There is a lot going on in our short description of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It is a day of triumph – but ultimately of false triumph. For from this sudden high, day by day expectations will be betrayed – on Thursday the night of betrayal and on Friday the day of death. What had started the week as a great hope was dashed by the end of the week. What happened?
It is very important to know that it was Passover. In Jesus’ time every Jew within 20 miles was expected to come to Jerusalem for the Passover. And Jews from other lands would also come to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover near the Temple. It is possible that the town swelled to over a million people. They had all come to celebrate the day when God liberated the Hebrews from Egyptian oppression. And on the Passover in our passage they come to celebrate that liberation while being yet again oppressed by new Egyptians – the Romans.
The Romans were not happy during this holiday week. They feared – and rightly so – that the holiday could motivate an uprising. We could imagine that the town was also filled with Roman soldiers. And the governor, Pontius Pilate would have come from his palace to oversee security during the holiday.
Our passage though, starts out with what appears to be a conspiracy. Jesus sends two of his disciples to fetch a donkey and her colt. If someone questions them, they are to give what is apparently a password: “The Master needs them.” It certainly sounds like Jesus had this all planned with some unknown followers. Indeed, Jesus probably had thought through exactly what he wanted to do on this day.
Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a colt of a donkey that had never been ridden. We think of donkeys as characters in a cartoon or just as work animals. But to the ancient people a donkey was an honorable creature and nothing to laugh at. Further, the colt had never been ridden and therefore was suitable as a sacred animal. Jesus was entering Jerusalem as a king … but not as a warrior. A warrior would have ridden a horse. He came as a king of peace … that is what the donkey signified. And that the donkey was sacred indicated the Jesus was a sacred king. He was no prophet. He was the Messiah. All of this symbolism seems strange to us, but the people would have understood clearly and immediately.
And the people accepted his claim to being a sacred king and responded to his entry by cutting palms and spreading them on the dusty road so that the sacred donkey would tread on the leaves and not the dirt. And they shouted, “Hosanna!”. ‘Hosanna’ is a powerful word. It meant “save me now!” and was an acclamation of the people crying out for deliverance from oppression. The Romans could not have been happy over this. And the anxiety level of the Sanhedrin and the local rulers must have shot through the roof.
And so began a whole series of powerful, high energy events …
What were Jesus’ expectations that first Palm Sunday? I’ll suggest that Jesus was hoping that at last after the years that he had spent teaching, that the people would finally recognize what he was preaching. His very dramatic entrance into Jerusalem followed the tradition of the prophets. Like Jesus they preached and preached and like Jesus they were often misunderstood or ignored. So to make their point they would act out some drama that would drive home what they were saying.
So Jesus has done this on this day: He comes not as a conquering hero to overthrow the Romans with a violent uprising. Rather he has come to show how to overthrow the powers peacefully. He has come to speak truth to power in love hoping that the people would respond in a radical way of non-violent resistance. His teachings were for the people to change their own perspective of who they were. In an oppressed society, people feel dehumanized, less than human and worthless. Jesus gave them back their humanity and worth. He hoped that if they internalized that, that they would be able to overthrow the powers with peace and love.
We actually have a model for this in modern history. When the Nazis invaded Norway in the 1940s, the Norwegian army collapsed within days and Norway was occupied. The Nazis intended to Nazify Norway. They put in charge of occupied Norway a Norwegian Nazi by the name of Quisling.
His plan for Nazification was to teach the children to be Nazis. If he could Nazify the children then he would succeed. When the orders came down to the teachers that they must teach Nazism, nearly ever teacher stood before their classes declaring that their job was to teach the truth and walked out of their classes. And that began years of non-violent resistance and non-cooperation by the Norwegian people. When Quisling ordered the leaders of the teachers to a concentration camp in the Artic, the students of the teachers gathered along the railroad line. As the trains imprisoning the teachers passed by, the students sang patriotic hymns to encourage the teachers.
By 1944, Quisling admitted that the Nazification of Norway was a failure.
I suggest that Jesus was hoping for a similar result with the people in Jerusalem.
But the people had different expectations. As the week progressed, the people became discouraged with Jesus … when was he going to order them to rise up against the Romans? He had arrived in Jerusalem like a king of old. Rumors had it that he descended from King David. He has been criticizing the powers-that-be. He has been offering people new ideas. He’s been curing ordinary people. He’s the first leader in a long time that actually identified with them. Now is the time to overthrow the powers and chase the Romans out.
They knew, of course that he entered on a donkey … a symbol of peace. Yet they seemed to have forgotten or ignored that symbol. But as the week progressed people began to realize that Jesus had other ideas. By Thursday the people were abandoning Jesus.
The people hadn’t asked themselves what would Jesus have them do. Rather they asked what could Jesus do for them. As a result, Jesus was disappointed that the people didn’t follow in his footprints. And the people were disappointed that Jesus wasn’t King David reborn. Both felt their expectations were betrayed.
So what are our expectations for this Sunday when Jesus triumphally entered our lives? If today, in the 21st century, was the actual moment of Jesus palm-strewed entry into, say, Trenton or Elizabeth or Woodbridge, what would we be expecting from him?
Well, our situation is quite different from that of the Judean people of Jesus’ day. They were an occupied people and we certainly are not. They were politically powerless, while; we are a democracy and power is invested in us. They were a minority religion, whereas; our religion is an accepted belief system. So it’s hard for us to relate to a lot of the drama of Palm Sunday which was very political and steeped in ancient culture.
So over the decades we have de-emphasized Jesus’ social moral teachings. We’ve fit them into our social context. In Jesus’ time, his social moral teachings were radical and revolutionary calling for significant systemic change. We don’t see that need after all of these years.
Indeed, we have taken Jesus’ teachings to heart in many cases. We’ve built a social safety net for people in need. We attempt to empower ordinary people. We don’t persecute people for what they say. We respect cultural and religious diversity.
It’s almost like we have a head start on bringing the Kingdom of God to the world. Or have we?
Our tendency is to apply Jesus’ teachings to our personal lives, more so than our public lives. We rely on Jesus for our personal salvation and comfort. I suspect that our prayers often call upon Jesus for our healing or the healing of a friend or of a stranger. Our pastoral prayer is a good example, calling upon God for our friends and neighbors, and many groups around the world to help them past disease or disaster. Our relationship to Jesus is a personal one.
And this is appropriate. Indeed Jesus is a healer. Jesus spent most of his time on earth healing in one way or another. And when he ascended to heaven he promised that the Holy Spirit would remain to continue that healing ministry. And Jesus was very people oriented.
But in nearly every healing case in Jesus’ ministry there was an underlying implied social healing also. When Jesus gave sight to the blind man, it became a controversial social problem for the powers. He had healed on the Sabbath and that broke the law. Jesus believed that no law should keep a disabled person disabled if that person could be helped. People were more important than the law or any tradition – as much a controversial stand in our day as in Jesus’ day.
When we call upon Jesus/God to help the jobless to find jobs there is the implied social healing of our economy: that whatever is keeping it from generating jobs be healed. It is more important for people to have gainful work than, say, someone to make an exuberant profit.
We expect ourselves to be charitable, but argue whether our government should be – and in a democracy that is an argument of whether we as a nation should support the least among us. Jesus was clear: his answer is yes, we as an organized nation must care.
Would we dare to call on Jesus explicitly to heal our broken economy? Or our broken social welfare system? Or our broken … whatever? And if we did, could we do what Jesus asked us to do? Or would we do what we wanted to do and just claim it was Jesus’ idea?
Strangely enough there is actually a greater risk for us to pray for this than for Jesus followers 2000 years ago. They had no control over their governance … and often over their lives. They basically had nothing much to lose. Indeed some 40 years after the crucifixion the people would rise up and overthrow the powers for a short time.
But we are the rulers … the rulers of ourselves and of our society. Expecting Jesus to cure our society is a call for us to change our power equations and expectations. And that, dear friends, is really scary. If we took Jesus teachings as a blueprint to organize our common lives, I suspect our prayers will go up crying that the resulting disruption and chaos will be sent away by God’s divine power! We are comfortable by and large and that makes it that much harder to respond to the hard demands of Jesus.
But there comes times when we need to chance the frightening, upsetting, and difficult change. We may need to confront a corrosive situation at home, or we are called to confront an unethical action at work, or we are challenged to stand up for someone who is discriminated against because of their religion. These are occasions when Jesus calls us out to risk ourselves for the Kingdom of God. It is for us to be attuned to Jesus’ call and be willing to fulfill that call.
But Easter does come despite our expectations. For all of the selfishness and misunderstanding and fear God does break through our very human frailties and comes back to us to help us carry on and try again. Jesus promised that when all of these changes from a power-centric world as he experienced and as we experienced to a people-centric world, then our lives, personal and corporate would be richer, kinder, and healthier. And that would truly be a triumphal entry …
Think about it …
God’s grace and love be with you …