Palm Sunday’s a big deal in most churches.
It should be, it’s the beginning of what’s called Holy Week, the week that also includes Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, leading to Easter. It’s pretty much the only time we can chronologically follow Jesus’ story day to day. Sunday, Jesus rides triumphantly into Jerusalem on a donkey while the crowds shout “hosanna” and wave palm branches (hence the name); Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday (depending on the gospel) include Jesus throwing the money changers out of the Temple, teaching, altercations with the Temple authorities and other interesting things; Wednesday may also include the story of Judas selling out Jesus to the Temple authorities, earning the name Spy Wednesday in some traditions; Maundy (meaning “commandment” from the story in John’s gospel) Thursday includes the Last Supper, Jesus washing the disciples feet, praying and the arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane; Good Friday is the trial, crucifixion, death and placing in the tomb; Saturday’s the Sabbath, leading to Easter, the day of resurrection.
Busy week. And that’s just an embarrassingly brief synopsis. So you should read the story in the gospels, day to day. No, really, you should. It’s a profound and amazing story, made all the more so by the four different views of the gospels.
From our 21st century perspective, one of the questions most bothersome to people about this story is how the people turned against Jesus so quickly. There was cheering and celebrating his arrival on Sunday and by Friday, they demanded his death. To quote Pilate, of all people: “what evil has he done?”
Of course, the Temple authorities had been working for some time to get rid of Jesus. He was a threat to their power. Herod also saw Jesus as a threat. Pilate doesn’t seem to have thought Jesus was a threat to the Empire, but even if the Romans did, Jesus preaching about peace and loving your enemy would not have been as significant as the numerous armed rebels and zealots like Barabbas. Still, the Temple and Herod could be persuasive, especially if the people could be convinced that someone foolishly claiming to be King of the Jews would bring only trouble, not freedom.
And I don’t think that would have been too hard for them, either. That brings me back to Palm Sunday and how Luke tells the story.
The story I summarized above with the most familiar features of what we named “Palm Sunday” isn’t how Luke describes it. In the gospel of Luke, it’s not a donkey, it’s a colt that Jesus rides, there are no palm branches being waved and no one shouts “hosanna.” Even the crowd isn’t a crowd of average citizens on the street happily welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem, but rather a crowd of disciples, followers who, well, follow him in, cheering on the way.
In Luke’s story, Jesus rides a colt into Jerusalem from the direction of Mt. Olivet and the crowd of disciples lay down their cloaks and coats to make a path in front of him, a “red carpet” fit for a king. That’s exactly what the story is meant to portray: the prophet Zechariah foretold that this is how the messiah would arrive at Jerusalem (Zech. 9 and 14). “Your king,” says Zechariah, will come to Jerusalem from the direction of Mt. Olivet, riding a colt, and bring peace, ruling from sea to sea and restoring double what they had. That’s right, double.
The other gospels tell this story, Matthew even mentions Zechariah by name, but Luke leaves out the hosannas and a wider crowd waving palms (the only thing handy) in celebration. Instead, the disciples following Jesus shout “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” and “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” That’s reminiscent of the angels announcing Jesus’ birth back in Luke 2:14.
Here’s why I think it’s important that Luke tells the story this way. For Luke, it’s not just about announcing the arrival of the king that was promised, it’s also that Jesus isn’t at all what was expected.
It’s a conversation we often have at Christmas: the kind of messiah the people expected was a warrior king with mighty armies that would overthrow the oppressors by force and re-establish the power and glory of mighty Israel. The people would be rich and prosperous again, enemies would be vanquished and the king would reign over all, from sea to sea.
What they got was a baby in a manger, the child of poor parents from a backwater town in an occupied country. Not a great prospect for fulfilling their idea of the prophecy.
And here’s that same king, preaching love for all (even enemies), healing for the sick, compassion for the broken, care for the poor, calling for justice, inviting relationship.
I imagine that by the end of the week there might well have been more than the eleven chosen disciple that would speak for Jesus. But it couldn’t have been difficult to convince people that he simply didn’t deliver what he promised and that should be the end of him.
But it wasn’t. And it isn’t. Even though we have walked this same journey over and over again - and still do - the darkness of the end of the week still gives way to the light of the resurrection morning. Love wins.