The Palm Sunday narrative is one of the few that is included in all four Gospels. We read the version in John. But there are significant differences. Matthew and John quote Zechariah’s saying about the king of Jerusalem riding on the colt of a donkey. All of them have the words of praise that greeted Jesus, which are quoted from Psalm 118: “Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of the Lord” (verses 25-26).
The word hosanna comes from two Hebrew words, hôshia nā, which became ὡσαννά in Greek. It literally means “save, we pray,” as in Psalm 118. This word was used during the Feast of Tabernacles (or Sukkot). Once a day during the feast, worshipers would walk around the altar and say, “Save now, we beseech thee, O Lord! We beseech thee, O Lord, send now prosperity!” When the priest reached a certain point in the ceremony, a trumpet sounded and all the people waved branches of palms, myrtles, willows, etc. Since Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem takes place around Passover, rather than the Feast of Tabernacles, it is unclear why the crowd would wave palm branches and shout “hosanna.” Ironically, it is salvation that Jesus brought – but not the kind the people were singing about.
Clearly we have on Palm Sunday a mammoth demonstration of God’s politics. And if these confrontational words and actions were not enough, the very entry of Jesus into Jerusalem was full of potent symbolism. Jesus taught in parables. His miracles were parables. His entire life was a parable. Remember, the Word became flesh – a living, acting person! Paul wrote that we should be imitators of Christ – who, though he was God, emptied himself, lowered himself, even to death on the cross.
The symbolism of Palm Sunday was deep. Jesus entered from the east, from the Mount of Olives. In contrast, the Roman governor – Pilate at that time – lived on the Mediterranean coast in Caesarea, and thus entered Jerusalem from the west, riding on an impressive stallion and accompanied by an impressive show of military pomp and might. Most people likely stood silent as they watched the military procession. The contrast with Jesus’ entry couldn’t be greater. This was political theatre in no uncertain terms.
But the irony was not only aimed at the Romans. The people greeting Jesus with those words of Hosanna and Blessed is the king, etc., have it all wrong about Jesus. Jesus rides on a donkey. He is not the Messiah they are expecting, not the military leader to drive out the Romans. It is no surprise that many of those shouting “Hosanna” will shout, “Crucify him,” in just a few days.
In all these conflicting expectations and politics, Jesus is the calm center. A few times he raises his voice, as in tomorrow night’s a Gospel reading, but he remains mostly the calm center. And he is still today that calm center in the midst of all our confusing voices and fears. Yesterday we heard in the Epistle reading, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). And it seems human beings will be the same yesterday today and forever!
Our situation is not different. Leader after leader disappoints us. Leaders come and go, political ideologies make promises, but the poor are still with us. Jesus himself said that the poor we will always have with us. And it’s more true today than it was in his time. Violence and crime are still with us. Jesus’ kingdom has not removed the tragedy or pain or injustice of the world in which we live. But we still believe that it’s here, in our midst, in us. It exists wherever hope exists. Hope, faith and love. These three. They define the kingdom – not power or violence. Faith hope and love enabled the Son of God to enter Jerusalem and ride to his death – and resurrection. He invites us to enter with him, not cheer him on from the sidelines – but to enter with him. Blessed are we who come in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of the Lord!
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