Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is a public matter. It is out in the open, for all to see. And Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, into the capital city, is also and absolutely a political matter. And—this is important—it was no informal, unplanned, spur of the moment, happenstance. Jesus planned it out, mapped it out, orchestrated it … down to the last detail.
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem—the idea of it, the pageantry (or, perhaps, the anti-pageantry), the symbolism—was no more an accident than the 1963 March on Washington was an accident. No more an accident than Rosa Parks’ refusal to move that day on that bus was an accident.
Jesus had been leading up to this. Had prepared for this. Had prepared his followers for this.
His street theatre was staged … a staged parody of power. If power looks like a king on a stomping steed … if power looks like gleaming swords and shields, helmets, and lances … if power looks like violence, or at the least, the threat of violence … well, Jesus has something else to say … a different kind power to proclaim … a different way to live together powerfully.
Kings, emperors, and potentates declare war. Jesus declares peace.
Power pronounces judgment. Jesus decrees mercy.
This day, this parade, this parody and drama would be the most overt, blatant political act of Jesus’ life.
Which is why Palm Sunday matters. It matters to Christians, to the church. We have to reckon with it.
Let’s set the scene. It takes place in the ancient city of Jerusalem during the annual Passover festival. Passover commemorates the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt, and their transition from slavery to freedom.
The city is swollen with visitors hailing from all over the world. Every room is rented at a premium. Grocers’ shelves are stocked to capacity. The weather has turned fine and everyone is out of doors. The lanes are jammed with pedestrians. Visitors and pilgrims are readily identifiable by their clothing and by their manners … by the bundles tied to their backs and by the way they meander up and down the streets, pausing, gazing, and pointing.
Merchants sell their wares—exotic foods, trinkets, souvenirs—on street corners and in public squares. Musicians and street performers, like magnets, lure knots of people who gather, gape, laugh, and applaud.
The atmosphere sizzles and pulses. It’s as if the whole exotic world has come to Jerusalem. Expectation is in the air.
And, to keep the peace, soldiers are everywhere, on every corner. Helmeted, armed, armor gleaming, astride steeds or on foot—they patrol the streets in pairs.
Enter Jesus. He is bobbing up and down on the back of a donkey. His toes are touching the ground. Enter, Jesus’ followers. They are a motley lot: clad in homespun. Poor as church mice. There is no pomp here. No circumstance. No wealth on display. No shining, blasting trumpets to herald the guy on the donkey. There’s no power here not really.
Except maybe, the power of art, the power of street theatre, of satire, of political commentary.
Not everyone there knows it, not yet, but I’ll let you in on the secret. I’ll give you a sneak peek at the ending … a plot twisting ending. Here’s the secret: Jesus—who plays the jester this day—Jesus will get the last laugh.
Back to the story: the followers of Jesus are waving branches and cheering and proclaiming Jesus as king.
What? Back up! Did you get that? King? But the empire already has an Emperor! Who then is this new king, this contender … this pre-tender?
Jesus’s gotten their attention now! He’s stirred the pot. Matthew writes: “the whole city is shaken … is in turmoil.”
Made aware of all the commotion, soldiers ride over to investigate the fuss: steeds snorting, armor gleaming, swords flashing, and this: crests bearing Caesar’s proud and commanding image.
It is against this display of power and authority—against and in defiance of it—that Jesus’ street drama announces something seditious: He’s come to challenge Caesar. Jesus asserts his own claim. He makes his own play for the throne … and for the throne of our hearts, for our allegiance.
On the streets of Jerusalem—in front of God and Rome and everybody— the followers of Jesus announce and proclaim that they do homage, not to the Pax Romana (an uneasy peace achieved and held by coercive force) but to Pax Christi, a peace to which we are invited, but never coerced … a peace which emanates from the very heart of God; a peace that passes all human understanding.
This is the day the followers of Jesus come out of the closet, as it were. This is they day they shout in public that they belong to God and not to Caesar … which, in their case, is nothing less than an act of sedition.
The Palm Sunday story has pride of place in all four gospels because this is the day Jesus’ followers go public, go political with their faith, their commitments.
This is the day the church distances itself from the state, from all worldly power. This is the day the church takes up and wields its own unearthly powers … powers which are subversive of national laws, disruptive of state and federal regulations.
What unearthly powers are these? Love of enemies. Forgiveness of sinners. Grace to the unworthy. Mercy to the guilty. Welcome to the stranger, to the immigrant and the alien. Freedom for the oppressed. The beating of into swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks to work the earth, plant food and flowers, instead of killing each other. The opening of the prisons to let the oppressed go free. Oh, and this: freely, generously, feeding the hungry for the simple fact of their hunger. And this: healing those who are broken in body, mind or spirit for the simple fact of their brokenness.
On Palm Sunday the gauntlet is thrown. The challenge is issued.
Earthly authority, here. The powers and principalities, here.
Over there: Jesus.
And you, Christian, where are your loyalties? To whom do you pay homage?
These palms branches are symbols subversive of nation, defiant of state. We bear them and wave them as sign and symbol of our fealty to the Gospel of mercy and to the Prince of Peace.