In the Gospel story that gives this day its name, Jesus enters Jerusalem in apparent triumph. Such a large crowd gathers to greet him that the whole city is in turmoil. They spread cloaks for him, and wave palms at him, and cheer him as the Son of David who comes in the name of the Lord.
More ominously, Luke tells us that offended Pharisees demand Jesus keep his disciples quiet. Jesus refuses, but they will get their revenge in just a few days (Luke 19:39-40).
But that is getting ahead of ourselves. For now, let’s stick with the main event we commemorate this morning.
It is interesting to speculate about what might have been going through the minds of the cheering crowd that morning. But we know what the disciples were thinking.
On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus repeatedly warned his disciples about the horrible events that would take place there. But the disciples couldn’t absorb what he was saying.
And immediately after one of these warnings, I mean the next verse!, James and John, two of Jesus’ closest disciples, ask Jesus if they can “sit, one at [his] right hand and one at [his] left, in [his] glory.” James and John are looking forward to glory and triumph, not suffering and death (Mark 10:35-37).
The other disciples don’t seem to be any better. They resented James’ and John’s effort to get the best seats in the coming kingdom (10:41).
We can see the same hopes and resentments after Jesus and the disciples reach Jerusalem, at the Last Supper itself. Jesus tells them his betrayal is imminent. And once again they dispute “as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest” (Luke 22:24). Their stupidity would be comic if the situation weren’t so tragic.
If that is what the people who knew Jesus best were thinking, the crowds must surely have been thinking something similar. God’s agent is coming to make everything right. At last, our kingdom will gain its independence, and the glory of our nation will be restored. That’s why they cheer and greet Jesus as the messianic king.
On Palm Sunday, we always reenact this moment of apparent triumph. We process with palms, singing “All glory, laud, and honor to Thee, Redeemer, King! To whom the lips of children made sweet hosannas ring. Thou art the King of Israel, Thou David’s royal Son, who in the Lord’s Name comest, the King and Blessed One.”
Normally, of course, we all process. It is not as glorious as what Jesus experienced on that day. But it is spirited and fun and, in its own way, a little glorious.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t do that today. We had a procession of just three, all at a safe distance from each other. And I, for one, was not singing out loud!
But what I am suggesting is that the glory surrounding Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem was false. It was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what Jesus was coming to do, a misunderstanding that was common to the crowd and to Jesus’ disciples, despite Jesus’ best efforts to prepare them.
We see that it is false when Jesus is arrested. His disciples scatter in fear and shock, and the crowd that today was hailing Jesus as their king screams for his execution.
So now, let’s look not at the crowd and not at the disciples, but at Jesus himself, the one at the center of all the enthusiasm.
As we do, we need to remember that the Romans of the first century knew how to stage impressive processions. Victorious generals would parade through the streets of Rome at the head of their troops, displaying their captives and all the booty they had won. The crowds would cheer. And the whole thing was so overwhelming that Romans took to having a slave stand immediately behind the victorious general, reminding him over and over again that he was just a man, not a god. That’s what glory and triumph looked like to Roman citizens at the time Jesus entered Jerusalem.
Jesus does enter Jerusalem as the king foretold by the prophet Zechariah long ago. But, as the prophet said, Jesus comes in humility, not in great pomp. Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on a donkey at the head of a ragtag band of peasants, not on a stallion at the head of an intimidating army.
If Pilate saw Jesus’ entry, he might have worried about mob violence. But he certainly would NOT have been impressed by the grandeur of the procession.
That’s the point. Jesus’ entrance was not grand and glorious. Jesus’ entrance was a parody of the grandeur and glory that human power aspires to.
The enthusiastic crowd and even Jesus’ disciples seem to have entirely missed the point of Jesus’ parody even though it was explicit in the prophecy Jesus was fulfilling.
Ironically, our little procession this morning was closer in spirit to what Jesus was doing on that day than anything his followers were doing and closer than our own normal way of celebrating Palm Sunday. Our little procession is appropriate homage to the one who entered Jerusalem on a donkey, and who was coming to the city in the full knowledge that he would soon be beaten and killed.
On that first Palm Sunday, the people wanted victory without cost. They wanted to rule without paying the price. They wanted resurrection life without the cross. They wanted Easter without Good Friday.
On that day, Jesus, alone as best we can tell, had a different vision. Jesus entered Jerusalem in humility, despite the cheering crowds. Jesus loved his disciples, knowing that they would fail. Jesus went willingly to his death in order to open our way to real new life, to the true glory of Easter, which only comes after crucifixion.
In our New Testament reading for this morning, the Apostle Paul gives classic expression to the theology of the cross that is the true meaning of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem and of all the events we commemorate in Holy Week.
“Christ Jesus,… though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”
The cheering crowds didn’t get the whole emptied-himself, humbled-himself, obedient-to-the-point-of-death-on-a-cross message. But that is exactly what Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem was all about.
Bring this up to today. Our situation is grim. People are dying of a pandemic in growing numbers. Even those of us who are healthy are isolated, afraid, and vulnerable in all kinds of ways.
But the suffering of our present time has one benefit. It helps us see through the wrong-headed pretensions of even Jesus’ closest followers in the days before the crucifixion. It helps us see Jesus’ actions on the day of his entrance into Jerusalem for the parody of human power and glory that it was.
It also prepares us to see still more deeply, to see the victory of the cross, to see the resurrection life that truly does triumph over death.
On this Palm Sunday, I give thanks to God for the humility of our king, who enters the great city on a donkey. I give thanks to God for Jesus’ willingness to suffer and die for us. And I give thanks to God for the truly good news of resurrection that ultimately triumphs over suffering and death.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan