Today is Palm Sunday, and so, Holy Week begins. Many congregations are busy making palm frond crosses, dying eggs or preparing for a parade, like the one we celebrated with our Episcopalian friends earlier this morning. Stores are full of Easter bunny decorations and candy, trying to divert our attention from the real meaning of Holy Week to their commercialized version of it.
It’s easy to get sucked in! I know. I’m right there! I can’t remember when it was I saw my first spiral ham, but I remember that it was a beautiful thing. And, you know those giant Reese’s peanut butter eggs? Now there’s another beautiful thing. And I love putting on a new spring outfit. My wife got me this new shirt I’m wearing this morning, and I feel pretty good about it.
So there are all those things. At the same time, today commemorates Jesus’ triumphant parade into Jerusalem, riding on the back of a donkey. It’s the start of a more serious, even depressing story about how this crowd, this parade, this celebration all goes sideways ending in the torture, death of Jesus — and finally, his resurrection.
What is the focus of your thoughts as we head into Holy week? Is it all the stuff we do in the run-up to the Easter Bunny? Or is it this journey we take through the valley of the shadow of death with Jesus on the way to resurrection?
The feeling we may have that we’re living two parallel stories of Easter today isn’t far from what was happening on that first Palm Sunday. Two prominent theologians, Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan (in their book, The Last Week), suggest that there were two processions going on in Jerusalem that day.
The year all this happened, 30A.D., Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor assigned to Judea and Jerusalem. It was the custom of the governors to live outside Jerusalem, and it was also their custom to parade into Jerusalem with their soldiers for Passover. Their goal was to provide a highly visible and powerful Roman military presence at an anxious time to prevent any potential uprising. Whenever the Jews gathered together in large numbers there was always the potential.
So, on that first Palm Sunday, there was one parade, Pilate’s parade, that symbolized the Roman culture, the culture of eggs, indulgences, flag-waving, sales promotions and snappy outfits. And then, there was Jesus’ parade we read about in the Gospel. Jesus’ parade was like an anti-parade, proclaiming the arrival of God’s upside down kingdom: a subversive, counter-cultural act, a slap in the face of Roman authority.
Think about it. No respected, up-and-coming world ruler rides into town on a donkey. They ride in style like Pilate did it. A victorious king riding a donkey is like Donald Trump riding into Washington in a 1974 Dodge Dart.
So the Jesus parade, unlike Pilate’s parade, is an act of street theater. It’s a mockery of Rome. But it also gives us a preview of what Jesus’ alternative view of life looks like.
The Governor’s procession would have come from the west at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers -– an impressive and lavish procession specially designed to impress the people with a visual display of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on gold. The Romans worshipped their emperor as the son of God, the savior of humankind.
Jesus’ parade came from the opposite side of the city, down from the Mount of Olives. No pomp, no ceremony. Just Jesus, dressed in his usual, simple clothes, riding on the back of a borrowed donkey and followed by his disciples and other common folks. But just because it was simple didn’t mean it was any less a spectacle. I can imagine the lepers he had healed and the once-blind man dancing and rejoicing! And there’s Lazarus with his sisters, Mary and Martha — a living symbol of the triumph that this parade celebrates.
Jesus’ parade symbolizes the conflict between God’s kingdom and the Empire, then and now. Jesus’ parade is both theological and political. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem and his followers acknowledged him as Lord and Messiah, this was not only a personal theological statement but a political statement. Rome said Caesar, and Pilate was the one who was entering the city, Caesar’s representative, coming “in the name of the Lord.” was Lord. And here is Jesus, with people shouting, “Hosannah! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” And we all know what happens to leaders of the opposition party in totalitarian 3rd world countries, don’t we.
Jesus’ kingdom everything Caesar’s kingdom is not. Jesus’ comes in the name of a liberating, inclusive, non-violent, peace-seeking kingdom. God’s kingdom is the antithesis of the oppressive, greedy, elite-loving, peasant-starving kingdom of the Rome. On the first Palm Sunday Jesus’ parade and Caesar’s parade into the heart of Jerusalem were quite literally on a collision course. It was a collision that would cost Jesus his life and change history forever.
As the parade got underway, Jesus and his friends were greeted with cheers by excited crowds all along his path. “Hosanna! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna!” Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem began on Sunday, with crowds shouting “Hosanna”. It ended on Friday, with the same crowds shouting “Crucify him!” At Jesus’ execution, his triumph appears to give way to the power of the Empire. It doesn’t end with a gold crown but with a crown of thorns.
The question for me as I celebrate this Palm Sunday is: Where is my allegiance? Where do I find myself in this story? Which parade will I go to this morning? Am I part of that ragamuffin band of disciples following Jesus, not fully-aware that we’re on a collision course with the values of secular culture? Am I one of the misguided enthusiasts, cheering my own, misguided idea of a messiah, one that looks more like the Roman Emperor than the humble rabbi, Jesus? Am I enamored of an idea that has little to do with the real Jesus? Do I only want to follow Jesus because somewhere deep inside, I think he promises me health and happiness, a winning lottery ticket, bread and circuses? Have I so misunderstood him and his purpose that I’m ready to turn against him in five day’s time when he turns out not to be who I thought he was?
Or perhaps, I’m not part of Jesus’ procession. Perhaps I’m standing at the other gate, cheering for the symbols of Empire. Dazzled by power, attracted to wealth, wanting to be among the victors, hoping to be counted as one of the beautiful people, not the vanquished.
Come to think of it, I wonder if most of us aren’t part of both parades – wanting to follow this Jesus we don’t fully understand, but also caught up in the excitement of Easter egg hunts and spring fashion displays.
The beauty is that Jesus, sees and knows the flawed humanity that surrounds him — the flawed humanity of each of us — and even seeing us as we truly are, he forgives.
As Jesus clops along the dusty road toward his confrontation with the powers that be — his time of trial, his abandonment, and his death — let’s enter the city with him today, and sing “Hosannas” to our king. Let’s turn our backs on the powers that control and oppress, and open our hearts to the son of God riding on a donkey. Let’s join his parade — surrounded by outcasts and prostitutes, the blind and the lepers. Let’s follow the One who brings freedom and peace, grace and mercy, and let’s walk in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Let’s shout for joy at Christ’s coming, and answer his call to welcome the broken, to heal the sick, to eat with outcasts. And let us, like him, seeing and knowing all humanity’s flaws and our own, find it within us to forgive. And so, it begins.