A Cry for Help
A Cry for Help
Robert P. Hoch
First & Franklin Presbyterian Church
Baltimore MD 21201
April 5, 2020
1When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
5 “Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
This Palm Sunday is different for us. I don’t have to tell you how it is different. I don’t have to describe what we’re missing today, children waving palms, procession of choir, the church with all its glorious pomp and circumstance. Maybe our, palms, if we had them, would be trembling with angst ridden prayers that are turned up to the highest setting. It’s almost the only prayer we can hear.
This may not be comforting, but the truth is that the way we feel now is not far from Matthew’s audience. Matthew’s people are a colony of Rome; they are embroiled in a nasty family dispute with their parent religion, Judaism. They’ve been pushed out of the synagogue, where they formerly enjoyed community. They feel harassed on all sides. They live under a terrible leader, the Emperor of Rome. They want out. They want deliverance. They want freedom. They want it now.
According to one biblical scholar, the word hosanna, which also appears in Psalm 118:25-6, is literally, Save us now! Or a desperate cry for help.
But in its context, Matthew 21 looks a lot like a social protest, complete with a chant: Save us now! Save us now! Save us now! Matthew depicts it as a big event: crowds were in front of Jesus, crowds were behind Jesus, Jesus rides on a donkey and young foal, suggesting that Jesus is the king of Israel, or a rival to the Emperor of Rome.
Historically, it was probably a small event, barely on Rome’s radar. If it were as big as Matthew portrays it, Rome would have put it down immediately. Matthew’s purpose here is not to record a political uprising, but rather to raise the urgent question, the question of troubled times, to the theological level, to the plea for God to act, and decisively.
When faced with real personal crisis, or national emergency, we run to Jesus. We pray, Help! On our street a couple of months ago, it was around midnight. We were in bed. And we heard someone yelling. I didn’t know what it was about. I thought it was someone with a mental illness, but then I went to the window and saw a man running for his life, a group of people in hot pursuit, and he was yelling at the top of his lungs, Help! Help! Help! Just so you know, he did find help and his pursuers were caught.
But maybe we know this prayer just now — Save us! Help us! Deliver us!
Give us a vaccine!
Give us tests for the virus!
Or at least more ventilators!
Our demands have an existential edge. And they boil down to one primordial cry, “Help!” I’m not belittling those kinds of prayers. I pray them as fervently as anyone else! And I think Jesus hears the prayers of distressed parents, frightened children, hurting people — people who cry help. The psalmist prays often and frequently in times of trouble. And maybe we want Jesus to ride into the conflicted, worried, global pandemic that is our life right now, and we want Jesus to be the kind of king who answers that urgent prayer.
But sometimes, the very urgency of our prayers can mask the depth of the rescue Jesus imparts.
Into the unrest and randomness of our own day, Matthew speaks a different word, not merely a rescue from but a rescue for. The Jesus of Matthew speaks differently by reminding us that the virus that has crippled our economy, exposed the weaknesses of our healthcare system, is not the whole picture. It is partially true but not the whole truth. That’s one part of the rescue from.
For Matthew, the truth for people of faith isn’t necessarily in the big-brash headlines but in a knowledge of local economies of care, which are otherwise almost hidden from the public eye. Maybe that’s the way we could read this text from Matthew . . . a rescue from and a rescue for. As a rescue from, it reflects the turmoil that Matthew’s audience had to face. But on the other, what are we rescued for, it’s like a personal, intimate note, an assurance for all times, and perhaps especially in times of trouble. It’s like a recipe that our mother or grandmother gave us. And we keep it in fastened with a paperclip in a cookbook. It’s written in familiar handwriting. It speaks of a time when troubles were not so near. You can almost hear how your mom would mix the batter; or how, so often, she would maybe not have quite the exact ingredients, but would improvise; she didn’t measure out things exactly, but knew the taste she was after, and somehow, when you look at that recipe decades later — the ink bleeding here and there, the paper creased to the point where if you didn’t know it by heart, you wouldn’t be able to read it — you can hear her voice. If you need to change the pronouns, go ahead.
This is the way Matthew speaks of Jesus coming into Jerusalem. It brings to mind an ancient story, but one that is strong to save.
Let’s learn from Matthew’s recipe for forming an economy of care in times of trouble – this moves us into what we are rescued for — and it means following God with almost surreal confidence in God’s providential care. It begins with the story of how Jesus sends two disciples into a town to get a donkey and a young foal. You won’t have to search high and low. God’s mercy is not scarce. Immediately, Jesus says, you will find just what you’re looking for, a donkey and its foal. Untie them. If the owner comes out, and says, “What are you doing?” say, “The Lord requires it.” And that’s all the assurance they will need. It’s as if Jesus is saying to us, through churning unrest of our souls, through the fever of this life, God continues to work, continues to save, continues to reconcile and redeem. And we’ll find co-conspirators along the way. Live into each day with trust in God’s providential care, seek peace and pursue it, pray in the morning and then watch all day, on tiptoe.
It may not be in the headlines, but God will be working in these small, out of the way places, making a way out of no way.
You might have a question or two about that donkey and foal. Why does Matthew give us this two-donkey riding Jesus? It’s a silly image and all the more perplexing because Matthew insists that Jesus rides “them” both. A common theory is that Matthew failed to understand the art of Hebrew poetry, known as parallelism. The text comes from Zechariah, where the prophet writes that the Davidic king will enter Jerusalem, riding on a donkey that’s never been ridden, the foal of a donkey.
Or a young donkey. Matthew, they say, incorrectly literalizes the text, so that Jesus rides on two animals, when Zechariah really only intended to say that Jesus road on a donkey, the foal of a donkey, in other words, a young donkey.
So that’s the “gotcha” — Matthew, according to this theory, doesn’t understand Hebrew poetry! I find that doubtful, since Matthew is one of the most Jewish of the gospel writers. It’s more likely that Matthew deploys this odd image deliberately. Jesus rides in differently because there is no one quite like him. King of kings, lord of lords, alpha and omega, beginning and end. Jesus is in the line of kings and yet he is the king of kings. It’s the secret ingredient which makes Jesus different, unique, and unrepeatable. Maybe we would say that this is secret ingredient that your mother always threw into the stew or the pie; maybe it was the smile, or the song she sang while she rolled out the pastry for blueberry pie; maybe it was something invisible and essential at the same time. You can’t capture it or even repeat it.
When Jesus enters the city, Matthew tells us the whole city erupted with turmoil, as the NRSV translates it. The word translated as “turmoil” is translated as “earthquake” when it recounts what happens when Jesus rises from the dead. Something new has come into the world in Christ. It is reminiscent of the way Herod and all the powers react with fear when Jesus was born at the very beginning of Matthew. For Matthew this kind of language comes directly from an encounter with Jesus who is powerful to save.
The question has moved from the chant or the existential cry for help, to something else. Of Jesus, they were asking, “Who is this?” The crowd said, “A prophet from Nazareth.”
To ask that question, I wonder if we’re not already saved, or being saved, or about to be saved. Because to ask that question, we’ve already left the cries of the crowd, urgent with pleas for deliverance, to a place where we are able to contemplate our shepherd, the one who calls us to come and follow him.
I think we belong to a shepherd, whose voice we know by heart. We are, in a sense, Jesus’ sheepdogs. We enjoy a deep, personal knowledge of God through the Spirit.
It is true that the flock of God feels as if it’s being scattered by fear, by real threat and imagined ones, too. A disturbed flock of sheep is noisy, and urgent. It’s the way our public life feels right now. And as people of faith, we’re not immune. We bray, yelp, and bleat with the best of them (and sometimes with the worst of them). But we’re also not quite identical with the herd mentality.
Evelyn Underhill says that people who follow God are a bit like sheepdogs. To follow Jesus in any way is to be a bit like a sheepdog. A good sheepdog is a beautiful animal to watch. It works, she says, without complaint. It doesn’t look for the shepherd to pet it, it doesn’t even look at the shepherd, except fleetingly. It cares for the flock, which may not feel together, or whole. But the sheep dog seems tireless, as it works the perimeters of this group, responding to the familiar voice of the shepherd, bringing the body back into coherence, as a body, as a people, as a flock.
It may seem like the flock of human community is scattering in the face of a pandemic that spreads like wildfire. The Washington Post recently ran a headline that people aren’t singing in the streets of Italy anymore. But the headline wasn’t quite right. You’ll find sheepdog kinds of people, still singing.
Just before the Maimonides Hospital of Brooklyn NY was closed to visitors, they let a group of Washington Post journalists visit the hospital where 80% of the patients are coronavirus positive. Soon it will be 100%. Maybe you can imagine the sound of the ICU wing. Mechanical. The sound of ventilators. No visitors. No family, except one person allowed at the moment when death is imminent. But if you listened long enough, you would also hear singing. Janett Perez, an intensive care nurse, sings to her patients. She sings to her flock while they’re intubated, on ventilators, unconscious. She says, “They can hear you. They don’t have family around. So we have to be their family.”
She moves purposefully through this new family of hers, quickly and efficiently, arranging arms or legs, adjusting a hospital bed, all the while talking about the weather, a recent show on TV, sports teams. “I talk to them like I would talk to my family or my friends,” she said. “Positivity goes such a long way. Positivity can heal a person. Positivity, good energy can just take away all the bad and infuse someone with goodness. That’s really what nursing is about.” It’s not a positive place, at least not in the headlines. But she believes that she is to be sister, mother, friend to these sheep, whose only cry, whose only chant is the sound of mechanical breathing.[i]
Maybe it’s what being a follower of Jesus is about. We gather together, sometimes encouraged by sheepdog like servants, who call us to pray. Call us to connect. Call us to break us out of fear, out of loneliness. Sheepdogs who invite us to sing a familiar hymn on an unfamiliar medium, this mechanical apparatus, that keeps us breathing songs of praise.
It’s not that sheepdogs are different from the flock. They’re only set apart for a specific vocation. At its best, the sheepdog doesn’t notice its scrapes. Or the bad weather. Or the rough ground. It simply works, unconscious of itself, as if this work were written into its very soul, passed onto it and into its memory, generation after generation, and for an hour such as this.
Underhill writes that, “when the time comes for rest, [shepherd and sheepdog] are generally to be found together. Let this be the model of your love.”
Maybe that’s the secret ingredient of a loving economy. God has blessed our world with a few sheepdogs working in service of the shepherd.
And our shepherd isn’t just any shepherd. But the good shepherd, the God of Abraham, the God Isaac, and the God of Jacob. The God of Sarah, the God Rachel, and the God of Rebecca. The God of Ruth and Naomi, the son of Mary, who is called, Emmanuel, God with us.
[i] Lenny Bernstein and Jon Gerberg, “A Brooklyn ICU Amid a Pandemic” in The Washington Post (4 April 2020) accessed on April 18, 2020 at https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/in-the-icu-health-care-workers-with-little-to-offer-covid-19-patients-soldier-on/2020/04/04/16face9e-74f3-11ea-a9bd-9f8b593300d0_story.html.