“They took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the King of Israel!’”[Keep Reading]
I have a confession. Palm Sunday is confusing. It functions more like a parable than a celebration and it leaves me conflicted.
The crowd that shouts “Hosanna, Hosanna” this week shouts “Crucify Him, Crucify Him” next week. I’m not sure how to count myself a part of one without admitting I’m part of the other.
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem in our text turns out to be something of a parody of the Maccabean Revolt (1 Maccabees 13:51); about 150 years earlier Judas Maccabeus had led the Israeli victory over the Syrian occupation. The Syrian ruler, Antiochus, had killed thousands of Jews and desecrated the temple by sacrificing a pig on the altar, forcing the priests to eat its flesh. The successful revolt against Antiochus made Judas Maccabee a hero. The crowds celebrated his victory by waving palm branches. Judas, called “The Hammer,” stamped the image of palm branches into coins to commemorate the victory.
Clearly, the crowd in this week’s text is hoping for something similar. And who can blame them? They’ve suffered unmercifully.
There are two quietly subversive details in the text that function as a counter narrative to the violent drama unfolding. These details mute the celebration of this day and help us reexamine what’s really going on.
The first detail is the most obvious. Jesus rides on a donkey, which represents peace (Zech 9:9). Whatever revolution Jesus is brewing, it will not be achieved through military might.
Secondly, at the end of the parade, when Jesus enters Jerusalem, nothing happens. He turns around and leaves. Presumably, the crowd is crestfallen and walks away disappointed, perhaps embarrassed at Jesus’ cowardice, which is nothing like the courage of Judas “The Hammer.” Of course, the next day Jesus cleanses the temple, and this no doubt awakens the revolutionary fervor. But even this is an unusual revolt, as he rids the temple of all sacrificial victims. Once again, the revolution falls flat.
Perhaps these details provide some hints as to how the shouts of “Hosanna, Hosanna,” this week, become “Crucify Him, Crucify Him” the next.
But let’s look a bit deeper.
What if we consider these two shouts as primal prayers of the soul? What if these two shouts reveal something important about what it means to be human? What if, instead of dismissing them, Jesus is answering them to the fullest, transforming these shouts into life-giving whispers of peace?
Hosanna means, “save us!” It is a desperate plea for help. If there is a requirement to becoming fully human this is it—the simple recognition that we are powerless to save ourselves. Of course, as part of the crowd who has suffered under oppression, we have ideas about what shape our salvation should take. When we discover that Jesus is not going to fulfill our hammer-like plans, things turn ugly. And yet, the grace note can be heard in the shout itself. It’s a guttural prayer for help. As all twelve step programs insist, it is the first step towards salvation. Save us, O God.
“Crucify Him, Crucify Him.”
This is the shout we try to keep hidden because it reveals the lie of our own innocence. Suffering the loss of this lie is painful. But like all dark prayers, this too must see the light of day if we are to be healed. What feels to us like Jesus’ failure to answer our first prayer gives rise to the second. We take matters into our own hands. The one who rides the colt this week will be lifted up on the cross next week. Jesus becomes the victim of our own unhealed thirst for vengeance.
I’m sorry if this sounds too dark on what is supposed to be a festive Sunday, but given the state of our world, and the violence that sits beneath the surface of our souls, it seems that we would do well to darken things up a bit and get honest with ourselves about what’s really going on.