Palm Sunday – If we are honest, we should admit the shouting, palm waving crowd when Jesus came to town riding on an ass or a donkey is a bit hard for modern Westerners to understand. Perhaps it is just as well to remember that even in Jesus’ day there is every reason to suspect that the original crowd lining the road was apparently equally confused. They were shouting all right but who they thought they were shouting for is by no means clear.
Palm Sunday as recorded by Mark is a story overlaid with confusion about Jesus, plenty of prophetic symbolism and from Jesus a strange mix of humility and in-your-face political challenge.
You may well already be aware that Jesus entry to Jerusalem is suggested by a number of historians to be only one of two parades into Jerusalem that day – and if the scholars like Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan have it right, the two parades could not have been more unlike.
The first was the official parade – that of the show of Roman might as the Roman governor Pilate, Governor of Idumea, Judea and Samaria returned from his preferred residence on the coast at Caesarea Maritima to make his obligatory appearance for the religious festival in Jerusalem. Because he was making a political point, it would have been a parade with full military pomp and circumstance. This parade would have course been the big event of the day. The Romans did such occasions well, and the spectacle of the parade would have underlined for the crowd that here was the reminder of substantial power that would brook no challenge.
The Roman parade was a not too subtle way of telling people that there was no point in struggling against power or economic exploitation, and even carried the subliminal message that Roman values and even Roman religion was now the only game in town. With a well advertised event, soldiers and weapons like spears and swords on display, foot soldiers with their leather armour, golden eagles on poles and the horse drawn chariots, amongst those watching that parade there would be many spectators who presumably could not help but be impressed.
There is always some ambiguity about military parades. I read some Palm Sunday sermons written at about the time of the US entry to Baghdad in their occupation of Iraq. A surprising number claimed to have found similarity between that triumphant entry and Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem. Initially that might have even seemed to be the case. However the devastation wrought to enable that Baghdad parade and the widespread violence which was subsequently unleashed through the country might now suggest that whatever the intended message of the victory parade, we musn’t confuse it with that of Jesus. Now with the 20:20 vision of hindsight, I would like to suggest that the similarity of the Baghdad victory parade was more in keeping with Pilate’s entry, and about as effective in the long term.
The other parade, in which we understand Jesus entered the city from the other side in the East, through the Mount of Olives would have been much more low-key. It is true that Mark describes a crowd that recognized in Jesus someone to cheer but the scholars are probably correct in guessing that it was not a vast crowd. Nor is it even clear whether or not the cries of “Hosanna” – literally “Save us” might even have included an exaggerated attempt on the part of some in the crowd to highlight the contrast with the entry of the Roman governor. Alternately it would be interesting to discover to what extent it was really the heartfelt cry of those desperate for a saviour.
As Mark records it, although blind Bartimaeus had called Jesus the son of David (10:46-52), the crowd did not use those words but rather talked of the kingdom of David. Nor if we are exact, did they even say that with Jesus the kingdom had arrived – but rather shouted of the coming kingdom. According to the scholar A. Schweitzer there may even be a case for saying that if Jesus was thought to be heralding the kingdom then perhaps the crowd thought that Jesus was Elijah – the expected forerunner of the Messiah, and not the Messiah himself.
Although some present may have considered Jesus coming in on a donkey almost as a deliberate humble and even mocking contrast with Pilate’s military show, there may have been others who wondered if indeed this might have even been the sign that the ancient prophecy was being fulfilled. Because the Saviour was expected by many to be the return of David, this mode of entry might even have caused confusion.
David, you may remember, had his own style of entering a city in triumph. When for example he defeated the Caananites who had taunted him before the battle, he entered the city with his soldiers and promptly ordered the killing of all the men in the city, including the cripples. In this respect at least Jesus was no David.
The donkey or colt was not just a symbol of humility. According to custom, a great leader wishing to show war-like intent would enter a city on a horse in full armour – but a king coming in peace would sometimes show this intent by riding a colt or a donkey. For those aware of this custom, Jesus’ action might also be interpreted as accepting the title of king – and therefore his coming might even be interpreted as a challenge to the established Church and to Rome.
The prophet Zechariah in Chapter 9 verse 9 of his book does his own prediction.
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout daughter of Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and having salvation,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
The gospel accounts almost seem to be recording the event in such a way as to highlight the way in which Jesus meets Zechariah’s prophecy.
The cries of “Hosanna” … “Save us” ….and the carpeting of the road with the Palm branches certainly sounds like the welcome of the awaited one. But a closer reading suggests a deep misunderstanding.
The words which John records the crowd using to greet Jesus are a direct quotation from Psalm 118: 25 and 26 – as it happens, the last Psalm from the group called Hallel (Psalms 113 – 118). As part of the ritual of the Passover feast, worshippers carried bundles made of palm, willow and myrtle branches, and waved them as they marched chanting these same verses from this psalm. The association in the people’s minds with the Messiah as a conqueror is underlined if we remember for example that this same psalm was also sung when Simon Maccabaeus had overcome the Syrian forces and conquered Accra one hundred years previously.
This means just as Jesus was signalling the type of mission he represented with his entry on the colt, the crowd were signalling in their words and actions that the anointed one they were expecting was to be their mighty leader who could lead to victory over Rome and beyond.
But did you also notice that the crowd did not continue to behave as those certain that Jesus was the promised one.. If the crowd was sufficiently convinced that here at last was the expected Messiah they would hardly have left Jesus free to quietly withdraw from Jerusalem at the end of the day, with only his regular disciples as company as Mark tells us happened.
Perhaps one of the problems was that for many, following this Jesus who comes in peace is all very well in theory, but sooner or later there is an inevitable clash of values. Just as Jesus’ parade was a contrast with that of Pilate, fairly quickly we start to reason that those values Pilate was demonstrating – that power talks, that exploitation is fine if you have strong enough support – and even that religion must fit with those values of hierarchy – are awfully close to those values that drive our society even today.
To notice that Jesus can and does value those who society can uncaringly reject, showing by example the lowly paid are valued as much as the wealthy, that those typically rejected deserve our time and attention – these may remind us that there is a choice to be made. It is not a challenge to wave and cheer at the one in the parade, that would simply leave us as spectators. It is more the challenge to accept his message and values as our own. Two parades and if there is a choice of which one to follow which one will ultimately gain our loyalty?
Perhaps most worrying for our modern world is that Jesus, when confronted with the option of force deliberately went with the non-violent option. In terms of assuming the inevitability of the industrial military complex that legitimises much of what the people of most nations appear to believe today this may yet be the hardest aspect of Jesus teaching for us to accept as a value that we genuinely wish to follow. Saying Jesus is right, presumably means that those who advocate force to maintain control and global position are wrong.
There is a counter intuitive aspect to Christianity but this does not mean it is necessarily impractical. Over the last few years we have seen several dramatic examples where common sense fails and the Christ alternative apparently has more to offer. However, punishing terrorism with military might, as common sense appears to dictate, actually seems to increase the incidence of terrorism…whereas the Jesus alternative of forgiving and even showing love to our enemies remains the largely untried option. Capital punishment and relaxed gun laws may provide a feeling of personal security, but in reality the statistics of the location of serious crime rates and high imprisonment rates do not match the intentions of the extreme solutions.
Again the creation of wealth may seem common sense, but where this is done the gap between the rich and the poor appears to widen. Jesus’ example of caring for the underprivileged is the option which is yet to attract real support. To stay with Jesus’ parade is not in the final analysis a question of whether or not we too can sing our Hosannas.
To become part of the parade is to understand that we too must accept Jesus’ values and allow them to become part of our lives. As long as we watch from the sidelines like those original spectators for Jesus’ original Palm Sunday parade, the ambiguity and confusion as to who Jesus is will remain. The man on the donkey awaits our response.