palm sunday is overrated

Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.” This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying, “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.”  — Matthew 21:1-11 (ESV)

And they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it. And many spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields. And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!”  — Mark 11:7-10 (ESV)

And they brought it to Jesus, and throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. And as he rode along, they spread their cloaks on the road. As he was drawing near—already on the way down the Mount of Olives—the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” — Luke 19:35-38 (ESV)

The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written, “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” — John 12:12-15 (ESV)

These are the four texts which describe the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem, which is celebrated in churches the world over during the Paschal Week, Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday.

Given how things turned out in something approximating real-time, I fail to see how this was triumphant at all. In fact, if we allow the text to teach us–and not do what we tend to by assuming the conclusion and ignoring the route which we take to get there–this text serves as a rebuke to those of us to follow Christ even to today.

If we try to talk up a governmental or political Christian revolution–left or right–it will ultimately lead to the systematic execution of our religion. In the same way that Jesus’ zealous followers couldn’t get it through their heads that allowing Jesus to go into town on a colt would evince Jewish longings for a Messiah to kick Rome out and reestablish the Golden Age; or set the ball in motion toward the cross. Again, if we allow the story to play out in real-time, this cannot be viewed as anything other than a colossal blunder.

Now, even a cursory study of the historical backdrop indicates that Messiahs were nothing new: Jesus wasn’t the only Yeshua ever named Joshua. There were lots of Joshuas, lots of parents naming their children in [vain] hope that slapping a name on a person would result in them magically becoming a leader of the people. This might not have been the only time someone had tried to force the issue by referencing Zechariah. Just because it happens in the Bible once doesn’t mean it’s the only time it’s ever happened. Jesus wasn’t the only person who has ever wept.

Notice the texts: in Matthew, Jesus is identified as a prophet or catalytic figure. Prophets don’t get this kind of welcome anywhere in the scriptures. In fact, prophets usually are either ignored or get the crap kicked out of them, if not executed. Fitting, no? Mark, Luke and John are less detailed about the entry into Jerusalem, but they all indicate three things: 1) Jesus has the authority of God–‘the name of the Lord’, figurative, not literal; 2) the arrival of their figure is the first domino to fall to reestablish the Davidic kingship; and 3) SAVE US NOW!!!1!!!11!!!

Jesus never said this about himself. He didn’t ask for the entry, and for his entire time in public ministry, he wasn’t talking about riding into town and overthrowing the established order. And, given how the story ends–particularly in John’s narrative, where the people are systematically stripped away until there’s no one left except Jesus on the cross–these same throngs who wanted to be [politically] saved were the ones who were ready to [politically] execute Jesus. We are the ones who eisegetically equate ‘saving’ with religious salvation, when ‘Hosanna!’ is a political cry, not a theological one.

In short, the importance of Palm Sunday isn’t in the arrival of Christ into Jerusalem, it’s in how we manage to screw things up. The triumphal entry, the 51% taking away the rights of the 49%. The same mistake, the same ignorance, the same hubris.

If people like you and me weren’t so motivated to actualize our political ideologies, perhaps we’d recognize that the message of Christ is in that justice comes neither from the halls of power nor from a preferred political platform, but in our compassion for one another, in our willingness to serve one another, and in our personal commitments to God. Let the hypocrites and sellouts do what they will; all they seek is reelection. We are to seek Christ’s presence in the world, to reconcile ourselves to one another and to God.

Instead, we are all too often guilty of putting our Jesus on a colt and riding him to his death. There is nothing saving about this. There is nothing sacred about Palm Sunday, just as there is nothing sacred about us: we’re no different and no better than those first disciples. Centuries pass and we continue to miss the point because we are more interested in our preferred destination than we are about the path which we take to get there. After generations of passing down the faith from generation to generation and it’s still about our destination and what we want and how we are going to be victorious. All the while, the fact that it’s called the triumphal entry should be recognized as it actually is: irony.

Facepalm Sunday, perhaps, would be more appropriate.


One thought on “palm sunday is overrated

  1. You are right; this was not a triumphal entry. At most, it was a triumphal approach, at least in the minds of the crowds accompanying Jesus into Jerusalem. As for Jerusalem itself, it was “shaken” and asks suspiciously, “Who is this?” (Mt. 21:10). Then the (Galilean) crowds become more hesitant; having shouted hosanna to the son of David (the king), they now respond, “this is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee” (21:11).

    As for Jesus himself, he has warned his disciples he will meet rejection, suffering, and death in Jerusalem, but they don’t want to hear that. Even his approach is not meant to be triumphal, but a contrast between the lowly, gentle king and the proud, violent, triumphant kings of the earth on their war horses (as in Zech. 9:9-10).

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