If you love irony, Palm Sunday’s for you.
This coming Sunday, one week before Easter, Christians around the globe will remember Jesus’ short trip from Bethany to Jerusalem five days before his crucifixion.
We call it Palm Sunday because of what happened during that trip. The scene crystallized in my mind when I was no more than 5 or 6. Our Sunday School teacher held up a painting of Jesus riding bareback on a colt. What caught my eye were all the other people. I loved how happy they looked as they worshipped Jesus. They lined both sides of the trail ahead of him. Faces radiant, they laid palm branches–symbols of military victory–in the road to make the passage smoother for the Lord.
Their expectant words, echoing Psalm 118, have reverberated down through the generations: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the King of Israel!”
For centuries, Christians have called this trip Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem. To the contrary, it was a parade of pain. Only Luke records that Jesus wept when the journey ended. Not because the party was over, but because the people just didn’t get it. “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace,” the Lord said, “but now it is hidden from your eyes.”
No, they didn’t know what would bring them peace. How could all those people be so nearly right and so completely wrong?
On the surface–the view from that Sunday School painting for children–Palm Sunday seems wonderful. A smiling, cheering throng lining the road as Jesus journeys to Jerusalem. They shout words we know to be true: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the King of Israel!” That’s our Savior they’re talking about. We know he not only “comes in the name of the Lord” but is indeed Lord. We know he not only is “King of Israel” but King of all creation. We wish we could’ve been there, to join that happy crowd, to glimpse Jesus.
But those palm fronds give away the bitter, ironic truth. Sure, the crowd cut them down and laid them in the road to smooth his path. But they might as well have thrown stones at his pony, for all the good they did him.
The palm branches signaled their expectation of a military victory. Here they were, captive in their own homeland. Foreign soldiers ordered and organized their society. The boot of Rome crushed their necks. These people came out to cheer for Jesus, the miracle-working rabbi from Nazareth, because they wanted him to overthrow their oppressors. They expected Jesus to lead an uprising of military and political liberation, not to lay down his life as a spiritual sacrifice for Romans as well as Jews.
The Palm Sunday crowd loved Jesus for what they expected him to be, not for what he was. That “love” evaporated between Sunday morning, when he rode into Jerusalem, and Thursday night, when the Roman and Jewish leaders collaborated to try him for treason. Even his hand-picked followers, who had spent three years watching him perform miracles and listening to him teach, fled in fear.
Vanity tempts us to judge them harshly. We know “the rest of the story”–yes, he died on a Roman cross later that week, but he arose from the grave the following Sunday and defeated death, offering eternal life to all who will believe in him. So, we condemn their hard-hearted spiritual blindness. We can’t understand why they couldn’t get it.
Ironically, not all that much has changed in 2,000 years. People still love Jesus for what they want him to do for them, not necessarily what his heavenly Father sent him to Earth to do, which was to offer spiritual healing to all people, eternal life to “whosoever will” embrace him in faith.
Like the crowd who lined the road from Bethany to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, we’re tempted to succumb to the selfish chromosome in our human DNA. We want to turn Jesus into a national mascot, a denominational totem, a personal genie. Like they did so long ago, we still project our desire upon God’s will and proclaim it to be the truth. But if they were wrong, we might be too.
Put it this way: How often have you heard someone claim to know the absolute “will of the Lord” when that divine will didn’t also happen to be in the best interest of the one making the proclamation? That may run true to human nature, but it runs counter to the spirit of Christ. Yet we live in an age when everyone from politicians to pundits to preachers claims holy sanction for personal agendas.
This Palm Sunday, we need to remember the crowd that lined Jesus’ path. We need to remember the palm branches and allow them to remind us how little that crowd understood Jesus’ mission, how wrong they were. But rather than look back in smug satisfaction, we need to pray for humility and ask God to grant us vision to superimpose God’s will for our lives and this world over our own selfish desires.
Pastor/preacher/professor Fred Craddock warns against making Palm Sunday a “false Easter.” We’ll have time for celebrating Jesus’ resurrection a week later. Palm Sunday remains part of Lent, a season of repentance. May we ask God to forgive us for projecting our will upon his and to help us live in humility before him and with others.
Marv Knox is editor of the Baptist Standard. Used by permission.
Coordinator of Fellowship Southwest, an intentionally ecumenical, multicultural, multiracial Cooperative Baptist Fellowship network, and a member of Good Faith Media’s strategic advisory board for news and opinion.