
Geography - Let’s explore these accounts. The story actually begins down the mountain in the Jericho area. It was warm, lush, the place the wealthy went in winter. There were palm trees and other tropical fruit. But it was Passover season, and all devout Jewish men were heading to the sacrifice feast at the Temple and the parties in Jerusalem. The Bible is not really clear, but it appears that Jesus had skipped at least a couple of Passover Feasts. But he is determined to attend this Passover. Aware of the many death threats against him he still starts up that notorious highway towards Jerusalem. Thomas, one of his disciples, commented, “Oh well, let’s all go and die with him” (John 11:16).
It was a rugged road that led up to Jerusalem, 25 kilometers to the South West. Near Jerusalem they would also have to scale the 2700 foot Mount of Olives. It was so tall that it towered over the elevated Temple by 200 feet. People could stand on the Mount of Olives and gaze down into the Temple from across the Kidron Valley.
People - There were many people travelling on that same road. The most conservative say there were eventually a 100,000 in Jerusalem. Some reports go as high as 2.5 million. They were from all over the world and there were no cars or buses, or airplanes to transport them.
Jesus’ popularity – Jesus, himself, was already more than a celebrity. His recent miracle, in bringing Lazarus back to life had given him the notoriety of a modern day Rock Star. And finally Jesus decided to capitalize on his fame. A couple of miles from Jerusalem he put his plan into action. On instructions from Jesus, two unnamed disciples were sent to get him some appropriate transportation. The “code” word was “the Master needs it.” All three Synoptic Gospels contain that part of the story (Mark 11:3; Luke 19:31; Matthew 21:3). The disciples go and do as they are told. They approach the site where the animals are tied. Mark and Luke mention that these two disciples were challenged, used the code phrase, and are successfully sent on their way (Mark 11:5-6; Luke 19:33-34).
The King - In those days the kingly leaders had two picturesque ways of sending a message. They could choose to ride into town on a big white horse as an all-conquering leader, warrior. This image of Jesus on such a horse appears to be in the Book of Revelation 6:2 in regards to the end times. Or they could chose the more humble donkey’s colt as Solomon, David’s Son had done during a time of great turmoil around the time of his father’s death. This image of the donkey riding king is found in the Prophetic book of Zechariah 9:9. Matthew and John include the verse in their gospels (Matthew 21:5; John 12:15).
Images - If I were to show you a picture of our Parliament Buildings or even one of our Canadian flag, you would know what those images represent. It was the same in Jesus day. The crowds knew Zechariah’s prophesy of the King who came, humbly, mounted on the colt of a donkey. Unfortunately, they missed the part about “humility.” For them it meant one thing: Jesus was finally going to declare himself King and over throw the Roman Army of occupation. It was a powerful symbol. After all, hadn’t he just given Lazarus back his life? Why they wouldn’t even need a medic during the fighting. For these thousands of people, the air was electric with possibility. It had been almost 200 years now since they had really run the last dictators out of town. The time was ripe. The crowd was “pumped.”
Cloaks and palm plants - Again the three similar gospels record people taking off their outer robes and placing them on the road for the colt to walk on (Matthew 21:7; Mark 11:7; Luke 19:35). It was an age old sign of respect. Some of them started cutting off leafy branches (Mark 11:8; Matthew 21:8). This was also harvest season. There were many long reeds or wheat sheaves available in the near-by fields. And then there were the Palm branches mentioned in John 12:13. They were not easy to find around Jerusalem because of its elevation but there were lots down in Jericho. Many pilgrims would have brought some along for the Temple festivities. It was a national plant with historic connections all the way back to the time of King David. For years it had appeared on the side of their coins. It meant “victory” and represented religious devotion.
Hosanna - Interestingly, of the four writers only Luke leaves out the shouts of “Hosanna” or “God saves” (Mark 11:9; Matthew 21:9; John 12:13). But all of them include the phrase “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” (Mark 11:9; Luke 19:38; Matthew 21:9; John 12:13).
So here we have nationalistic politics and religion - what a potent mix, just waiting for the right spark to set it all off.
Yet the disciples admit that they did not have a clue. John records that that they were unable to figure it all out it until after Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension (John 12:16).
The authorities were deathly worried. John, Luke and Matthew record their concern (John 12:19; Luke 19:39; Matthew2:15). After Jesus Resurrection, John mentions that the officials had gone as far as deciding that somebody, and hopefully, Jesus, would have to die just to calm down the Roman master back home (John 18:14) .
Trustworthy or Not?
So to sum up this section, although there are some who want to see everything written and explained in the same way, there are many others who see these differences as helpful. They see these differing highlights as subtle, purposeful, re-creations by each author. According to such thinking the very opposite to the critic would then be true. If these stories were all the same we should be checking to see if they really are authentic. Witnesses are very notorious for disagreeing, for seeing the same incident from many viewpoints, much like the differing facets of a diamond.
Back to the Enquiry
This brings us right back to the Victoria enquiry. After the policemen had been exonerated, a private video surfaced, a recording that showed much of the interaction between these policemen and the weary, confused, and now agitated, traveler.
Unfortunately for the policemen involved, the video did not uphold any of their very detailed, identical descriptions of the events that they had recorded in their notes.
Now our earlier Bible critics would have said, “Well their stories were all identical, so they must be true.” But now the public looked at a very different picture unfold and demanded an impartial enquiry into the truth. Our Canadian Court system is based on the historic British system. It is known for its artificial courtesy, where opposing counsel refer to each other as “my esteemed friend.” Yet even in that rarified atmosphere one lawyer went so far as to accuse these four men of falsifying their version of the events in order to escape punishment. Many are speculating about their eventual fate. But this enquiry is far from over. Eventually, history will record its final decisions.
But as for our Palm Sunday stories with each Gospel’s unique emphasis, I see those so-called contradictions as a strength. A unique event happened in history. Different people reported on it. Their accounts, like their personalities and purposes, differed. And we are the richer for them.
Closing Communion Hymn #116 “Tell Me the Stories of Jesus” verses 1-2