Jesus on Parade -- Lectionary Reflection for Palm Sunday
If there is one Sunday out of the year that presents unavoidable problems for preachers it is Palm Sunday. What do we do with this triumphal parade when we know what will happen at the end of the week. No, we could go a different direction on the Sunday before Easter. We could open the service with the children’s palm parade, maybe sing “All Glory, Laud, and Honor,” and then quickly move to the Passion story. After all, the lectionary offers us the choice – “The Liturgy of the Palms and the Liturgy of the Passion.” Why not do Good Friday on Sunday and avoid the problems presented by a triumphal entry gone bad!
Still, the triumphal entry is important enough that all four Gospels record the event. So maybe we need to attend to it, listening for a word for today. At the same time, it would be helpful if we didn’t just skip from Palm Sunday to Easter and leave out Good Friday.
The setting is Jerusalem. Jesus is numbered among the many pilgrims coming to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. The city is alive with excitement. Celebrations will be held throughout the city. The Temple will be the focal point. In one way, Jesus is just one figure in the crowd, except that he becomes the focus. Here comes, riding into Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey. Mark seems to suggest that this is a rather well planned event. Jesus sends a couple of his disciples to fetch this young donkey from a house nearby. Then they put their cloaks on the donkey, which Jesus mounts. One commentator points out that it’s quite possible that the animal is so small that Jesus’ feet would be dragging on the ground. But this is his mighty steed. Then people—his people?—lay out cloaks and branches (Mark doesn’t speak of palm branches, that’s in John 12). Not only that, the people start shouting: “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Is it spontaneous or is it planned? Sometimes we like to think of things like this as spontaneous, but Jesus knew what he was doing.
What Jesus does here is act the part of the conquering hero. Do you remember the triumphal parades of Roman conquerors that we see portrayed in the movies like Cleopatra. Caesar rides in on either a war horse or in a chariot, followed by his legions, as well as captives (slaves). Yes, if you’re going to have a triumphal parade you have to have captives to show off, along with plunder. Of course, there is also a band. There has to be a band! It’s always quite an affair. When the parade is over, you know who is in charge. Of course, not everyone is happy. Just ask Julius Caesar. Brutus and Cassius thought that Caesar was getting too big for his britches, so they cut him down to size by murdering him. Maybe parades like these aren’t good for your health.
So, what was Jesus doing that first Palm Sunday? What message was he sending? Was he surprised by all the attention, or did he court it? At least in Mark 11, it appears that Jesus had this well planned. It didn’t take long for a crowd to gather and join in. That’s just the way it is with parades, whether it’s the Rose Parade or the When the parade starts, a crowd gathers. People like parades, and if one starts people will gather. It could be the Rose Parade or the Doo Dah (that’s a parody of Pasadena’s Rose Parade that’s been around for nearly forty years—I went to it once during the early years). If people are shouting, you shout! If the crowd starts to follow the parade, so do you. We’re a bit like lemmings sometimes. It doesn’t take much to get a crowd going. So, why did Jesus do this?
There is a mixture of messages here. First there is the style and then there is the substance. The parade has the style of a triumphal parade, only the hero rides on a donkey and not a war horse. The people are shouting words of blessing, claiming for him the throne of David. Yes, here’s the messiah. Neither the Temple authorities nor the Roman overlords would be happy with such a message. This is treason. This kind of action can get you arrested and even killed. Could it be that Jesus is courting a confrontation? Is he being provocative? At the same time, there’s the animal upon which he’s riding. It’s not a symbol of power. But, if you go with John 12, it has prophetic roots. Consider this word from Zechariah 9:9:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Zechariah puts into juxtaposition “triumphant and victorious” with “humble and riding on a donkey.” These don’t seem to go together, and yet here they are. The victorious king is a humble king. It would seem to suggest that the kind of king that Jesus intends to be will be quite different from Caesar and his successors. It is by the power of the war machine that Jesus will inaugurate his kingdom, but through humility. As Charles Campbell puts it: “Jesus goes to take possession of Jerusalem unarmed and riding on a colt” [Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 2, p. 155]
This is a difficult lesson for us to learn, especially since the Constantinian embrace. We have grown comfortable with living by the sword. Yes, “onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war.” We have bought into the world’s vision of power. We demand respect. Isn’t that what all this “religious liberty” talk is about? Christians in American have been accustomed to our hegemony. We ask God to bless America, forgetting that God might have other nations to love. Churches fly the American flag high over their buildings. We are protectors of the moral home front, so we expect that the culture will bow to our demands for protection.
When we think in these ways have we misinterpreted the message of Palm Sunday? Could it be that Palm Sunday can’t be understood without reference to Good Friday? In John’s Gospel, we read that “his disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him” (vs. 16). Not until after the resurrection did they understand the meaning of the parade. They too thought this would be the start of a new regime. They didn’t get the irony of the colt. They just heard the words “hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the King of Israel!” (vs. 13b). Kings have armies don’t they? Of course they do, but the army that this king leads is very different from that of the world.
So on this Palm Sunday what will we hear? What voices will ring out? Where will our hearts be found?