It May Not Be What It Seems -- A Lectionary Meditation for Palm Sunday
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
It May Not Be What It Seems
Palm Sunday is a rather odd feast day in the life of the church. We come to church ready to celebrate. We get to wave palms and celebrate with Jesus as he enters the city of Jerusalem in triumph. We get to join with the people who gathered that day for the festal parade and hail Jesus as king of kings and son of David. We sing hymns like “All Glory, Laud and Honor” and “Ride on, Ride on in Majesty.” We wave palm branches as the choir and clergy enter into the sanctuary. We join the crowds of old in shouting Hosanna to the King of Kings. It’s a grand and glorious parade, and yet this grand and glorious hour quickly fades into something else much less triumphant. This is in many ways the picture of an aborted revolution. The powers that be see their foe and crush it before the spark can grow into a fire.
I’m not sure how other preachers feel about Palm Sunday, but I’m rather ambivalent about the day’s events. I enjoy the pageantry, but I don’t want to get caught up in it, because I know that tragedy must come before triumph. If we skip from Palm Sunday to Easter, without stopping to ponder the day of the cross then we will have misunderstood the whole thing. We’ll be lulled into believing that the Christian life is just one triumph after another; not realizing that with triumph often comes suffering and death. But maybe that’s the point of Palm Sunday; if we look at it as only the opening act of the Holy Week story, then we’re reminded of the ease with which we misinterpret the signs, often jumping the gun and failing to see the underlying currents.
Although the lectionary readings for Palm Sunday, at least in this cycle, only provide us with two texts, one from the Psalms and the other from the Gospel, these texts are sufficient. One text, the Gospel of Matthew tells the story of the day, but it’s Psalm 118 that provides us with the lens through which we can truly understand that all might not be as it seems. The Psalmist seems to have caught sight of this undercurrent and names it for us, while at the same time providing us with a word of promise.
We begin with the story of Palm Sunday as it is told in Matthew 21. It’s a well-known, oft-told story. Jesus approaches Jerusalem, and when he comes near the Mount of Olives, he sends two disciples into the village of Bethpage to get a donkey, and with it a colt, and they are to bring these to Jesus. If anyone should ask why they are doing this, they’re to tell them that the Lord sent them. This interchange has led to lots of speculation. Did Jesus have this set up ahead of time? Or did Jesus foresee this happening (after all he is the Son of God and therefore knows all things). And the speculations go on and on, without any real resolution. All of this, however takes place because it fulfills the words of the prophet (Zechariah 9:9), who foresees Jerusalem’s king riding into the city riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey. The gospel writer misses the poetic parallelisms and envisions two animals at interprets Zechariah 9. The other gospels have only one animal.
In any case, this donkey will be the sign of a royal entrance, which Jesus reenacts. Those who see him riding into Jerusalem understand the sign and dutifully hail him king and Messiah (Son of David). They put their cloaks and palm branches out in front of him as a sign of their allegiance, all the while shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David.” And “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. As he makes his entrance the city is said to be in turmoil with everyone asking who he was? Those in the know respond: “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
An act such as this had to be seen as provocative by the authorities. It would have made the Temple authorities, to whom general governance was given by the Romans, nervous, and it would have made the Romans nervous. As the Gospels tell it, this entrance takes place on the eve of the Passover celebration, when the city was filled with pilgrims. And, as Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan suggest, Jesus’ “peasant procession” likely was being paralleled by an imperial procession into the city. They envision Pilate entering the city accompanied by his troops who normally were stationed in Caesarea Maritima. As they put 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).
Two processions each representing rival theologies – one imperial and the other representing the Kingdom of God. Thus, we have a clash of ideologies and theologies, which means that what appears to be a scene of triumph on the surface will likely lead to dangerous encounters as the week progresses. But that is not the story that Matthew is ready to tell just yet. In the meantime we bask in the glory of the day.
The Psalmist helps us put this scene in context. This selection from Psalm 118 begins with a profession of faith in the Lord, who is not only good, but whose “steadfast love endures forever.” From this confession we move down to the Psalmist’s description of a festal parade through the “gates of righteousness.” It is through this gate that the righteous enter so that they might give thanks to the Lord for the salvation that the Lord has brought to them. But salvation has come at a cost, for “the stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” There will be triumph, but there will also be tragedy. This verse stands as a reminder to us that we shouldn’t put too much stock in the exuberant welcome offered to Jesus. Things have a way of souring. People can be fickle.
But in the meantime, let us rejoice and beseech God to “give us success!” With this prayer upon our lips, we join in the parade, crying out: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” The Lord gives us light so that we can enter the festal parade with branches, and make our way to the “horns of the altar.” There we will offer our sacrifice of praise, giving thanks for God’s provisions. Indeed, we give thanks that God’s “steadfast love endures forever.” Even as the initial triumph is fleeting, so will be our fall. In the end, we can trust in this Love that is God’s. We can take our hope in this promise, because as Tom Oord points out in his book The Nature of Love, when the scriptures speak of God’s everlasting love, it is rooted in the premise that God loves of necessity. That is, when we give thanks this Palm Sunday for God’s chesed (steadfast love) we are talking about God’s essential being that evidences itself in love of God’s creatures (Oord, The Nature of Love, p. 130).
Palm Sunday provides great difficulties for us, because it tempts us to believe that the Christian life runs from one triumph to another. Jesus enters the gates of the city and then jumps to heaven the next Sunday. But that’s not the way it works. We must continue the journey, which leads through betrayal, torture, and death. In Tom Troeger’s hymn for Palm Sunday, “A Cheering, Chanting, Dizzy Crowd,” after speaking of the parade, he offers us these two final stanzas:
Lest we be fooled because our hearts have surged with passing praise,remind us, God, as this week starts where Christ has fixed his gaze.
Instead of palms a winding sheet will have to be unrolled,a carpet much more fit to greet the king across will hold. (Chalice Hymnal 193)
The parade of palms will stir our hearts, but it’s not yet time to celebrate the final triumph. Palm Sunday is in many ways a false start. Jesus goes into the city, checks it out, and leaves. No revolution yet! But as the hymn reminds us, the journey has just begun. The triumph that we will celebrate on Easter, must go through Good Friday, and it is in this journey that we see God’s steadfast love truly revealed. In this journey from this triumphant gate to Easter, we discover that God is not only present in the moments of glory, but even more powerfully in our moments of suffering and despair.