Was the Palm parade foolish?
We are confronted with a number of choices among gospel readings for this Sunday. We begin (began) with the account of the procession of the palms, the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, at the beginning of the week for the Passover festival. Then in the Liturgy of the Passion we may read as much of the story as to begin with the woman in Bethany anointing Jesus with oil, through the account of the Last Supper, the sojourn in the Garden, Jesus’ betrayal, the Council’s interrogations, Peter’s denial, and on into the night. This morning we pick up the story at the very nub of it, the morning after the Last Supper, as Jesus is handed over to Pontius Pilate.
Hosanna! They cried, and Crucify! The words rang out. Sunday a friendly crowd, well-wishers, supporters, and disciples, hailed Jesus as King: Messiah, King-deliverer of the Jews from their foreign oppressors, as promised of old. But on Friday a different, surlier, uglier crowd gathers…
Pilate had caused this crowd scene, by his unique – and characteristically cruel – custom of releasing a prisoner at Passover. And he gave them, it appeared to them, a voice: Crucify! The one they called King of the Jews.
Once, twice, three and four and five times, Jesus is called King of the Jews in this brief passage. That is what the Romans call him. The priests call him Messiah, the King of Israel. So they know they’ve got the right man: the One who comes in the name of the Lord, the son of David.
As Jesus set out on the road up to Jerusalem, a blind beggar, Bartimaeus, had stopped him. Bartimaeus called to him, “Son of David! Have mercy on me.” It was a salutation for royalty: Son of David, Messiah, King. He is calling for you, the people said. Get up! Bartimaeus cast his cloak aside and came to Jesus.
Jesus restored his sight and Bartimaeus followed him on the way. Soon many people spread their cloaks before Jesus, in his path on the way into town. Many people hailed him as Messiah, Son of David, King.
But – was the whole palm procession a foolish mistake? Was it some kind of guerilla theater? Was Jesus to play the fool in his moment of apparent triumph? Had he done no more than at best tip off the authorities?
Surely he acted the fool, didn’t he? The holy fool, or the prophet? For he had got himself up like the long-awaited King, the one looked for – the deliverer of his people, the prince of peace, riding on a donkey, a colt – the peaceful anti-imperial savior.
This is what a prophet would do, a prophet like Jeremiah: act out what God was doing. It tended to make the ruling elite feel mocked, or made fools of.
All this was mockery of course, mockery and seditious satire, a parody of the one who was in charge, the man who already had got the world to proclaim him prince of peace: Caesar Augustus.
Across the Mediterranean and into the lands of ancient empires around it the hand of Augustus stretched. His rule was complete. There was no conflict. There was no dispute. He was King of Kings.
And here was this Galilean peasant riding into town on the foal of a donkey, playing the role of Israel’s deliverer, entering Jerusalem from the east, greeted by common folk, not the elite who could gather in the courtyard of the praetorium, the same week as tensions were at their height, the week Pilate always arrived with extra troops on guard for a sign of trouble. Into the city from the west came the cohorts, the legionaries of Rome: feared, disciplined, invincible; and in royal pomp, Herod, and in imperial purple, Pontius Pilate, the governor, entered too. It was not a good idea to make fun of such people.
And Jesus did more than that: he offended the Temple economy; he disturbed the equilibrium of its peace with Roman power. He upset the tables, drove the buyers and sellers away. Another prophetic act.
When General Allenby entered Jerusalem in 1917, victorious commander of Allied forces driving out the Turkish Empire, he refused to use his staff car. “I will not ride where Jesus walked,” he said.
Allenby understood. He grasped the humility and the majesty of Jesus as Holy One of Israel, the Son of God, went into Jerusalem to lay down his life for all.
Jesus, having entered in his own triumphant way, was a quiet visitor to the Temple that Sunday night. (It may seem like a letdown; nobody was there to make a fuss. Maybe he hadn’t disturbed the universe enough yet.) There was everything to see, like a tourist or a small-town pilgrim, or a Son returning to look around a house he could not yet claim as his own.
Jesus went quietly away, for the moment. His wrath when it came was more than the wrath of Ulysses, or Hercules, or Samson. He sized up the pillars before him – and did he tear them down? No – Romans did that. In 70 a.d. But in this moment Jesus was indeed triumphant – no clown – a quiet man, bringing a peaceable kingdom by peaceable, inexorable means.
His triumph was not a triumph of imperial power. It was a victory of peace, of life over death, not by force or by evasion, but by obedience, and suffering, and faithful, steadfast love, by hope beyond hope, by life beyond endurance, by peaceful means to bring peace.
Hosanna! The people shouted. Blessed be the King.
Hosanna! We cry. Jesus, live in our hearts – forever.
What does it mean to proclaim Jesus as Messiah? What does it mean to herald him as King, to shout Hosanna? What did it mean then? And what will it mean for us?
When Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he was taking prophetic action – staking God’s claim on the city. His actions proclaimed the coming of the reign of God.
By entering the city in the guise of the peaceful prince, he was making clear that the kingdom of Israel would be restored. It would be restored not by imperious force or violence, but it would begin in the way it meant to go on.
His rule, his victory, his triumph, would come, but not as the result of the slaughter of innocents – other than himself.
For he offered himself, in obedience to his Father, in testimony to the truth: that God reigns. And the reign of God begins in all humility and servant-hood. Jesus came into town, both humble and triumphant. In the week that followed, the week that we are coming to celebrate and remember now, he would bring home his message.
There was a call to obedience, not coercive but pastoral. Come to me, all you who are heavily burdened. Come to me, all you who are down trodden. Come to me, oppressed and poor; come to me, sick and hungry; come to me, and I will give you peace.
How then are we to welcome Jesus? He seeks to enter our lives, our hearts, as he once entered the city of Jerusalem. He comes to us, to make our hearts the home of peace. How will we respond? How will we answer? Will we, like the crowd on Palm Sunday, respond with joy? Hosanna!
Will we welcome him, not only with voice and wavy palm, but our actions, our lives, and our way of being in the world? Will we be open-handed and generous, openhearted and truthful, open-spirited and ready to receive him, in those we love and in those we do not know?
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Jesus, live in our hearts – forever.
Almighty and ever-living God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.