Palm Sunday? Passion Sunday? I don’t get the big dichotomy. On Sunday Jesus entered the city – clearly to confront and submit to death itself. forces of evil are already arrayed against him. Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan, in their stellar The Last Week, explain how, with Passover due, Pilate with his Roman legion is marching into Jerusalem from Caesarea to the west, arms clattering, swords glinting in the sun, the thunder of hooves and chariots meant to intimidate, to quell any thought of an uprising with the huge crowds visiting the Holy City. Simultaneously, from the east, as clear a counterpoint as you could imagine, Jesus enters, not on a war stallion, unarmed, not to intimidate but to unmask the powers, to conquer evil and hate with mercy and love.
What makes no sense theologically is the sunny, optimistic version of Palm Sunday with chipper children cheering for Jesus, their hero. “Hosanna, heysanna!” from Jesus Christ Superstar captures the mood dramatically. And for me, I love the fact that "Hosanna!" isn't a cheer. It's a prayer, meaning something like "Lord, help, please," or "Help us now." What was the tone of the Hosannas on Palm Sunday - as habituated as the people were by the Romans to stay quiet?
Some details in Luke’s peculiar version of the story are worth touching upon. No palms! And no Hosannas in Luke’s wording. David Lyle Jeffrey notes the serenity of the animal – that anyone who’s spent much time with them would notice. Never ridden, yet calm, even amid the flapping of palms and all the racket?
And why did Jesus ride? Not to spark the great “Ride On, King Jesus!” – but to make a symbolic point. He’d walked all over the countryside! He rode clearly to say I’m the one you read about in Zechariah 9:9. He didn’t holler “I’m the king!” He didn’t have to after this. Jesus is no a-political sweetie. He eagerly embraces the most political of titles, flaunting it in the face of big King Herod and huge King the Emperor Tiberius. He’s a different kind of king – but it threatens the political status quo. Jesus mustered immense courage – entering the city he had early wept over for killing the prophets (13:31-35), and to expose himself, unarmed, to the powers feeling very threatened by his entry. In Luke, the people get it: instead of “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” they cry “Blessed is the King who comes…” Wow.
I might talk about geography in my sermon. Once upon a time, I led people on the “Palm Sunday walk,” starting in Bethany, down the hill then back up to Bethpage, then descending the slope of the Mt. of Olives into the Kidron Valley, then up into Jerusalem proper. You can’t do it any more – because of the wall, designed to keep peace, but only harassing citizens in Bethany who now have a 30 or more minute drive to get to the city to work.
The confusion that reigned on the first Palm Sunday is worth exploring. People were wrapped up in their fantasies about Jesus, about God, and about what deliverance would look like. The Epistle reading, Philippians 2:5-11 (a perfect Palm or Palm/Passion text, toward which I leaned in my sermon 3 years ago) clarifies what Jesus was demonstrating by entering the city on a donkey. The translation is fascinating: we typically hear “Although he was in the form of God, he emptied himself…” but the Greek will allow for an even more insightful rendering – “Because he was in the form of God, he emptied himself…” Jesus’ humility, his lowness, his vulnerability – this is not temporary charade, no play acting whereas God’s real nature is sheer, unadulterated power and might. This is God, the humble one, the infant in a cow stall, the abject, beaten, silent one, the nailed one.
If you do the full Passion story and plan to preach on it in its entirety, I’d highly commend Donald Senior’s short and thoughtful The Passion of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke.
And then I will never again ponder the passion narrative with recalling Robert Jenson’s wise conclusion to his exploration of various theories of the atonement: “The Gospels tell a powerful and biblically integrated story of the Crucifixion; this story is just so the story of God’s act to bring us back to himself at his own cost, and of our being brought back. There is no other story behind or beyond it that is the real story of what God does to reconcile us, no story of mythic battles or of a deal between God and his Son or of our being moved to live reconciled lives. The Gospel’s passion narrative is the authentic and entire account of God’s reconciling actions and our reconciliation, as events in his life and ours. Therefore what is first and principally required as the Crucifixion’s right interpretation is for us to tell this story to one another and to God as a story about him and about ourselves.” The question for the preacher is: can I trust the story? Or do I feel some compulsion to dress it up and improve upon it?
Finally, I love Howard Thurman’s pensive reflection: “I wonder what was at work in the mind of Jesus of Nazareth as he jogged along on the back of that faithful donkey. Perhaps his mind was far away to the scenes of his childhood, feeling the sawdust between his toes in his father’s shop. He may have been remembering the high holy days in the synagogue with his whole body quickened by the echo of the ram’s horn. Or perhaps he was thinking of his mother, how deeply he loved her and how he wished that there had not been laid upon him this Great Necessity that sent him out on to the open road to proclaim the Truth, leaving her side forever. It may be that he lived all over again that high moment on the Sabbath when he was handed the scroll and he unrolled it to the great passage from Isaiah, ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach good news to the poor.’ I wonder what was moving through the mind of the Master as he jogged along on the back of that faithful donkey.”