Palm Sunday, the traditional day of the celebration of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, presents us with an image of Jesus entering Jerusalem being celebrated by a large crowd who praised him as “he who comes in the name of the Lord” (Matthew 21:1-11).
In my native Brazil, I have seen dozens of children’s plays reproducing a form of the scene from this moment in Jesus’ life.
As a child, I never had the opportunity to act in church plays dressed as one of the people who spread tree branches on the road while shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David” as Jesus entered the city riding on a donkey.
Every time I saw those re-enactments, however, I imagined myself as a one of those participants in the crowds, celebrating Jesus as the King and rejoicing in his mission.
As I read the biblical text more carefully, however, I grew a sense of ambiguity toward the crowds.
That was because I realized the author of the Gospel of Matthew made no distinction between the crowds who praised Jesus’ entrance with palm trees and the crowd who chose to have him crucified soon afterward.
The crowds did praise Jesus saying, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” and the same “crowd” soon after shouted something else: “Let him be crucified!” (Matthew 27:22).
Matthew tells us it was “the chief priests and the elders” who persuaded the crowds to “destroy Jesus” (Matthew 27:20); it strikes me that it was through the mediation of religious leaders that the Jesus who was celebrated by the crowds was turned into the Jesus who had to be killed.
Mediations are important. These religious leaders were threatened by the radicality of Jesus’ message, and they wanted Jesus gone; the crowds obliged.
After I saw this tension in the Gospel narrative, I began to ask myself: Did the crowds actually know who they were celebrating with palm trees when Jesus was entering Jerusalem?
A significant characteristic of Jesus’ person and ministry, of course, is that he challenges aspects of our identity and culture that are very dear to us.
To celebrate Jesus as Lord – like the crowds appeared to do as he entered Jerusalem – is to commit to following his lead in giving his life for others.
In a society so inundated with nationalism, cutthroat capitalism and individualism, the ramifications of this commitment are many.
The COVID-19 pandemic – for all the challenges and threats it has brought to millions of people worldwide – is showing us the extent to which it is difficult to follow Christ’s lordship in sacrificing for others.
As a matter of fact, if some of the discourse provided by a number of government officials is a good thermometer of public opinion, many of us would rather have others (particularly the elderly and people who are at high risk of dying from this disease) sacrifice for us – as if the good of the almighty economy was our only possible ultimate concern. Barabbas can be such a tempting alternative.
Therefore, before we decide to celebrate the Lord on this Palm Sunday, let us first ask ourselves who this Lord is, lest we fall into the temptation to be manipulated into turning against the Lord by those who – not unlike the chief priests and elders who convinced the crowds to turn against Jesus – have their self-interest at odds with the way of the Lord.
The Lord we celebrate with our branches this Sunday is the God of love, who called us to love people as subjects, not as objects of the market.
The Lord to whom we cry out and shout “Hosanna to the Son of David” is the God of life, who told us whatever we do to the most vulnerable, we do to the divine.
The Lord riding on a donkey is the God who does not discriminate; the God who treats us with the same love, respect and acceptance independent of race, religion, class, gender or immigration status.
The Lord entering Jerusalem is the God of hope, who tells us we are victors in Christ.
The Lord rejected by the crowds is the God of forgiveness, for whom our shortcomings are nothing compared to God’s welcoming embrace. This is the Lord we celebrate on this Palm Sunday.
Let God be praised as we shout: “Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; hosanna in the highest.”
Editor’s note: This article is part of a weekly “Lenten Lectionary” series for Lent 2020. Each week, we will have an article reflecting on the lectionary texts for the forthcoming Sunday. Previous articles in the series were:
Lenten Lectionary | Are You Angry When Your Cheese is Moved? | Terrell Carter
Lenten Lectionary | Journeying with Jesus into the Wilderness | Merianna Harrelson
Lenten Lectionary | Your Lenten Journey to the Far Country | Richard Wilson
Lenten Lectionary | Will You Boldly Push the Boundaries? | Aurelia Davila Pratt
Lenten Lectionary | A Blind Man’s Journey to Believing in Jesus | Austin “Mack” Dennis
Lenten Lectionary | Grief and Presence Amid COVID-19 Virus | Julie Pennington-Russell
Associate Editor for “Perspectivas”—the Journal of the Hispanic Theological Initiative and is the author of the forthcoming book “The Global Mission of the Jim Crow South.” He holds a Ph.D. in religion from Baylor University.