TODAY is an extraordinary day – Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week, the most impact-full time in the whole Gospel story.
On Palm Sunday, Christians remember Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem for the final days of his ministry before he died on the cross and rose to new life. Palm Sunday is the first day of Holy Week, the week before Easter, in which we are encouraged to reflect on the stories of this important time in Jesus’ life and our faith. This reflection was inspired by the account in the Gospel of Matthew [21:1-11], and preached as part of my training as a Methodist preacher.
How do you imagine Jesus entering Jerusalem?
The power of this story inspired poet Adrian Henri to write a poem and paint a picture about what it might be like if Jesus entered the city of Liverpool, where I live. Adrian imagined Jesus walking with all kinds of local folk in 1964, including The Beatles, jazz musician George Melly, and poet Roger McGough.
How do you imagine Jesus entering your city today?
As a child, growing up in a church-going family and attending a church school, the stories of Holy Week were familiar to me, or so I thought at the time. We celebrated Jesus entering Jerusalem in triumph on Palm Sunday; reflected on love and service on Thursday as we remembered Jesus’ last meal with his friends before his betrayal; mourned for his death on Friday; and celebrated Jesus’ power over death and call to life after death on Sunday. It wasn’t always clear what this meant for life before death. Easter is the greatest feast of the Christian year, yet it’s often less celebrated, and less understood, than Christmas.
As a child, I was curious about why the people of Jerusalem appears to rejoice at Jesus’ arrival at the start of the week, and turned against him just five days later. There’s a verse in the hymn, My song is love unknown, which powerfully sums up this dramatic change:
Sometimes they strew His way,– My song is love unknown, Samuel Crossman, 1664
And His sweet praises sing;
Resounding all the day Hosannas to their King:
Then “Crucify!” Is all their breath,
And for His death They thirst and cry.
Biblical historians disagree on the exact order of events during what we now know as Holy Week. It’s not even clear whether they all happened in a week, or over a longer period of time. Here’s one possible timeline, which shows just how intense a period this was in the lives of Jesus and his followers.
However, the exact sequence of events is not as important as what they meant to the followers of Jesus, and why they have been handed down to us in this way.
New Testament scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, in their book The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Last Days in Jerusalem, wrote that the story of Holy Week should
‘shape our understanding of Jesus and thus our understanding of what it means to be Christian – of what it means to follow him, to follow “the way” that he revealed and embodied.’
They argue that what most Christians know about Holy Week centres on Good Friday and Easter, Jesus’s death and resurrection. But there is so much more to the story of Holy Week, starting with this procession on what we now call Palm Sunday at the start of a week full of challenges, miracles, and mysteries.
The story we hear today may be familiar: it is the beginning of the week in which the Jewish people prepared to celebrate Passover, the festival which commemorates their liberation from slavery, as recorded in the book of Exodus.
Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey and people cheer him, shouting:
‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’
‘Hosanna’ in Hebrew means ‘Save us!’ Calling Jesus ‘Son of David’ meant that they believed He was the Messiah, the long-awaited liberator of the Jewish people, the fulfillment of their prophecies. They were praising Him and calling on Him to save them.
Many Jewish people believed the Messiah would be a mighty warrior who would overthrow their oppressors. Yet within days Jesus would die at the hands of those oppressors. The Gospel writers don’t tell us whether anyone in the crowd on that first Palm Sunday understood what Jesus was really doing. Some expected revolution – an ending to the story worthy of their praise and worship, cloaks and palms on the road. But He was not who they thought He would be. He would liberate them, but in ways they could not imagine.
What I had never noticed, despite celebrating this story every year, was that it’s not the people of Jerusalem who cheer Jesus’ arrival. Matthew the Gospel writer tells us: ‘When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”’ It’s the people who have followed Jesus from Galilee who cheer his arrival. He came surrounded by a bunch of disciples: tax collectors, fishermen, farmers. He came followed by people whose blind eyes had been made to see; who had been healed after years of bleeding; whose withered legs could walk again; who had been brought to life again. His was the procession of the humble and meek. This Jesus was not the governor of an earthly empire, but king of a strange kind of kingdom where the last would be first, and the first, last; where the meek, not the powerful, would inherit the earth; where the kingdom belongs to the peacemakers.
What I also didn’t know is that a procession of Roman imperial troops was also entering Jerusalem from the other side of the city. It had happened every year throughout Jesus’ life. The Roman governor of Judea at that time was Pontius Pilate (a name you may recall from his role in the trial of Jesus on Good Friday). He rode up to Jerusalem from his coastal residence in the west to be present in the city, in case there were riots at Passover – the Jewish festival that swelled Jerusalem’s population from its usual 50,000 to at least 200,000. The governor came to remind the Jewish pilgrims that Rome was in charge. Because Passover celebrates the Jews freeing themselves from Egyptian rule, Passover was the time when there were the most riots protesting Roman imperial rule. Many Romans believed that the emperor was not simply the ruler of Rome; he was also the Son of God. So for the empire’s Jewish subjects, Pilate’s procession represented a military threat and a rival theology. Resistance (if anyone dared to consider it) was futile; Rome was watching. With Pilate came extra soldiers to keep the peace, with force if necessary
Pilate’s procession proclaimed the power of empire – its purpose was to intimidate. But what about Jesus’ procession, his entry into the same city, at the same time?
Jesus would have known about the arrival of Pilate and the additional troops because it was the regular practice of the Roman government. This makes his entry into the city, in this way and at this time, even more significant.
Jesus’ procession was not a simple coincidence, or an act of spontaneous adoration from his followers. It wasn’t a last-minute decision, as if he decided to ride a donkey because he was tired, or wanted people to be able to see him better. He planned it in advance. He told his disciples to bring him a female donkey and her little foal – a most unthreatening, un-military way to arrive in the city. Jesus deliberately called to mind the symbolism of prophecy. Riding a donkey into Jerusalem echoes a passage from the prophet Zechariah:
‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey’ (9:9).
In the next verse, we learn that this prophecy is of a king who:
‘will proclaim peace to the nations’ (9.10).
Jesus was not a military ruler, or a lord who desired praise and worship, but a prophet who called for peaceful but risky engagement against real-world injustice, and the Son of God who called for the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ procession stood in political and theological contrast to the Roman procession that same day.
That year, as Jerusalem prepared for Passover, those two very different processions entering Jerusalem proclaimed two contrasting visions of how this world can and should be: the powers of this world, bringing domination, exploitation and violence, and the kingdom of God, promising justice, mercy and the end of violence.
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, on this day, and in this way, was a carefully prepared political demonstration. Holy Week began with a peace protest.
So Palm Sunday announces the central conflict of the full story of Holy Week. As Paul wrote in the first letter to the Corinthians:
‘None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.’– 1 Corinthians 2:8
This conflict continues wherever we find injustice and violence. For we still live in a two procession world. Our history is full of Caesar-like leaders who – in contrast to the peace and mercy of God’s kingdom – establish empires of their own power and violence, often while claiming God’s blessing and authority.
But the Jesus procession is also still marching today, in the kind of peaceful, but stubborn non-violence that inspired leaders such as Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandala: the quiet, unshakable display of humility, gentleness, and commitment to the kingdom of God. The Jesus procession continues any time any one of us, in whatever quiet, humble, modest way, stands up for right, makes a choice for peace, shares what we have, shows solidarity with a fellow human, and holds out a hand.
Palm Sunday is also known as ‘Passion Sunday’ – the word ‘passion’ comes from a Latin word meaning ‘suffering’ or ‘enduring’, It has been used in Christian history to refer to Jesus’s suffering and death. In some churches they read the story of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion on this day.
But the word ‘passion’ also has a broader meaning – passion can also be a strong feeling, of enthusiasm, excitement, anger or desire. Focussing on the suffering of Jesus is important, but it’s not the whole story. We might miss what Jesus was passionate about.
Jesus was passionate about how God was central to His life, and about God’s kingdom. It was His passion for the kingdom of God – justice, mercy and the end of violence – that led to his conflict with the powers of this world – domination, exploitation and violence – and the suffering he endured as a result.
Jesus’ peaceful political protest most likely hastened his crucifixion. He must have known what it could cost him. God’s will was that Jesus declare the coming of God’s kingdom, of peace, justice and freedom, drastically opposed to the oppressive and violent empire Jesus challenged on Palm Sunday. As Marcus Borg says:
On Friday, the rulers of this world kill Jesus. On Easter, God says ‘yes’ to Jesus and ‘no’ to the powers that executed him.
Jesus died because he unflinchingly fulfilled the will of God, pointing to truths that the powers of this world would rather we did not see. Even when he knew that his vocation would cost him his life, he accepted the role of the suffering servant in the prophecy of Isaiah, and set his face ‘like flint’ towards Jerusalem [Isaiah 50:7]. It’s an image the prophet uses to describe the Messiah’s unwavering determination to persevere in the excruciating task set before Him.
For Jesus and his disciples, their procession into Jerusalem was the moment their faith truly entered the public eye and the risks became real. It was the moment they took a very public stand against the empire, against violence, oppressive power, and broken theology.
We can join in this procession, too, though we now know where it’s heading: straight into Holy Week, towards the cross. It’s not just a parade of worship and celebration, but a path toward self-sacrifice, of love that empties itself in service, calling for humility and obedience, even until death.
But of course the Jesus procession doesn’t end at the cross. As Psalm 118 tells us, the procession leads to the gates of righteousness, where God’s steadfast love endures forever, and we may enter and give thanks.
So Palm Sunday is about making a very public choice between those two processions, those two kingdoms.
Palm Sunday destroys any notion that Christianity is just an otherworldly religion, concerned only with life after death. On Palm Sunday, Jesus goes public and calls his disciples to live their lives and make their witness in the world. Here, now.
To make a choice. To pick a side. God’s way, or Caesar’s way.
The way of mercy and compassion, or the way of judgment and bitterness.
The way of generosity, or the way of scarcity.
The way of better together, or the way of going it alone.
For us, on this Palm Sunday: the choice is still with us.
Now, how do you imagine it if Jesus came to your city today? Is it different from before?
Which procession, which kingdom, will I choose?
Sometimes I’d rather just wave a palm branch, sing a few ‘Hosannas’ and go home. The actual praise and worship Jesus invites me to practice, on this Palm Sunday and every day, is far riskier; his donkey ride cost him everything. I dare not join this Palm Sunday procession too casually.