The catch with domesticating Palm Sunday and turning in it into a Sunday School type celebration of self-conscious congregation members waving palm branches and emitting embarrassed-sounding muted shouts of “Hallelujah” is not that it isn’t worth doing, it is simply that giving it that emphasis means the serious underlying message of Palm Sunday may never surface. I am slowly coming to realise that Palm Sunday has always been a day of choices, and that ever since that day was first celebrated, some choices have been down-played and still less faced.
If you want to understand why Jesus was crucified, starting with Palm Sunday is as good a place as any to find a reason. Crucifixion was of course a deliberate Roman technique for demonstrating to the general population why it would be unwise to challenge authority. Traitors were tortured and crucified. Rebels or even potential rebels were crucified – sometimes by the hundred, or even on occasion by the thousand. And in those times the one thing you could do to guarantee stirring up the fury of the Romans was to set yourself up to look as if you might be in public opposition to the authority of the Emperor.
The Jews too might also have had their own reasons for wanting to challenge Jesus and bring about his downfall. They of course desperately wanted and expected a Messiah. The Messiah had been predicted but there was by no means general agreement about how this Messiah was to be recognised. Was it for example to be a mighty general, a King David back to life as some of the prophets had foretold? The zealots were looking for a great military leader to emerge and to them, Jesus teaching forgiveness, peace and love, would have been almost the antithesis of what they wanted. That Keeper of the Truth, the High Priest and his leading Church officials of the Sanhedrin would also have been expecting a Messiah to arrive – but one in support of their authority. Jesus as a Man of miracle and wisdom may have been in the frame for some, but one who challenged authority, and what is more, one who even challenged Church authority hardly fitted the expected pattern.
Which brings us to the political dimensions of what Jesus was doing entering Jerusalem on a colt (probably the young of a donkey). If you have read Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan on this event, you will know that it is very probable that there were two processions entering Jerusalem on that day. The first was the Roman Governor entering from the West from his extended holiday on the Coast. This was the parade with full military pomp and ceremony. Foot soldiers in leather amour, carrying swords or spears as they marched behind their standard bearers and legionnaires, chariots bearing senior officers and of course the chariot carrying Pilate himself. This was the parade the citizens were meant to see. A demonstration of power and military strength showing due respect to a man who, as governor, represented the god like Emperor himself.
The timing of the parade entering the city from the other side could not have been more pointed or offensive to the Romans. And yes Jesus may have been coming humbly in peace, but since it was the custom of kings to ride a donkey or colt into a city to signify a king coming in peace, the Romans who had no room for Kings, especially kings who might have an alternative power base, would interpret this as a potential threat to their imposed sovereignty.
Having seen the angry reaction of the Romans had previously demonstrated to any potential uprising, if the crowd were indeed throwing cloaks and palm branches into the street before him and his disciples were shouting the words Luke records: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”, this would be great news to those who thought Jesus was the one, but equally highly worrying to those hoping to avoid the wrath of the Romans. Since only the Emperor was to be addressed with such flowery language, the pro Roman camp would have been most uneasy at the words of praise for a king. The religious supporters of the current Jewish faith would have been equally horrified that Jesus was presented as a Messiah, particularly when he was not their preferred Messiah. Is it any wonder some Pharisees in the crowd were anxious to shut them up.
“Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”
I said at the outset that it was a day of choices. The first choices were presumably made by Jesus himself. Jesus would be bound to have been well aware of the political significance to both Romans and to Jewish leadership of choosing this method of entering the city. Further, he would probably have been aware of how the Romans and Roman sympathisers would have seen his actions. Even after the disciples were calling out “blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord” he would still have had the chance of the easy way out by asking them to desist. By refusing to silence them and in effect allowing the disciples’ statement of public recognition to go forward, the die would have been cast. The colt he was riding certainly portrayed a way of peace but since this was also a way of acting the part of a particular type of king it is hard to escape thinking of this as a path which could only lead to one destination.
In perhaps a less obvious fashion, the crowd and disciples had their own set of choices. For those of us removed from that scene by time and space there must seem few problems. Reading about the scene with its unfamiliar setting and secure in the knowledge that we are non participant observers almost two thousand years later, it is not our lives we risk, but can we think ourselves into the position for those who watched Jesus that day?
Remember they have already made one decision by being there. Wouldn’t they have been safer to join the majority and be where the Roman authorities expected them to be? By in effect boycotting the Roman parade bringing Pilate back into the city, their actions in welcoming and supporting Jesus’ entry might have been construed as backing a potential threat.
Yet the real decision is yet to come. It is one thing to wave and shout when the small parade is under way to welcome the man riding on a colt or a young donkey. After all, a Messiah was expected and at least one of the prophets had written that this is how he would appear. For example we read in Zechariah Ch 9 verse 9 “The Coming of Zion’s King – See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey”. Why not recognise as Messiah this wise religious teacher with a reputation for telling wonderful thought provoking stories, for healing and for confounding pompous religious leaders? So what would be more natural than waving and shouting support?
Yet, would it still be natural to offer support if angry Church officials were to appear to challenge Jesus’ right to appear as Messiah? If for example the authorities were to appear – or worse the Romans – to break up the parade and arrest the man on the donkey and look round to identify his supporters, that would have been be a different situation. When Jesus cleared the Temple for example, there is no indication from the accounts that a crowd of supporters were there to wave palms in support and protect him from the anger of the officials. And later, apart from token resistance from Peter, when the soldiers eventually came for Jesus, even the disciples seem to have melted away.
I would like to suggest to you that in fact many of the Palm Sunday onlookers were unconvinced that this Jesus was indeed the sort of Messiah his actions and words proclaimed him to be. In the gospel of Mark for example the crowd refer to Jesus coming as a sign of the Kingdom, not of God but the kingdom of David. Albert Schweitzer suggests from his analysis that many in the crowd thought the man on the young donkey was Elijah returned as Jesus, fufilling the scripture of Elijah as a messenger to herald the arrival of the Messiah, rather than as the Messiah himself.
This is getting to the nub of the matter. Jesus himself was uncompromising on some issues that even today our crowd would prefer to ignore. Surely to uphold the nature of the Messiah is to notice and give uncompromising support for the issues he made it his business to teach. It is radical and possibly even dangerous to choose to do so in a society where other values count for more. Forgiveness of enemies is not a popular notion for a society where defence budgets and military engagements are based on the notion of keeping enemies in subjugation and at bay. Sending drones to wipe out our leading enemies gets more support in practice than finding ways to make friends.
Notions of justice sound rather hollow in a world of haves and have-nots and in a world where whistle-blowers are derided and punished, yet if fair dealing matters to the one we call the Messiah, that choice of whether or not to quietly go home after the parade – or to stay the course in the presence of the Messiah and those who still follow is not an academic issue. Challenging usury is to challenge the Western economic system. Assisting the neighbour is not how we normally structure our immigration and overseas assistance packages. Yet all these practical issues become important the moment we say we have decided to follow Jesus
We cannot be certain that we would have been more supportive than the palm wavers in the same circumstances. No doubt many of us will sing the appropriate hymns on Good Friday and Easter morning with sincerity but it is easy to act supportive of the one we claim to follow when we are surrounded by like minded people in the relatively artificial setting of a Church service.
Remember it was only after the parade that the crowds deserted Jesus. Had the crowd genuinely believed they were there to welcome the Messiah, it is hardly likely that they would have deserted him as the pressures and confrontations mounted during Passion week. In the same way the test of how well we support the teachings and guidance of Jesus is not our recitation of a creed, but rather how we support his teachings when we are back in our day-to-day world.
If we are honest we will not only notice our shortcomings in following the Christ but we will also acknowledge those who have taken the message seriously. There are those amongst us who are genuine peacemakers, those who are constant advocates for the downtrodden, and those who genuinely care for their neighbours. Our personal challenge is to see if we will be numbered among them. This is our Palm Sunday choice for each of us.
Membership or even leadership of a church doesn’t somehow remove the need for difficult choices. What does help is if we first acknowledge the true nature of the one we follow and then join the parade with the intention of staying the distance.