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Politics of Scripture

Hearing the Story Again for the First Time—Luke 19:28-40

The political resonances of Palm Sunday sound clearly when we read as if we didn’t already know the end of the story.

28 After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38 saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” 39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

When discussing plot points in a film or novel, we often give people “spoiler alerts,” warning them that, if they are not already aware of what happens in the story, their enjoyment of it might be compromised by our revelations.

Our first experience of a story, when we encounter it without its ending in mind, is almost impossible to replicate. Subsequent readings or viewings may disclose new insights, especially as our knowledge of the ending enables us to see things that previously went unrecognized, yet we often wish that we were able to experience something again for the first time.

The uniqueness of our first experience of a story has much to do with the fact that the drama and power of a story can be most fully experienced when we do not have the end in mind, when we do not yet know how everything is going to be resolved. When we know a story’s dénouement it can be difficult imaginatively to inhabit a situation in which events could realistically have been expected to take very different courses.

As we lose our sensitivity and attentiveness to the features of a narrative in its yet unresolved state, the narrative’s resolution can be perceived as always already there—and our sense of suspense is dulled. A great ending ought to arrive in a way that provokes both the surprise of the new and unexpected and a delight of recognition of something that brings fitting resolution that which preceded it. But knowing how the story ends, we become much less alert to those details of the story that might have reasonably led us to expect a different ending. Instead, we lightly pass over details that were designed to throw us off the scent and we ignore all the blind alleys.

We can experience a sense of joy every time we reread Luke’s account of Palm Sunday and Holy Week, but it is difficult to truly recover the two-punch surprise of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. It is also difficult to encounter the earlier events of the week in a manner that is not profoundly overshadowed by the eucatastrophic resolution of what they set in motion.

The sense of the givenness of the ending of the gospel narrative—of its being a “fixed point in time,” as Doctor Who might put it—is one shared by Luke himself. While Luke does not emphasize the fulfilment of specific scriptures to the degree that Matthew does, Luke’s Jesus foretells his death and resurrection on several separate occasions (9:21-22, 43-45; 13:32-33; 18:31-34; 22:22) and, after his resurrection, repeatedly teaches that everything occurred as he foretold and in fulfilment of the Scriptures (24:25-26, 44-49).

Later, in Acts, the apostles teach that the death and resurrection of Christ was foreordained by God, according to his purpose (Acts 2:22-36; 4:27-28). Indeed, it could be argued that Peter’s message on the Day of Pentecost has this foreordination as perhaps its central point.

Extricating ourselves from the vantage points of Good Friday and Easter Sunday to view the events of Palm Sunday on their own terms, however, as if we did not already know how the story was going to end, may lead us to ask different sorts of questions. What might strike the reader of Luke’s account, from the Triumphal Entry until the Last Supper, are the prominent themes of authority, rule, and kingship.

Entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Jesus is heralded as the king. In the few days that follow, he cleanses the Temple, defends his royal authority against a variety of opponents, gives several judgment sayings declaring the coming destruction of Jerusalem that his future advent in judgment will bring, identifies himself as the Messianic Son of David and the Danielic Son of Man (who will have a universal empire, with all peoples, nations, and languages serving him), speaks of the way that his disciples will sit on twelve thrones judging the tribes of Israel, and affirms before the Sanhedrin that he is the Son of God and before Pilate that he is the King of the Jews.

The sheer audacity of Jesus’ royal claims in Luke is astonishing, perhaps even alarming. We are so accustomed to reading the gospel as if Jesus’ death and resurrection were the straightforward dénouement of its themes that we lightly pass over much of this material, treating some of it as misdirection, highly spiritualizing other parts, and simply ignoring or failing to notice others.

When the death and resurrection of Jesus are considered in this way, it is easy to (mis)represent Jesus simply as the pacifist victim of “empire” vindicated by God. However, rereading the narrative as if we did not already know the ending, it might become apparent that the ending of Luke’s gospel does not itself offer the full resolution of the themes within it, just the climactic reversal out of which broader resolution will ultimately flow.

Even after the resurrection, many of the themes of the gospel remained unresolved, leaving the disciples grappling with the combination of remarkable and unexpected fulfilment and perplexingly postponed or non-apparent fulfilment. As they ask Jesus prior to the ascension, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

Many of the things Jesus foretold in the final week remained unfulfilled at the time of his ascension. Pentecost and the destruction of Jerusalem still awaited in the future, not to mention events such as the general resurrection and the apostles sitting on thrones judging the tribes of Israel. Until such events occurred, the actual shape of the resolution of the story would retain elements of unclarity and a sense of suspense would remain.

Reading Luke’s gospel in a manner that does not permit it to be overshadowed by its conclusion will grant themes of Christ’s kingdom and its earthly impact far greater prominence. The connection of the coming of the Son of Man with something like the sanguinary destruction of the city of Jerusalem might be unsettling for the sensibilities of contemporary Western readers, yet is a very important part of the projected fulfilment of Luke’s kingdom themes.

Luke’s Jesus is not simply a victim of an empire, but is the one destined to be Christus imperator, King of kings and Lord of lords, avenging the blood of his prophets and saints, and ruling until all his enemies have been pacified. As the most quoted verse in the New Testament would have it: “The Lord says to my lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.’”

One of the purposes of the church calendar is to facilitate us to re-occupy to some extent the temporality of the gospel narrative and its interplay of expectation and arrival. We are to join Jesus and his joyful disciples as they enter Jerusalem, to experience once again the uncertainty, confusion, and fear of the Last Supper and the arrest in Gethsemane, to stand as all light and hope are extinguished under the pall of the Good Friday skies, to re-enter the devastating stillness of the tomb on Holy Saturday, and to marvel and tremble at an empty tomb on Easter morn.

As we seek to experience the events again this Palm Sunday and Holy Week, we need to allow both expectation and fulfilment to inform each other, without allowing either to assimilate the other to its vision. The expectations of the first Palm Sunday were confounded—though not simply negated—by what followed. Jesus would become king, though not in a way that any anticipated. The disciples seem to have been braced for a fight for the Davidic Messiah they followed, but were not prepared to stand at the foot of his cross.

On the other hand, as we re-enter Jerusalem with Jesus and his disciples, hearing him proclaimed as king and speaking and acting concerning the kingdom in the way that he did, as political theologians we are also forced to wrestle with difficult and discomforting themes that may not simply be rendered quiescent by Jesus’ nonviolent submission to the cross. Hearing the story again for the first time, we may rediscover its perturbing strangeness.

One thought on “Hearing the Story Again for the First Time—Luke 19:28-40

  1. Thank you, Alastair. As a semi-retired pastor in America, I am always looking for refreshing ways to read the Word as though for the first time. I enjoy viewing the Bible through a variety of lenses; it seems to make the Scripture come alive for me. Currently, I am teaching Bible and Doctrine at a Christian Academy in Massachusetts and filling interim pastorates when asked. This week, I found your website: The Gospel Coalition and have enjoyed several of your blogs and articles. Your views are a “fresh” voice and I am sharing you with my students. Blessings, my friend. IHS

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