The Prince and the Pauper
A Palm Sunday Sermon
Anthony G. Cirilla
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord my Strength and my Redeemer. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Before I begin, I want to give you a piece of instruction. Whenever I say, “Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord,” I want you to wave your palm branches and say, “HOSANNA IN THE HIGHEST!” A hosanna, by the way, is a song of praise. Let’s practice.
The prince had all he needed – a comfortable home, plenty of food, honor, and dignity. Where he went, people followed and took care of his needs. When he gave an order that order was obeyed. At home he had respect, trust, good will, and, above all, love.
The pauper, a young, poor boy, had nothing. He had a cruel home where his abusive father who drank too much took little interest in taking care of his son. Where he went, people chased him away as if he were a pest. When he asked for something he was sent away empty handed and with an empty stomach. In his home he had fear, uncertainty, ill will and malice that plagued him all the time.
One day the prince and pauper met and they were fascinated by each other. They looked like twins, but their lives were total opposites. Curious to experience life in each other’s shoes, they traded places, and discovered a whole new world. The pauper discovered a world of wealth and comfort, and the prince discovered a world of pain and heartache. He could not believe what his lookalike had to deal with. When he resumed his rightful place on the throne, the prince become king elevated his lookalike to the station of King’s Ward, and ruled with compassion over his people because he had experienced what it was like to live without the benefits of royalty.
I was very sad, though not surprised, to discover that the comparison of this story to the life of Christ has already been made, but I think it gives us a useful way to think about the specific readings for today. In Twain’s famous novel, The Prince and The Pauper, Edward VI and a young pauper named Tom Canty trade places. Twain has in mind, I think, a reminder to those in high social standing to remember people who do not share their good fortune. But in today’s reading, we see the ultimate Prince and Pauper story: Christ, Son of God, becomes a pauper even though he is a prince rather, the Prince. In fact, Palm Sunday is a crucial day because it recognizes Christ as both prince and pauper – the God-Man, coequal with the Father in majesty, riding on a donkey. Though those in the audience on the original Palm Sunday didn’t know it, they were not simply celebrating the Messiah but the ruler of the universe, present among them. They correctly praised him, “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord,” but did not realize that he not only came in the name of the Father and was himself Lord.
This is why the Epistle Reading was chosen for today, to underscore Christ’s princely divinity and the significance of his decision to let himself suffer disgrace despite the fact that he merits the highest honor. We read in Philippians 2:6 that “Christ Jesus, who being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God.” The word for being in Greek here is hyperarchon, and it is in what grammarians call the present participle. What that means is that Christ was before his Incarnation, and was during his Incarnation, and is continuing now to be in the form of God. Elliott’s Commentary on this verse says, “The word ‘being’ is here the more emphatic of the two words so translated, which lays stress on the reality of existence.” The word form might seem to undercut this – playdough can be shaped in its form to one thing and another. But the Greek word here is morphe, and Elliott likewise comments on this by saying, “in classical Greek it describes the actual specific character, which (like the structure of a material substance) makes each being what it is.” The Pulpit commentary likewise writes that we should take this idea of “being in the form” as asserting “the sum of its essential attributes: it is the form, as the expression of those essential attributes, the permanent, constant form; not the fleeting, outward…fashion,” which is mentioned later. Christ is in the form of God, but takes the fashion of humanity on for our sakes.
So to get the full implication, the weight of this truth, you have to put yourself deeply into the truth of John 1:1 which says that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” On page 603, the first Article of Religion teaches that Christ has this relationship to God: “in unity of Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” Philippians 4:6 is a major text where this teaching becomes clear: Christ, who exists by his essence in the form of God as the Second Person of the Trinity, has a right to all of the glory, dignity, joy, and exaltation that comes with being God. From eternity to eternity, Christ receives the perfect and pure light of the love of the Father, and has by his nature a right to bliss in that relationship infinitely superior to any pleasure any earthly prince has ever felt. Imagine giving up your house for charity to live in the streets, and you’ll get only a meager glimpse of just what Christ surrendered to walk in the fashion of man here on Earth. Everything that was made by God, everything we enjoy, was made by God, which means it was made by the Second Person of the Trinity! It’s said that Shakespeare sometimes acted in his own plays – imagine the genius, gifted, brilliant playwright becoming just another actor on the stage. And often he took minor, unimportant roles rather than the roles of the main characters. On a far greater magnitude, the all-powerful and all-satisfying divinity of Christ didn’t stop him from humbling himself and becoming a character in his creation, an object of scorn when he should be an object of praise, subjected to mortal pain when he is the author of godly pleasure, put to death when he is the font of life. Isaiah called him the Prince of Peace, but for us he became on the cross a pauper of agonizing propitiation.
Christ’s procession into Jerusalem mirrors this – he processes as a prince of Peace instead of a warlord. It has often been observed that Christ rode on a donkey in reference to the tradition of kings processing into a city to show that they had no intent of bringing military action against the city. Palm Sunday is such an important event that it is recorded in all four Gospels. The designers of our liturgical calendar thought it was so important that it would begin the liturgical year, with the first Gospel lesson in Advent being the account Matthew gives in Chapter 21, which you can find on page 91 in your Book of Common Prayer. It says, “ And a very great multitude spread their garments in the way; others cut down branches from the trees, and strawed them in the way. And the multitudes that went before, and that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna to the son of David: Blessed is he that cometh in the name ‘of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest. And when he was come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, Who is this? And the multitude said, This is Jesus the prophet of Nazareth of Galilee.” Coming in humility and peace, in the form of man, Christ the King of Creation receives here a foregleam of the prophecy given by Paul that will only be completely fulfilled in the end times: “Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him and given him a name which is above every name: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow… and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” His death is less than a week away, his humanity is beset by all the fragility common to man, he rides on a donkey instead of a valiant steed, and yet, even then, he is still essentially being in the form of God as he receives the praise, “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.” Holding these palm branches, shouting out “Hosanna in the highest,” we are partaking in prophecy – worshiping the Prince who for our sakes became a pauper.
You see, Palm Sunday commemorates a moment in Christ’s story that also captures the entirety of the Gospel. The shocking truth of human nature is that we are more than paupers in our bodies – we are paupers in our souls. We are so impoverished in our moral natures because of original sin that we merit total rejection from the treasures of life in heaven. Romans 6:23 says that “the wages of sin is death,” and 1 John 1:8 says that “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” There’s a phrase about Americans that says that we tend to live as if we’re embarrassed millionaires. You might say that the sentiment of the thought is that we live like we’re royalty, like our bank accounts right now are just a circumstance and eventually we’ll get back to that material prosperity we all deserve. But the fact is that the default setting on life is poverty. We are born with nothing by our own rights, and it is only through the means of grace that we have through our families and communities any sustenance at all. But because of Adam’s sin we are born with a greater spiritual poverty than our bodies – we are born with a proclivity to rebel. God is King, and if we lay bare the hard, cold truth, we will see that we have broken the King’s laws. That’s why it’s so important to reflect on the Decalogue and the Summary of the Law. In some fashion, we are all criminals in the court of divine justice. Job struggles with this problem, when he says of God in Job 9: “32 For he is not a man, as I am, that I should answer him, and we should come together in judgment. 33 Neither is there any man betwixt us, that might lay his hand upon us both.” You see, each of our sins is an infraction against the perfect justice of God. As humans we like to live in the gray area and see morality as a muddled confusing mess. But before the throne of God there is no gray. Our sins are filthy in the sight of God, and before the judgment seat there will be no excuses – sin is rebellion against the immutable laws of God’s holy nature.
So what are we to do? Make ourselves holy? But every effort we take to do so will be interspersed with the same sinful nature that caused us to sin to begin with. Is God to simply forgive, to just let it go? But He cannot because that would be inconsistent with His nature. God is perfectly holy, and creation belongs to him, and sin which happens in his creation is an infraction against his court of judgment. As a righteous God he cannot let unrighteousness slide. This is why we must understand that the Trinity is not just some strange, obscure doctrine for theologians – God is a Trinity huh? That’s confusing. Anyway, let’s just focus on Jesus’s death for us. No. Wrong. The Trinity is the first Article listed in the Articles of Religion for an important reason: If Jesus is not God, then his death doesn’t mean anything, other than being just one more sad example of bad things happening to good people. The theologian Anselm made this clear: if Jesus was just a good man, or even some kind of angelic being, then his death cannot satisfy God’s justice. If he wasn’t God, we couldn’t be saved. Think of it this way: if you overdraw on your account, the bank charges you a fee. The fee is proportional to the bank’s authority over you: they help you to manage and protect your money, and if you mismanage it, then they can charge you a certain amount. But if you overdrew a dollar and they charged you a thousand dollars, it wouldn’t be proportionate. That’s because the bank doesn’t own you or all of your resources. But if you sin against God, you are making an infraction against an infinite being who provided you with all you have. God is absolute and as Scripture says he is holy, holy, holy, and so any sin, however small, incurs an infinite penalty. So if an infinite penalty has been incurred, how can the death of an animal, a man, or even an embodied angel pay for that? If I am overdrawn on the bank, I have to put into the account what I overdrew and the penalty amount. But how can I pay back an infraction against the infinite justice of God? This is why God, in spite of asking for sacrifice in the Old Testament, also underscores that no sacrifice of lambs or other animals can save the soul. An actual lamb does not have truly infinite value, and so cannot pay for the sins of the world. Even a good man does not have the property of infinitude. Some have argued that Christ is less than fully God, but we have seen in our reading of Philippians that that cannot be so. But it relates to us immediately that Christ is the incarnate God Man, the Second Person of the Trinity. If he was the Father, how could he intercede for us for our sins? But he is not the Father – he is the Son. But if he were not God, how could he offer infinite payment for an infinite penalty? So he must be God and not be the Father. And he must be Man, Son of God in a real man’s body, for he must have a mortal nature to be able to die and he must be of the human race to pay the penalty for humanity. So if Christ wasn’t fully God and wasn’t fully man, we couldn’t be saved. This is why we must worship God as Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and confess the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity, who through his continued divinity could lay himself open to death and become the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He is the Divine Prince become the Mortal Pauper, so that we paupers of sin could become Christ’s joint-heirs through his sacrificial salvation. This is why we say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord: Hosanna in the Highest!
This is why on Palm Sunday, the day that recognizes Christ’s princely decision to accept humiliation by receiving praise while riding on a donkey, we read of Christ’s death. Because where he had been recognized as the blessed one who comes in the name of the Lord, he is sarcastically recognized as the King of the Jews in his crucifixion. But you see, even there prophecy is being fulfilled. Even if it was written in sarcasm, the sign nonetheless claimed Jesus as King of the Jews. Only the death of the sovereign God, Prince of all Creation, could fulfill the mission of the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Every prophet came to foretell this fact – only Christ came to accomplish it. But here is where another mistake must be rejected. The death of this Christ is not a metaphor, or a myth, or a symbol. Today you will have some well meaning individuals who want to see the death and resurrection of Christ as some kind of psychological symbol. But our sins are not symbolic – they are real. If Christ only paid a symbolic penalty, then our soul’s real poverty has not been paid and then Jesus was only another pauper like us. Death on the cross only means what it does if Jesus was God in the flesh. Paul warns against symbolic interpretation in extreme terms when he says in 1 Corinthians 15:14, “And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.” We simply don’t have the option of thinking that Christ was just a good man with nice teachings, because if so it invalidates his own teachings about what his death meant. Did you notice that Paul said that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth”? He is referencing there the second commandment: “Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image, nor the likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath.” Paul intentionally uses language that evokes the second great commandment against false worship because he regarded Christ as fittingly worthy of the same worship given to the Father. And so his death is a princely price that can pay the king’s penalty, and rescue us from our pauper’s debt of sin. The emotion of gratitude for that realization is what should be behind us saying, Blessed is he that cometh in the Name of the Lord: Hosanna in the Highest!
Christ is the prince who became a pauper for us. But we are already paupers. We are poor in spirit. Notice what Paul is commanding us: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.” What Christ did on the cross for us was foreshadowed by what happened upon his death: “many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.” There is no greater poverty than death, but so great was the power of Christ’s sacrifice that people rose from the dead at the very moment when Jesus laid down his life. That same power, that brought the actual dead out of their graves, is what Christ wants to share with us: he wants to make us princes and princesses in the kingdom of God. We are low and full of sin; he wants to lift us up and crown us with glory. When we hold these palms in our hands we recognize that Christ is the crown prince of the paupers, who makes us joint heirs with him. Christ was fulfilling a prophecy, but right now, as you hold this palm, you are a fulfillment of Paul’s prophecy too. So let’s obey Paul and let the mind of Christ be in us, as we say together, BLESSED IS HE THAT COMETH IN THE NAME OF THE LORD – HOSANNA IN THE HIGHEST! Amen.