Palm Sunday "Now What?"

“Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” That used to be the cry of city newspaper hawkers when a “Special Edition” was printed with breaking news. People would hear from inside their houses or cars and run out to buy the paper – or at least see if they could glimpse the headlines on their way past. The breaking news was important – interesting – and people wanted to know what was going on.

Jesus entering Jerusalem was big news! His entrance was a pre-planned parade with some not so hidden meanings, hidden meanings, and a big statement. It was an event – and people were busy discussing what it meant.

Some things were obvious. It was not exactly a secret that Passover was a time of Jewish uprisings. Unrest in Jerusalem was actually so expected that Pilate came to oversee the city, leaving his comfortable palace by the sea because if there were problems, he would lose at least his job. Maybe his head. Both Jews and Romans knew that Passover week was historically the time for uprisings. ANYONE coming into the city at Passover was a bit suspect – and anyone arranging a big entrance was doubly so. It didn’t take political expertise to know that Jesus was making a statement coming into the city with a parade.

The Romans were well aware that Passover was the time of uprisings. Of the five documented uprisings against the Romans, four are known to have taken place during Passover, and the fifth one isn’t dated – but probably was at Passover. That’s just when uprisings happened. Passover celebrates the deliverance of the Jewish people from slavery and oppression by their Egyptian overlords. That story had power enough to make the Romans nervous.

But the hidden meanings were also powerful. The Jews would have understood the prophecies and symbolic aspects of this parade.

Donkey. Jesus entered the city riding on a donkey – a deliberate enactment of the prophesy of Zechariah 9:9.

“Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion. Sing aloud, Daughter Jerusalem. Look your king will come to you. He is righteous and victorious. He is humble and riding on an ass, on a colt, the offspring of a donkey.” (CEB)

So Jesus rides in on a donkey, like the righteous king – the king concerned for justice - prophesied by Zechariah. But there is more to that prophecy. Zechariah explains that the righteous king does more than ride into the city – he sets the captives free. This humble king, one poor and afflicted (Humble has those meanings too), is the opposite of the Roman overloads under whom the people are suffering. And this king is described as “victorious,” which means one who saved – the same root word for “Hosanna” and Joshua and Jesus.

And there is the shouting. The cries of “Hosanna,” literally mean “Save us!” The people are crying out for this righteous and afflicted king to deliver them from oppression. They are waving branches and throwing them on the road to make his way easier. And although Matthew doesn’t say what kind of branches are strewn along the road, there are lots of palm trees around Jerusalem. At least some of the branches were probably palms. (It’s the Gospel of John that names them.)

But there are other scriptural nuances here too. There’s Isaiah 62: 11, which addresses Daughter Zion and says, “See, your salvation comes,” and 2 Kings 9:13 where when Jehu announces that God has chosen him as king of Israel. “Then each man quickly took his cloak and put it beneath Jehu on the paved steps.” Their cloaks had tassels at the corners, symbols of one’s authority. That custom dates back to Moses in Numbers 15: 37-39. “The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations.” The people are taking off their symbols of authority and laying them under Jesus, on the colt and on the road. This is a pledge of allegiance, if he will just drive out the Romans. There are words here similar to those in Psalm 118: 25-26, “Lord, please save us! Lord, please let us succeed! The one who enters in the Lord’s name is blessed.” The Hosannas echo Psalm 118AND Jesus is referred to as the Son of David – the heir of the just king of Israel whose reign brought peace. And Jerusalem was his city, the City of David. The crowds, who do not feel free, are remembering when they were slaves in Egypt, and are yelling cries that mean, “Save us!”

Do you see? There are references to Moses, David, and the promise of a righteous king. This was a BIG statement! Everything was set up to show that Jesus is the poor, afflicted, righteous king who will bring justice to God’s people – and deliver them from the Romans. Do you see? Jesus, who has been telling people NOT to say who he is in previous stories, chooses this moment to declare who he is. Do you see? This entrance was staged, using prophecies from the Hebrew scriptures to show that Jesus is the Messiah, the promised one. As AJ Levine says, “If one is going to confront any system that prevents human wholeness – be in poverty, sickness, colonialism, or lack of compassion – it helps to have a plan.” This is the plan.

Of course, the event of that first Palm Sunday parade is more significant than just a staged political protest back in the day. It challenges all of us on what we will do when things aren’t what we expected – and then It provides a model of what it means to follow Jesus.

There were three times that Jesus predicted this suffering and death to the disciples in the Gospel of Matthew. The first was when he had an argument with Peter. Jesus told the disciples that he would have to go to Jerusalem, where he would suffer many things and put to death, and oh yes – then be raised on the third day. It’s in Matthew Chapter 16: 21-23. After hearing this prediction, Peter grabs Jesus and says, “God forbid, Lord! This won’t happen to you.” And Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan. You are a stone that could make me stumble, for you are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.”

Quite naturally, Peter doesn’t want to see bad things happen to Jesus. He loves Jesus. He’s a friend. We don’t want bad things to happen to our friends. But it probably also occurred to Peter that if THAT were to happen to Jesus, it wouldn’t bode well for his followers either. The story of what happened in 6 AD was legendary. The sons of Judas the Galilean led an uprising against Rome during Passover – and there were 2000 crucifixions. In 20 AD, roughly a decade before Jesus’ entrance into the city, Theudas of Jordan led an uprising on the Sunday before Passover, and 400 people were killed. If Jesus is arrested and put to death – it wouldn’t stop with him. Everyone associated with Jesus would be at risk – which is why Peter denied Jesus in the courtyard.

The crowds and disciples were excited that Jesus entered the city on a donkey, as the prophecies foretold. They were excited about the possibility of a righteous and humble king in the picture. But it wouldn’t take long before they realized that throwing out the Romans wasn’t on Jesus’ TO DO list. Then what? What is this Jesus all about? What was the point of the parade?

The crowds didn’t understand what was at stake. They were ready to proclaim Jesus king if he would throw out the Romans. But that isn’t actually the kind of king who would come riding on a donkey. Their words of praise on Sunday don’t have any real commitment to action behind them. They may KNOW he is the Messiah – but if they would have to give up their lives to follow him, they’ll stand in line to should “Crucify him!” instead. The crowds faced a “Now what?” moment and decided that Jesus wasn’t worth the real risk of their lives.

Peter and the rest of Jesus’ followers had the same problem. How much would they be willing to risk to follow Jesus? Jesus tried to tell them earlier – to follow me, you must be willing to take up your cross. Would they really be willing to do whatever it takes to continue the ministry and mission of Jesus? They didn’t want to hear that this was going to take serious risk. Denial of unpleasant realities is a powerful human tendency. Those words, take up your cross, have come to mean different things to us – some kind of sacrifice, certainly. But in Jesus’ day, they meant that one would be willing to risk physical crucifixion – the dreadful Roman capital punishment. It’s significantly harder to follow someone when you are asked to risk everything. Suddenly, it is no longer a parade.

This situation lifts us a real problem. How will we respond when things are not the way we expected. We don’t shift allegiances easily. “Confirmation Bias” is well-documented. If we reach a conclusion based on false evidence, and then we’re told that the evidence was false – we still tend to come to that same conclusion. We don’t want to change our minds. The crowds in Jerusalem had a fixed idea of what the Messiah would do. They expected Jesus to overthrow the Romans – and if he didn’t do that, he couldn’t be the Messiah. They couldn’t come to a different conclusion – and missed the Messiah.

It is still a problem. Our willingness to follow Jesus today has our own sets of expectations attached.

  • If we were told as children that if we were good nothing bad would happen – and then bad stuff happens to us – we might just reject God, as if religion were all hogwash.

  • If we were told as teens that if you just accept Jesus as your savior, the rest of life will go smoothly….and of course, it didn’t…life isn’t like that – we might just reject the whole notion of following Jesus, since Jesus didn’t perform as expected.

  • Even as adults, we often think that there shouldn’t be problems in church, that Christian leaders or pastors should be perfect, and that things should go smoothly for people of faith.

But life isn’t that way. If any of that were true, Jesus wouldn’t have been arrested and put to death. Neither would Peter or Paul. That is a false narrative that has done a lot of harm over the years. This story challenges us in our own “Now what?” moment. When life isn’t easy, when there are threats all around, when following Jesus doesn’t mean what we thought it meant – how will we respond? Are we willing to follow Jesus, no matter what it takes?

This story of Holy Week starts with a parade – but that isn’t the end of the story. And we who hear the story again must decide: are we Parade People, or is our following Jesus in the “whatever it takes” category. How we answer that question will shape our experience of Holy Week – and maybe the rest of our lives.

1 AJ Levine, Entering into the Passion of Jesus. 26-28. 2 Jim Fleming, The Context of Holy Week 31-32. 3 AJ Levine, Entering, 26-34. 4 Jim Fleming, The Context of Holy Week , 31. 5 AJ Levine, Entering, 26. 6 Jim Fleming, The Context of Holy Week, 30-31.

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash