What are we celebrating on Palm Sunday?
By Tim Geddert
Palm Sunday is a day of pomp and pageantry. Many church sanctuaries are decorated with palm fronds. I’ve even been in a church that literally sent a donkey down the aisle with a Jesus-figure on it. We cheer with the crowds—shout our hosannas—praising God exuberantly as Jesus the king enters the royal city.
But if Matthew, the gospel writer, attended one of our Palm Sunday services, I fear he would respond in dismay, “Don’t you get it?” We call Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem “The Triumphal Entry,” and just like the Jerusalem crowds, we fail to notice that Jesus is holding back tears.
Jesus did not intend for this to be a victory march into Jerusalem, a political rally to muster popular support or a publicity stunt for some worthy project. Jesus was staging a protest—a protest against the empire-building ways of the world.
The script for Jesus’ dramatic action is found in Zechariah. Matthew makes this unmistakably clear (Matt. 21:1-11). Zechariah refers to “a colt, the foal of a donkey,” and since the script has Jesus on a donkey that is what it must be. And two of them, if necessary.
The crowds have read Zechariah’s script…well, part of it, at least. I quote from Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious….” (TNIV)
If that were the end of the text, we might well say, “Good for you, Jerusalem crowds. Shout it out. Cry your hosannas! You got it! Jesus is playing his scripted role, and you are playing yours.” But really, they don’t get it.
Jesus’ script has him coming, “triumphant and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey.” The crowds somehow manage to ignore the animal on which Jesus rides and thus misunderstand the script that Jesus is following.
They are sure Jesus is coming to restore their national fortunes. They are certain that his popular appeal can be turned into political advantage. They envision the day his ability to rally the troops will pay handsome dividends. Here is someone who can get them out of the mess they are in.
And Jesus weeps! Each of the Gospel writers hints that Jesus is on a completely different wavelength than the celebrating crowds, or for that matter than the 12 men who are supposed to be his faithful followers. Matthew does it by telling us in the previous chapter that Jesus’ followers are still completely oblivious to what lies ahead. They are still competing for positions of power left and right of the soon-to-be world ruler.
Mark does it by having this so-called Triumphal Entry lead directly to the fateful temple inspection that confirms all Jesus’ suspicions. The entire religious establishment is a sham, and it will stop at nothing to stay that way, even if that means making protesters pay with their lives. Luke does it by directly reporting Jesus’ tears: “(Jerusalem, Jerusalem), if you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace” (Luke 19:42). John does it by bluntly saying that Jesus’ followers just didn’t get it, nor would they until after the resurrection—and then just as bluntly reporting Jesus’ response: “Now my soul is troubled!” (John 12:27)
No wonder. This was not supposed to be a parade. It was supposed to be a protest march, or rather a protest ride. After all, that is what the script calls for.
Reasons to rejoice
The script does indeed call for Israel to rejoice, but not in the mistaken hope that the oppressors will finally be wiped out of the land. Israel is called to rejoice that a king is coming, one who will spread peace through nonviolence, who will cut off the chariots, break the battle bows and spread another kind of dominion from sea to sea. But the crowds don’t read past the opening lines, and so they cheer.
Jesus understands the script. So he recruits not a warhorse but a humble donkey. And he knows where this protest ride will take him. The principalities and powers, the powerful leaders of institutionalized religion and the combined ingenuity of local and foreign politicians, ultimately representatives of the world empire, will conspire to wipe out this dangerous peacemaker. But God will have the last word.
So Jesus recruits a donkey and rides humbly into Jerusalem. People cheer as though they cannot distinguish a donkey from a warhorse. And Jesus weeps.
What about us?
So why do we sing praises this day? Why do we not weep with Jesus?
If we are cheering along with the crowds, Jesus will continue to weep. But if we cheer for very different reasons, then a smile of resurrection joy will spread across our Savior’s face!
On Palm Sunday, if we really don’t get it, then I suppose we can just continue cheering along with the crowds. We can misunderstand this Prince of Peace. We can explain away his call to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us. We can turn a blind eye to the fact that Jesus practices what he preaches and is killed because of it. We can say, “This is no way to run the world! We want someone with power and charisma. We want someone who will look out for our national security, who’ll make our nation strong, who’ll rally us and make us proud of ourselves once more!”
In fact, we can cheer because we really don’t know what to do with Easter week—all that morbid stuff about suffering and blood and death and complicated theories about how this saves us from our sin. We could cheer because the crowds around us are cheering—and Jesus will continue to weep.
But if we understand what Jesus is doing, we can cheer for a different reason. We can cheer because we see in Jesus the one who turns the world upside down, or rather right side up, by identifying with the weak and helpless, by loving and forgiving where others only condemn, by turning the other cheek where others strike back, by transforming hearts where others impose rules, by absorbing violence rather than resorting to it.
We can cheer because we have seen in this Jesus our only hope for the kind of peace that really matters and that ultimately lasts. We can cheer because we are given the privilege of following him, of saying “yes” even if that means carrying a cross. We can cheer because, having made this decision, having begun to walk that road, we are also experiencing the resurrection life to which that path inevitably leads.
We can cheer because Jesus takes the risky and vulnerable road and demonstrates that it leads to glory on the other side of the cross. And because we have the privilege of joining his protest ride, and his death march, and his walk right out of the tomb.
More triumphs ahead
I think we should keep on calling this the Triumphal Entry because we know about Jesus’ Triumphal Exit, right out of the tomb…and then his even greater Triumphal Re-Entry into our world as the one who conquers violence and death, that greater Triumphal Entry that we will be celebrating on Easter Sunday and then again on Pentecost. And so we can celebrate already. We celebrate not with the crowds who did not get it, but with Jesus who did. For Jesus, despite the tears in his eyes, has something of a smile on his face. He knows there is suffering up ahead, but “for the joy set before him, he is willing to endure the cross!” (Heb. 12:2)
And so, despite our own tears, we also rejoice! We rejoice greatly, we shout aloud, we cry hosanna, we sing our songs of praise. Not because we misunderstand, but because we look back on the day we are celebrating today, from our vantage point beyond the resurrection. We celebrate because we have begun to understand. We understand that the way of the donkey, not the way of the warhorse, leads to the goal.
So we join Jesus as he cuts off the chariots, breaks the battle bows, reshapes swords into plowshares and rides a donkey to protest a world gone mad. We weep still, but not as those who have no hope. And we journey on, riding our donkeys, entering that kingdom of peace that shall one day rule the world!
Tim Geddert is professor of New Testament at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary, formerly MB Biblical Seminary, and is a member of the U.S. Conference Board of Faith and Life. He and his wife, Gertrud, are raising their family to be bilingual and bicultural (North American and German). Geddert has written several books and many articles and frequently teaches and preaches abroad, especially in Switzerland and Germany.
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