Palms, Crowds, and Crosses

This past Sunday I gave a “farewell” sermon at Morgantown Community Church. That being the case, since I didn’t give a Palm Sunday sermon, I thought I’d share a few thoughts on the blog. I’m grounding my thoughts here in Mark’s telling of the story. Mark is the earliest Gospel (written in the early 70’s CE), and is the first account of what has become known as Palm Sunday. If you haven’t read it, or need to be refreshed on Mark’s account, click here.

First, we have to begin with the basic context of Mark’s story. Jesus is heading to Jerusalem for Passover. Up to this point in Mark, Jesus’s ministry has been generally based in a rural context–specifically in the Galilee region. Now, at the beginning of what we call Holy Week, Jesus expands his movement to the capital city. Moving deeper into the story, this demonstration takes place on the cusp of the celebration of Passover, the yearly remembrance of the liberation of the Hebrew slaves from bondage in Egypt.

To say there would have been tension in the air is a massive understatement. The Jewish pilgrims streaming into Jerusalem to celebrate freedom from their oppressors while Roman centurions patrolled the streets must have created a deeply unsettling cognitive dissonance. How can we celebrate freedom with the boot of the Romans on our necks?

Jesus rides into this tension, not quietly, but loudly.

I’ve always loved the part of the story when Jesus tells his disciples, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter it, you will find tied up there a colt that no one has ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘Its master needs it, and he will send it back right away.’”

And that’s exactly what happens. They enter the village, find the colt, and start to leave. Someone asks what they are doing, they reply exactly as Jesus told them, and they are home free with a donkey.

I used to think this was odd. Is Jesus using some sort of Jedi mind trick? Would this work at a car dealership? You just go, get in a car, and prepare to drive off. The salesman asks what you’re doing, and you just reply, “The Lord needs it?”

Actually, what’s really being conveyed here is that Jesus has a plan. This isn’t a spontaneous “Go steal me a donkey,” but a planned prophetic action. It’s not a “Triumphal Entry.” Instead, it’s mocking–lampooning–the kind of triumphal entry a Roman official, like Pilate, would have. Jesus rides, not on a warhorse, but on a donkey. He is surrounded by the crowds, mostly (if not totally) peasants who were energized by his message, not Roman centurions in full armor. Jesus is calling the military parade of Rome a farce, and offering an alternative to the way of empire.

About the crowd. They join Jesus’ procession, in front and behind him, with shouts of Hosanna, literally, “Save us!” They see in Jesus a deliverer–like Moses–who will lead them on a new Exodus. The crowds also invoke the name of David, which is loaded with messianic connotations. Suffice it to say, this isn’t subtle.

There’s a statement that I’ve heard countless times over the years. I saw it quite a bit on Facebook this past week. I even had it on a t-shirt when I was in high school. It goes something like, “The week began with palms in the crowd’s hands, and ended with nails in Jesus’s.” Why would this crowd–enthusiastically announcing Jesus’s entry into the city turn on him so sharply and suddenly? What happened between Sunday and Friday?

This is a great moment to pause, and recognize that readings of the Bible, like this one, are the basis for a lot of the horrors of Christian history, specially against the Jewish community. The depiction of the crowd as being the cause of Jesus’s death grows in the Gospel tradition, crescendoing in Matthew’s account of Pilate washing his hands of Jesus’s blood, and the crowd responding, “Let his blood be on us and our children.” [Matthew 27:25]

It’s important, especially in our current context of growing anti-semitism and white supremacy, to clearly and forcefully reject the kinds of readings that lead us to believe that the Jewish people, then or now, were responsible for the death of Jesus.

Jesus died on a Roman cross, not a Jewish one.

Rome executed Jesus. Yes, there was a collaboration between Rome and the Temple aristocracy. But Rome, and only Rome, could pull the trigger. The crowds of Palm Sunday never turned on Jesus. His popularity with the crowd was so great that the authorities were afraid to arrest him. They were afraid the crowd might riot! Which is why Jesus wasn’t arrested in broad daylight in the Temple courts, but in the cover of night in a garden outside the city.

Palm Sunday is a day, then, to remember that Jesus was on a collision course with the empire. The empire of Rome was being challenged by the Kingdom of God.

Palm Sunday is about a different vision for the world, marked by justice, compassion, and peace, instead of injustice, oppression, and violence.

Holy Week begins by asking us to choose which world we will live in.

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