Palms and Passion

Palm Sunday
Matthew 21:1–11

In recent years a new practice has developed in many churches that observe the liturgical calendar and follow the Revised Common Lectionary; a practice about which I feel ambivalent … sort of. I’m talking about the option to replace Palm Sunday, a commemoration of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem for the Passover festival a few days before his death, with Passion Sunday, a worship experience that focuses on the events of the end of that week, when Jesus is betrayed, arrested, tried, and executed.

The reason the liturgical powers that be have decided to offer this change is that so few people attend Holy Week services anymore, and these authorities fear that the great majority of Christians who might be expected to come to church on a Sunday but will not return for a weeknight service, even one as important as Good Friday or Maundy Thursday, will miss out on the meaning of Jesus’s passion as a result. They fear that going from what is often portrayed as a celebratory event, the so-called triumphal entry on Palm Sunday, to the celebration par excellence of Easter morning will give these folks a skewed version of the Christian story. If people don’t get a dose of the passion, they may get the harmful notion that the Christian faith is all about victory and the suffering of Jesus can be safely swept under the rug. For this reason, many churches have begun observing Passion Sunday instead of Palm Sunday in an effort to restore proper theological balance.

I understand this argument; I do believe we need to resist the temptation to excise suffering from the story. I have known enough triumphalist Christians—those who think their faith is the right one and that calling themselves Christians guarantee that they will always be on the winning team—to want to avoid any kind of reinforcement of that worldview. It’s a short step from Christian triumphalism to other, more dangerous abuses, from the prosperity gospel to the marriage of Christianity with jingoistic American civil religion to the extremes of violent pogroms and jihad against those who are not part of our “tribe.” A lingering consideration of Jesus’s passion, a healthy dose of the theology of the cross, can go a long way as an antidote to these perversions of the gospel.

On the other hand, the purist—or perhaps the curmudgeon—in me doesn’t quite like the idea of capitulating to the practices of lazy churchgoers. We have special services during Holy Week specifically for the purpose of taking a long, hard look at the suffering and death of Jesus, and to forfeit the remembrance of Palm Sunday just because people can’t be bothered to make an extra trip or two to church feels like an unnecessary surrender to the culture of convenience. Is it too much to ask those who claim to follow Jesus to give up two or three hours during the holiest week of the year to remember the death of the Son of God? Are we setting the bar too low, catering in this way to the lowest common denominator of religious commitment?

Like I said, I’m ambivalent.

The thing is, when the events of Palm Sunday are interpreted correctly, we find that the fear that people will miss out on the story of Jesus’s passion is misplaced. If we depict Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem as a triumph; if we amplify the acclaim of the crowds so that it signals some sort of universal acceptance of Jesus as Messiah; if we place Palm Sunday on the same celebratory level as Easter Sunday; we have missed the point entirely. Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem on Sunday is of a piece with his betrayal and arrest on Thursday and crucifixion on Friday. In fact, we do the event a disservice when we call it by its traditional name, the Triumphal Entry. If anything, it is an Ironic Entry. A Thumb-in-the-Eye-of-the-Powers Entry. A Prelude-to-the-Passion Entry.

What Jesus and his disciples do in this passage from Matthew 21 is a bit of political theater. It hearkens back to the prophetic actions of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and other Hebrew prophets. Instead of simply declaring “the word of the Lord” through preaching or writing, sometimes the prophets would do a bit of performance art to get their point across. Ezekiel, for example, lies on his side for more than a year before a model of city of Jerusalem to predict a devastating siege by the Babylonian armies. Jeremiah breaks a clay pot to signify the coming destruction of the kingdom of Judah. Isaiah takes the cake by walking around naked and barefoot for three years as a sign of God’s judgment on Egypt and Cush.

In the same way, Jesus enacts a sermon when he rides his donkey into the city from the Mount of Olives. Or his donkeys, as Matthew would have it. Whereas Mark, Luke, and John all show Jesus coming into Jerusalem on a donkey, Matthew misreads an oracle from Zechariah and portrays Jesus in the awkward position of riding two different beasts. Matthew quotes Zechariah as saying: “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (v. 5). Unfortunately, he fails to recognize that the prophet was using the poetic device of parallelism, in which a second line restates the first line to reinforce it. The original quotation reads, “Lo, your king comes to you … humble and riding on a donkey, / on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zech 9:9). The colt in the second half of the couplet is clearly the same animal as the donkey in the first half, but Matthew goofs up and reads it as an adult donkey and a colt.

It makes for an amusing scene, but Matthew’s interpretative ham-handedness should not obscure the larger point of the episode. Jesus is coming into Jerusalem, Israel’s ancient capital, after the manner of Israelite and Judean kings, who used to ride to their coronations on an ass to indicate that they had come in peace. Riding a balky and ungainly donkey instead of a graceful and powerful war horse served as visual testimony that the king bore no pretensions to tyranny. It’s hard to look intimidating on the back of an ass. Let alone two of them.

What makes Jesus’s entry an effective prophetic action is that his donkey ride contrasts—in fact, parodies—another entry taking place that same day. The other entry is indeed a triumphal one. It’s a show of military force intended to strike fear into the hearts of the spectators and make anyone contemplating making trouble during the Passover festival think twice. It is, of course, the entry of the procurator, Pontius Pilate, into Jerusalem at the head of an impressive cohort of Roman soldiers.

Pilate’s headquarters is the port city of Caesarea, a place he much prefers to the dusty, stinking cacophony of Jerusalem at festival time. No soft Mediterranean breezes here, just the unrelenting heat and the constant bleating of sheep, merchants, and pilgrims. It’s enough to drive a sane man to distraction and a crazy man to murder. But it’s a necessary annual foray. Passover is the commemoration of the liberation of the Jews’ oppressed forebears by their God, and when you are the official representative of the latter-day version of Pharaoh, you need to be there to keep a lid on things. Jerusalem can be a powder keg under normal circumstances, and Passover is anything but normal.

So Pilate rides in from the west on the back of his favorite stallion, and he is accompanied by his cohort, his body servants, his administrators, and the rest of his retinue. It’s a spectacle designed to awe the city’s residents into docility. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan describe it this way:

Imagine the imperial procession’s arrival in the city. A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful (Borg and Crossan, Last Week, 3).

Pilate’s entry is a power play of the first order.

Jesus's entry, on the other hand, serves as a parody of this other procession. By riding in on a donkey colt, he cuts a ridiculous figure. Even at the average height for a man at that time, a little over five feet tall, Jesus still has to lift his feet to keep them from dragging along the ground. When the crowd begins spreading cloaks and tree branches on the ground for Jesus to ride over, one imagines them doing so in a tongue-in-cheek manner. When they shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven” (v. 9), one imagines an ironic tone to their voices and a sly gleam in their eyes. Jesus is poking holes in the pretensions of the Romans, and the crowd waving their branches and singing the festal psalm is in on the joke.

Jesus knows what he is doing. He has no illusions about what is going to happen this week. In fact, this demonstration serves as the opening salvo in an offensive that he must suspect will seal his doom. That’s why I find no reason to replace Palm Sunday with Passion Sunday. Palm Sunday is not about triumph and acclaim; it’s about subversion. We do not need to bemoan the fickleness of the crowds who greet Jesus as their king on Sunday, only to demand his blood on Friday. It’s not as though anyone watching the peasant rabbi from Galilee come swaying into town on his borrowed ass, surrounded by a ragtag band of his unwashed followers, really expects him to offer a military challenge to the might of Rome symbolized in Pilate’s far more impressive entry. That’s not what it’s about.

Palm Sunday is about contrast. It's about the kingdom of God as opposed to the kingdom of Rome. It’s about nonviolent subversion of the domination system. It’s about donkeys versus war horses. And it’s part and parcel of the passion and agony Jesus will go through at the end of this week. Palm Sunday is Jesus’s declaration of his intentions. He is coming to the city to effect liberation for his people just as God did at the first Passover. But he is coming not with God’s “mighty hand and outstretched arm” to wreak plagues upon Egypt and strike down Pharaoh’s firstborn son; instead, he comes in meekness—“humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” He has come to challenge the powers not with force of arms but with the moral force of truth and justice. He has come to tell them that the world belongs not to the Pilates and Tiberiuses and Caiaphases of the world, but to God, and that the days of those who stand in opposition to God are numbered. He knows it could very well get him killed, but he does it anyway.

If we read the next verse of Zechariah’s prophecy, we see Jesus’s mission of peace and justice, and the contrast between the reign of God and the empires of the world even more clearly. Zechariah says of the coming king, “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the [Euphrates] River to the ends of the earth” (Zech 9:10).

This week Bashar al-Assad appears to have fired weapons containing a deadly nerve agent, possibly sarin gas, at a town in Idlib province, killing nearly ninety people and injuring hundreds more. Two days ago President Trump retaliated, ordering Tomahawk missile strikes against targets in Syria. A truck driver steered into a crowd in Stockholm, Sweden, killing three people; and a subway bombing in St. Petersburg, Russia, killed at least ten. President Trump wants to dramatically increase military spending while cutting domestic social programs and international aid, and analysts estimate that since he came to office, “nearly 1,000 civilians have been killed by US air strikes in Syria and Iraq—including up to 200 civilians in Mosul and around sixty civilians in the bombing of a mosque in al-Jena (not far from the site of the chemical weapons attack) this past month” (Zunes, “Why These Missile Strikes,” n.p.).

The callous disregard for human life exhibited by parties on every side of these various conflicts cries out for a response. Unfortunately, too often the only response we seem to be able to imagine is retaliation and escalation. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of that donkey; when he rejected the use of force in his defense when the temple police came to arrest him; when he went to the cross rather than betray his principles and his proclamation of the nonviolent coming of the reign of God, he unmasked the brutality of the domination system and stripped it of its pretensions to ultimate authority. His humble yet tenacious defiance of the powers was precisely the creative response the world in which he lived needed. It is precisely what we need in the world in which we live now. We desperately need someone who will cut off the chariot, the war horse, and the battle bow, and command peace to the nations. The survival of humanity, of the world itself, is at stake.

Our hope lies in the declaration of the psalmist: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes” (Ps 118:22–23). Let us hail the coming of the peaceful ruler, the donkey-riding king, the rejected stone, and let us join his procession that leads to the cross and then beyond the cross to an empty tomb.

Borg, Marcus J. and John Dominic Crossan. 2006. The Last Week: A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus’s Final Week in Jerusalem. New York: HarperCollins.

Zunes, Stephen. April 7, 2017. “Why These Missile Strikes Won’t Make Things Better for the Syrian People.” Yes! Magazine. Online.

Robert TurnerComment