When you stop to think about it, Palm Sunday is a rather strange Christian festival. Getting into the spirit of Palm Sunday has always seemed to me to be rather artificial and even forced, because welcoming anyone – let alone Jesus – with waving Palm branches and cries of “Hosanna to the Son of David” as he rides in on a donkey, is very far removed from what we are used to doing in everyday life.
We also have the distinct disadvantage that we know what comes next. It is hard to get quite into the palm waving spirit of the occasion with the crucifixion starting to cast its shadow. Even in the midst of the celebration event, we find it difficult to forget that, no matter how many admirers were on hand for this particular parade, a few short days later Jesus is taken, humiliated and subject to a particularly nasty form of execution. When it comes to the original Palm Sunday crowd, no matter how enthusiastic they might have appeared in Matthew’s account, it is hard to believe that they were totally genuine in their support, particularly when a few days later, they appear either to have turned on Jesus, or at the very least quietly withdrawn to allow the authorities to carry out their version of summary justice.
It also seems to me that rushing to the rather overblown theology of Jesus being welcomed as the King of Heaven, this Jesus about to be sacrificed for our sins, and this lamb of God somehow saving us in the process, risks missing the main points of the story.
First of all there was something quite deliberate about this parade, which, even if it didn’t quite exactly happen as recorded, gave adequate reason for the authorities to kill Jesus.
Pax Romana, which for Israel meant the enforced peace of the Romans in their conquered territory, was never any better than uneasy temporary calm.
Although the military might was clearly in the Romans’ favour, the Jews were most reluctant hosts and there had been a number of aborted attempted efforts to stage a revolution. Each time a revolt was planned, let alone staged, the Romans would exact terrible revenge as a clear warning to any other potential trouble makers. This did not mean that the Jews were entirely cowed into submission. As far as the Jews were concerned, it was not so much that the Romans were exacting large taxes, but more that they threatened the free expression of the very religion the Jews held so dear.
Because the Jews were very clear that their Lord, their God, was entitled to their total and absolute loyalty, the sticking point was always that the Romans expected the Jews to demonstrate first loyalty to the Roman Emperor. The position of the Roman Emperor was highly symbolic but it went far beyond that of a mere ruler. Since the time of Caesar Augustus, the Emperor was presented as a God, and his numerous titles included that of Son of God. The Romans expected all their subjects to recognise the unique God-like status of their emperor, and demanded that even while their conquered subjects might be permitted to follow their own religion, this must take second place to the acknowledgement of the Emperor. Conversely, the Jews were taught from their scriptures that their salvation would come with some sort of reincarnation of King David, and this mighty one alone would be their saviour.
The well known scripture from the words of the prophet (Zechariah 9:9), made the prediction which Matthew quotes as “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.” Perhaps in the interests of accuracy we might acknowledge in passing that Matthew, unlike the other gospel writers, has been a little careless with his use of the inserted word “and”, which then has Jesus mounted on two animals, the donkey and at the same time, the colt, which when we think about it, might have taken some doing in practice. This however is a relatively minor point and we do at least get the sense that what Jesus was reported as doing in this parade was deliberate enactment of the prophecy.
While it is true this was only one of the signs the people had been eagerly awaiting, some of the contemporary writing of the time portrayed this Messiah more as a mighty warrior king than a man of peace, no doubt coming to drive their enemies into the sea. There were those in the crowd reportedly confirming that here was the predicted prophet – perhaps recognising the Zechariah allusion. As a consequence we learn of shouting crowds, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” To the crowd then there seemed at least some who showed their delight as those looking for their deliverer. However it is very likely that some present would have had serious reservations.
Some would have been concerned no doubt that the expected one didn’t match the expectations of a warrior king. There is even ambiguity about Jesus in the New Testament. The parables and teaching of Jesus and our Palm Sunday image of Jesus riding peacefully into Jerusalem on the ass-colt of a nursing donkey, has been re-imaged many times in subsequent history. For example the book of Revelation Chapter 19 has Jesus on a white battle horse out to do physical battle with his foes:
I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war…..I saw the beast and the kings of the Earth with their armies to make war against the rider on his horse….And the rest were killed by the sword of the rider on the horse, the sword that came from his mouth; and all the birds were gorged with their flesh. (Rev 19: 11,19,21)
Being human we should admit there is always a tension between what we hope we are following and what our baser instincts encourage us to follow.
Any discussion of Palm Sunday is further informed by the insightful book by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan (The Last Week) where they remind us that about the same reported time of the peaceful and joyous entry by Jesus on one side of Jerusalem, there may well have been a much larger and impressive Imperial military parade coming in from the direction of the coast with Pilate entering the city accompanied by his troops who normally were stationed on the coast in Caesarea Maritima. As Borg and Crossan phrased it:
Pilate’s procession displayed not only imperial power, but also Roman imperial theology. According to this theology, the emperor was not simply ruler of Rome, but the Son of God. (Borg and Crossan, The Last Week, p. 3).
Given the current fascination with Video War games, not to mention the ever popular war films, action heroes and war documentaries, even today we might suspect such a military parade might gain more followers than the low key arrival of a humble Prince of Peace. Whether or not we are brave enough to insist that following the message of the Prince of Peace should always take precedence over the periodic calls to arms that characterises the recent history of most nations is another way of asking us which of the two parades we would have preferred to associate ourselves.
If we try to imagine ourselves actually present at Jesus’ parade it is interesting to speculate on the effect of this parade on the authorities.
When they got to hear about it, the implication that here was a potential Messiah would not have pleased the Romans. Since the Romans expected the first loyalty of the conquered people to be directed to their Emperor, the thought that Jesus might be competing with the Emperor would not have been welcome news.
The Temple authorities would have had it drummed into them by the Roman overlords that further rebellion would not be tolerated. The Jewish leaders’ continued existence in positions of control in the Temple depended on their ability to keep the peace for their foreign masters.
Finding, from that point of view, that here again was a potential leader who may well serve as a rallying point for trouble, would have created consternation.
We always have the safe option of watching from the side-lines while others, like Jesus himself, identify by word and action with what they believe to be important. It is relatively easy to applaud from the kerb, and it may be tempting to treat even our acts of worship in that sense. Singing “Ride on, ride on in majesty!” is good poetry and acknowledges Jesus’ journey. Where it does fall short, is in acknowledging that his message only finds meaning in our willingness to make his parade our parade. However to identify with Jesus is to identify with his proscription for change, and symbolically this means stepping off the kerb to join the parade.
I also need to confess that I am not confident that I will always support the man on the donkey when he is rejected.
Earlier today, downtown in suburban South Auckland, I witnessed a large and very belligerent father smack his pre-school daughter in the head and follow it with a string of obscene curses. I stepped forward to remonstrate with him but under his furious glare – suddenly words failed me. I am sufficiently unhappy with my response to wonder what others would have done under the same circumstances. Given my timid capitulation, it seems curiously appropriate that I should now find myself contemplating those who failed to risk their lives defending Jesus when it became clear that the parade they had appeared to support was over and the danger mounting.
However I am equally sure that what we make of the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee becomes potentially life changing when we realise that it should continue to matter which parade we choose to follow, and ultimately, whether or not we are still prepared to follow when the shouts of adulation die away.