Palm Sunday | Mark 11:1-11
Learning Holy Week
I must have been 9 or 10 when I realized that the story didn’t make sense. I could follow the main elements of the story. I could make sense of the basic plot points. But there were holes. And the way we told it just confused me more.
By that time I had come to appreciate Lent. Beginning with the temptation in the desert, and continuing through some of the hard passages of Jesus’s life and teaching. And then we would come to Palm Sunday (and we always called it that). We would gather and remember the story of Jesus’s arrival at Jerusalem, his triumphal entry. Then the crowds would turn and we would be telling Pilate to “Crucify Him!” and then Jesus would die twice for me: once on Sunday and again on Friday.
I went through enough Lents and Holy Weeks by then to know the story, to hear the repeated phrases, Peter’s denial (which always stuck with me), the march to Golgotha, and then his death.
I got that Jesus died. I got that on the third day he was raised. And I thought I got why.
What I didn’t get was: why this? This story, this tradition, this strange, confusing moment. My ten year-old mind already knew it was too simple and too easy on us. Too easy to condemn us and too easy to let us off the hook. It is a story that is supposed to tear us apart and bring tears to our eyes in the telling. And yet we pretend that it can’t move us to action. It is normal, simple, the way things are.
I’m not sure that really has anything in common with the gospel.
The New David
Before we get to the cross, we have a week’s work. Jesus has arrived at Jerusalem and is making his entrance. We have Hosannah!s sung and the excitement of change. Today is the day we remember that these crowds of people were waiting for this day, hoping they’d see it, praying to GOD to make it happen now, not someday in their life, but now, on this day! The daily prayer of the oppressed. Free us today!
And Jesus comes to them in such an odd way. We can see it as defiant. We’ve heard all our lives about Jesus and his upside-down kingdom. We know about the first being last and the last being first. His disciples have heard this. This crowd, perhaps rumors of it.
Here is the Messiah…on a donkey! Where is his warhorse? He’s going to take on Rome!
So easy for us to see the reversals sympathetically. But this donkey, this procession is so much more than that. It is what I love to call political street theater. It is the gripping, evocative visual imagery that can only hit the seer in the seeing; a moment that can’t fully be captured in the telling, in the video recording.
Like meeting a celebrity in person who has so much more charisma than is captured through a lens. So many more butterflies in our stomachs in the experiencing.
And Jesus and his merry band of peasant disciples come to Jerusalem as the anti-Rome. They come without the high standards, the tall warhorses, the pikes and the weapons. Without the hundreds of soldiers and attendants, making the Triumphal Entry of Rome into an impossible sight to miss and an expression of extreme power: rising high enough to block the sun, long enough to take the day to witness.
They come instead low and humble, their general on a donkey, with a small band on foot, weighed down by a march about the region of healing and reconciling, not conquering and destroying. Their work, the disciple’s work, the more tiring, the dirtier.
Jesus arrives, not as the Messiah they had hoped for, but as the anti-Messiah. Not a general, but an anti-general; not a king, but an anti-king; not David, but the anti-David.
Or maybe like the child David more so than the ruler David. The David who was a musician and was adept at home. The one with the bigger brothers, the more powerful brothers, the brothers more suitable for royalty according to our world; more in-line with our obsession for power and dominion. Maybe Jesus comes like that David.
We’ll see in the week ahead what happens next in the story. We aren’t skipping to the crucifixion, ignoring Jesus’s two trips to the Temple, his humiliating of the Temple system and its authorities, his teaching about what will happen to this whole system the leadership is supporting, his being prepared, anointed for burial. Then we’ll gather on Thursday to remember the final teaching, the time when Jesus gathers with his friends for the Passover. We’ll wash each other’s feet, remembering the symbolic teaching Jesus left his followers with, telling them to wash each other.
This is not the day we mourn a loss, but the day we speak of the coming victory. The day we declare, not the triumph that has occurred, or boasting in the confidence of our superior beliefs, but to prophesy that our king has come, our true king! Not Caesar or Pilate, not Herod or the usurper king placed on the throne by Rome, not the Temple authorities who benefit from injustice. None of these is king. Jesus is. The real king. Coming to face injustice, not with a sword, but with empty hands, raised.
Empty hands. Innocent hands. Prayer hands. Blessing hands.
He knows what they will do anyway. What they will do with his hands. But not today. They don’t have enough incentive yet. He’s a minor disruption to Rome’s precious order. He needs to give them their justification.
A weakling on a donkey isn’t it. A pacifist? Please. All the more easy to take out. Jesus isn’t the problem. The problem is a riot; a rebellion. The problem is a disruption of their taxes and their authority. What they don’t want is some guy getting other people to act up. Not now, not at the Passover. Not when the city is full of pilgrims. Not when there are thousands of poor Jews hungry for a Messiah and a revolution. And Jesus has come to give it to them.
On the road to Jerusalem, Jesus told his followers what would happen when they got there, and Peter said that he wouldn’t let it. He wanted to prevent this approach. He wanted a different one. He tried to get Jesus to not upset the authorities, not expose his weakness, not fall victim to the brutality of Roman rule.
How often do we do this to one another when we see injustice? When we see GOD’s sense of injustice? Don’t speak about the poor or let’s not get too political we tell each other. This isn’t the place. We say these things because we get uncomfortable, unsettled. We don’t want to offend anybody or get into a fight.
And yet every action Jesus takes in Holy Week is unsettling and politically motivated. Everything he does runs counter to the cultural and religious expectation. He offends the Jewish leadership and the Roman occupiers alike. He demonstrates in public on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday! He disrupts the Temple economic system and humiliates the hypocrisy of the establishment.
This week isn’t about comfort. It is specifically about being unsettled. It is the time in which our own view of the world and of order is supposed to be questioned. Because we have our own Temple authorities and our own Rome. This week is supposed to be tough!
And yet, here’s the other piece: Jesus didn’t call himself Messiah, but Son of Man, or better, the Human One. Jesus didn’t come to be a ruler to replace our rulers or as a general to replace our generals, but to help GOD do what the prophets describe often: to beat our swords into ploughshares. To bring the day when the lion lays down with the lamb. To bring peace, not through control and tightly-ruled order, but through love and systems of true justice.
We are supposed to be unsettled and moved and pushed by this week. We are supposed to be challenged by Jesus’s different sense of authority and get messed up by the fact that, let’s be honest, we want our leaders to look more like Rome than like Jesus: powerful and in command. We want our systems to look more like the clear boundaries of the Temple than the disruptive example of Jesus.
We can be unsettled this week precisely because we know what is going to happen. We know what Rome will ultimately do. We know what humans will do to the Human One. And we know what GOD will then do.
This week is not about us, and, despite what we might think, it isn’t even really about Jesus. It’s about GOD and what GOD is willing to do, what GOD is willing to risk and feel and become because of us. Because of a promise made thousands of years ago. A promise we’ve inherited and promise still given to us all.
I invite us to give this one week to GOD. This one week to be unsettled, to be thoughtful, to experience what we’re called to experience, to dream what we’re called to dream. A week of exploring and questioning our assumptions. A week of putting on hold our easy tendencies to dismiss what seems “too political” and to explore where GOD is trying to speak to us, to uproot us and plant us in better soil. Where GOD is giving us a chance to see what it is to fear disorder so much that injustice seems reasonable. Expected. Deserved.The way things are and always will be.
We take this week to think about that so we can gather next week prepared to dream about how different the world will be when GOD has unsettled us with it.