This is familiar, yet unfamiliar. We have been here before—Palm Sunday. Yet, we are just barely coming out of a pandemic. Many people are still anxiously looking forward to getting a vaccine appointment, whereas more and more people keep telling me, “I just got my shot,” or, “I have an appointment to get one on Wednesday.”
We have heard this passage before. We know what’s coming. We are about to enter the holiest week of our Christian year. This story is in all four gospels. Today, we heard John’s version. It’s also in Matthew (21.1-9), Mark (11.1-10), and Luke (19.28-40). Raymond Brown offers a wonderful comparison and contradistinction between John and the synoptic gospels.[i] We’re not going to dissect the differences today. Instead, let’s focus on what John says.
A great crowd gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover Festival. This is where Jesus enters. Some people hear about it, see him, and take some palm branches. They wave them in the air and shout, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Yes! The King of Israel!”
The Greek word Ioudaioi has various interpretation. Rudolf Bultmann suggests that the Evangelist means humanity when using Israel in this sense. For him and the way he reads the entire Gospel John, “King of Israel” means the sinfulness of humanity, not a specific political entity.[ii] His interpretation makes sense when you consider places where John reveals this universal leaning. E.g., John 3.16, “For God so loved the world…”
As the people shout, “Hosanna,” Jesus finds a donkey and sits on its back. The scene of entering Jerusalem includes the tone of nationalism, especially in the synoptics. John is clearer. By placing Jesus on a donkey, he takes a “prophetic action designed to counteract [any hint of] nationalism.”[iii]
John combines a few Hebrew verses in the citation “Do not be afraid… Look your king is coming…” The point is to reassure John’s audience, and if we are part of that audience, John wants to reassure us that Jesus is the king and he is in our midst.[iv] Our reading ends with confusion. The disciples didn’t understand. Later, after the resurrection, it made sense. Right now, they were confused.
When we get to Palm Sunday, there can be something alluring about the fanfare. We love the celebration. People love Jesus. They shout their praises! Wouldn’t it be great to end the story here? We can’t. We have to move forward into Holy Week. And, we have to wrestle with something rooted deep within our tradition, the very fine line between love and hate. The people shouting, “Hosanna,” want to follow Jesus, but they don’t know what to do about it. The disciples, the ones who have been with him from the start, don’t understand. They remember what had been written about him. They still don’t fully get it.
What does it mean to follow Jesus? It means going through this week with him in real time. Next week, we celebrate Easter and the empty tomb, but before we get there, we remember this week and what Jesus has ahead of him. I intentionally put it in the present tense: we remember what Jesus has ahead of him. Go through each step. Live it. Appreciate it. And, think about what it means for your faith journey.
Jesus’ physical life is going to end. He will die. But here, on Palm Sunday, we have great cries of “Hosanna!” It seems like the celebration before the storm. It seems like the crowd at a great sporting event crying out for their team to win, getting worked up more and more, and then, when the game is over, they pour from the stadium into streets. And, instead of taking a deep breath and saying, “What a wonderful game,” they continue to get worked up. It doesn’t matter whether the team won or lost. The people are in a frenzy. You’ve seen scenes like that on the news—after the big game (World Series, Super Bowl, whatever) people turn over cars, set things on fire, and go completely nuts.
That fine line between love and hate has been blurred. They were just crying out for their team to win and make that final shot. Something happened in those closing seconds of the game and the love for their sport has changed to aggression. As scientists study this really thin line between love and hate, they find that the brain circuitry in both extreme emotions is the same, but hate retains some semblance of rationality.[v] The crowds of people, who are so excited, they love Jesus. They remember the miracles. They remember Lazarus. He was Jesus’ dear friend, and when Lazarus died, Jesus brought him back to life. He did it for God’s glory, not so Jesus could keep the band together.
You can imagine; the part of the story that got around was not necessarily the whole story: Jesus raised Lazarus to show God’s dominion over death. The only thing people remembered was that Jesus-guy raised some dude from the dead! Just like the frenzied sports fans who are only moments away from a riot, the crowd simply remembers the first part, the amazing part, the sensational part. Loving and following Jesus can be confusing because we want a victory. We want to win. We want a big triumph. We want Palm Sunday!
We don’t want a peace-loving carpenter who tells us to love our enemies. We want a big show, not someone who says, “Your faith has made you whole.” It’s easy to get carried away with the crowd, especially when Jesus is not doing what we want him to do. Of the characters in this passage, who retains some semblance of rationality in the face of extreme emotion? We don’t how Jesus felt about the situation. The Bible doesn’t tell us. It does tell us that the same people who will very soon be calling for his crucifixion break palm branches and wave them in celebration of the arrival of this superstar. It does seem to indicate that those who profess to love him can be quite fickle and change sides quickly.
Who stays rational? In the face of this celebration, this great expression of love, the Pharisees make a rational assessment of the situation. Just after our reading ends, they say in John 12.19, “This is getting us nowhere. The world is on a stampede after him. We’ll have to do something different.” The crowds—the ones who love Jesus—don’t seem to have a plan, and as the week unfolds, they are drawn away from their love, across the line, to hatred. They are the ones who will cry out, “Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him!”
Very few of us would actually read the Gospel and side with the Pharisees or Pontius Pilate. John, in fact, gives us a bit more detail about the exchange between Jesus and Pilate. But, each day, we make little decisions, we take little actions to side with the crowd and avoid the man on the donkey. Sometimes our decisions are not little. Sometimes our actions are not small. But, every one of us does it. We sing of our love for God. We proclaim our belief in a risen savior. Then, we turn around, set God on a shelf, and cry out, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” How? The answer is different for each one of us.
We have the opportunity to turn to God. We can confess our love of Palm Sunday and share with Jesus our fear of Good Friday. We can acknowledge to Jesus, “I don’t always know how to follow you. Sometimes I don’t know what you want me to do, but I trust you. And, I want to follow you.” We can celebrate Palm Sunday if we do so, not with the crowds, but with an eye toward Easter.
We commemorate Jesus’ entry, not in triumphalism, not in an earthly victory, but in order to make Jesus’ entry real for our present-day lives. We celebrate Palm Sunday by stepping away from the crowds and closer to Christ, by reaching out and placing our hands on the donkey, and saying: You are the one who I am going to follow, no matter where it takes me.
[i] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-Xii, ed. William F. Albright and David N. Freedman, vol. 29, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1966), 459-61.
[ii] John Ashton, “The Identity and Function of the Ioudaioi in the Fourth Gospel,” Novum testamentum 27, no. 1 (1985): 68.
[iii] Brown, 29, 463.
[iv] Brown, 29, 458.