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Palm Sunday: How Disappointing

(Disclaimer: This is probably an 8 minute read due to the scripture portions and historical context. Hang in there and be formed!) Also, be sure to go to the Home page and subscribe to this blog.

Hear the word of the Lord from the Gospel of Matthew.

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.” This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:

“Say to Daughter Zion,

‘See, your king comes to you,

gentle and riding on a donkey,

and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.'"

The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?” The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.” Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, "My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.”

The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant. “Do you hear what these children are saying?” they asked him. “Yes,” replied Jesus, “have you never read, "From the lips of children and infants you, Lord, have called forth your praise?” And he left them and went out of the city to Bethany, where he spent the night.

- Matthew 21:1-17 NIV

Today is Palm Sunday. It is typically the day smiling children surprise us from the back of the sanctuary waving artificial branches, and proud parents frantically swipe up to open their camera and capture the moment. The scene looks like celebration, a miniature Easter, but that day was anything but a children’s story and only partially celebratory. The great Passover feast is within the week, and tens of thousands of Jewish pilgrims are ascending up to Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the holy city, the center of Yahweh’s covenant with his people, and Passover memorializes their release from slavery in Egypt and renews their hope of liberation once again. The atmosphere is like Fat Tuesday on Bourbon Street, and the energy, the smells, the open air more akin to a Super Bowl than a church service.

Jerusalem is occupied and controlled by the Roman Empire. Rome is the enemy, oppressing the Jewish people with high taxes and no political representation. Jews are left to spend their days in slavery to Rome, and as José Pagola writes, “Rome has taken the place of Egypt” (Jesus: An Historical Approximation, 339).

Some Jewish politicians have learned to work with Rome because complying is better than execution or losing what little power they have. For others there is a lingering longing with the Passover drawing near -- the coming Messiah, the kingly figure who would overthrow Rome, would restore power to the Jewish people and return to them the Temple and the holy city.

Just days before the Passover feast, Jesus rides in on a young donkey. It looks like fun and a mixture of reverence, play and innocence, something we may want to take a picture of, but in truth this is a protest. Jesus is mocking Rome with his satirical triumphal entry, and the collective Jewish mind recalls the prophecy in the book of Zechariah of how the Messiah would appear (take a brief pause to read Zechariah 9:9-17. No seriously, do it. You don’t have anywhere to be).

Here’s what is clear: It seems to those present that Jesus is arriving as the kingly Messiah to literally overthrow Rome, to reclaim Jerusalem and restore the dignity of the Jewish people. Everyone is shouting Hosanna! Salvation! This is the expectation - salvation - not a spiritual or a one-day-in-heaven kind of ethereal thing, but a right here, right now social/political/military overhaul.

Jesus makes his way to the Temple just as the prophecy implied. Salvation, justice and exaltation are near, but Jesus does not take control. There are no warring confrontations, but rather what may have resembled a bar fight as Jesus screams at the merchants and pilgrims selling and buying animals for sacrifice. He flips tables and benches, birds are flying free, and in full catharsis, and a deeply embodied moment Jesus says,

My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a den of robbers.

The disabled who saw came to him, maybe crawled to him, and Jesus healed them. And the children shouted in pure joy, Hosanna! Salvation! What an absolute disappointment to the Passover celebration except to the outcasts and children. And what a disappointment for us today. Jesus was not the one they wanted, and he’s likely not the one we want either. You see, we want Jesus to ride in on a donkey and we want people to wave palm branches, lay down their coats and throw confetti, because that makes us feel like everything is ok, like everything is back to normal. We’re fine with Jesus flipping a few tables to make a point as long as he’s not mad, just disappointed, and we want the children to shout Hosanna even if we don’t know what Hosanna means, or salvation as long as salvation is for our souls only.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been to many Palm Sunday services and not one has included anything about Jesus flipping tables or healing the blind and lame - I personally didn’t know these events were a part of this story. And I think this is because this is too disappointing, too small-scale, too human. It’s like we are the rich young ruler earlier in Jesus’ ministry who comes to him asking, what must I do to be a conqueror with you in the Kingdom of God? And Jesus responds with, lose everything you have. That young ruler went away disappointed and we too may come away from this Palm Sunday disappointed, because the tables he overturned are our tables, our jobs, our conveniences, our ways of controlling and manipulating life that may or may not benefit the poor.

I think Jesus has something to say to how world governments oppress, how our government oppresses us and millions around the world for the sake of being the greatest. I think Jesus has something to say to the institutional church for being largely uninvolved with the poor, for being so consumer driven and for spending 90% of their budget on Sunday performances. Jesus may have something to say to us who can afford to be apathetic and unaware of suffering, both our neighbors and our own. Jesus may have something to say about how we cross the street, or build new streets entirely to avoid those who are different. Jesus may have something to say about our rights, our assumed laws and economic practices that kill people. It may be hard to swallow, but Jesus isn’t the one we want, but maybe he is the one we need.

The coronavirus has turned life upside down. Some have experienced only moderate inconveniences and others have lost jobs and even dear friends and family. This Palm Sunday, the invitation is to lean into your disappointment, if not your disappointment then your neighbors’, and if still no one comes to mind then that may be worth mourning as well. Palm Sunday is not a time to half-heartedly waive our palm branches or sing hosanna from the teleprompter, but to allow our lives to be overturned, to let something visceral in us be set free, and to examine how numb we’ve grown, how controlling we’ve become and how easily we’ve ignored justice for those who don’t hold stock in our prophecies. If we cannot do this, it is possible Palm Sunday has nothing but another low budget celebration to offer.

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit



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