For Palm Sunday the Revised Common Lectionary offers three different Gospel texts for the varying needs of churches.
First there is the “Palm Sunday” option (Luke 19:28-40) which sticks to the opening scene of Holy Week: Jesus’ “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem. That focus is great, I think, since it nudges you to take every event of Holy Week on its own, prayerfully moving through the great events of our salvation.
Second there is the “Passion Sunday” option (Luke 22:14-23:56). That includes the Last Supper, Gethsemane, Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, trial, and crucifixion, death, and burial. It’s a vast amount of text, more suitable for a readers’ theater presentation where simply hearing the story takes the place of a sermon.
Third there is what we might call “Passion Sunday Lite” (Luke 23:1-49). It’s still a long reading, but it sort of cuts to the chase, starting with the trial before Pilate and ending with Jesus’ death.
The “Passion Sunday” options seem to be extremely popular. The argument seems to be that people won’t come to a Maundy Thursday or Good Friday service. Or the church doesn’t even have those services. Either way, if we don’t do the cross on Palm Sunday people won’t ever even notice it. They will jump straight from the Triumphal Entry to Jesus’ glorious resurrection.
The down side of using the “Passion Sunday” texts, however, is that people entirely miss Palm Sunday. And missing Palm Sunday, it seems to me, people never really get a sense of Holy Week as a week. It has a shape, and the Cross is not, actually, the whole enchilada. There are specific events that build toward the Cross, and those events matter, shaping the meaning of the week –and of the Cross.
But in American Protestantism, it is all Cross all the time. (We even let Easter Sunday get swallowed up into Good Friday.)
As always, I’m fighting an uphill battle on this.
I may get around to posts on the Passion Sunday options. But for today, I’m focusing on Palm Sunday. I won’t be preaching this Sunday, but in my own Holy Week I need to start with a good close prayerful look at Palm Sunday.
A Well-Planned Miracle
Jesus clearly knew exactly how he wanted to enter the city: On a colt. He rides a donkey into town in all four Gospel versions of the story — actually on two donkeys in Matthew.
Matthew and John point out that this was intended to show that a prophecy was fulfilled:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zechariah 9:9 NRSV)
Zechariah’s mention here of both “a donkey” and “the foal of a donkey” seems to account for Matthew’s version having the disciples looking for “a donkey tied, and a colt with her.” For all his concern to show the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, he wasn’t quite up to speed on the parallelism of Hebrew poetry.
But I digress. Luke makes no mention of the prophecy.
I always thought the whole thing looked like a miracle: Jesus used his God-powers
- to see where a donkey could be found,
- to hear what the owners would say if the disciples tried to abscond with it,
- and to know what words would convince them to let the animal go to be part of Jesus’ prophecy-fulfilling tableau.
Then one day I thought “He probably planned it all out ahead of time.”
If he knew exactly how he planned to enter Jerusalem and exactly when he would do it, he probably communicated with some folks in the suburbs who owned the necessary animal.
By the way, Benjamin, Next Sunday afternoon I’m going to need a donkey. Can I borrow yours?
Sure, Jesus, I’ll tie it right here. They won’t even need to come into the village.
Hey, thanks. If your servants are queasy about it, let them know that my friends will say ‘The Lord needs it.’
Cool. It’ll be our code word, just like in a spy movie.
Um… What’s a spy movie?
Maybe what gave me a little moment of revelation was obvious to you already. I don’t know why I thought it was a miracle thing — except that there are so many mysteries and miracles in the Gospels that it is easy to see them even when they are not the point.
Actually, Year C, when Luke’s Gospel is the focus, might be the year to use the Liturgy of the Passion texts instead of the text for the Liturgy of the Palms. Why? Because in Luke there are no palms.
Not one. Not a single frond. It’s all cloaks.
They put some of their cloaks on the donkey and made a carpet of cloaks on the road for the donkey to walk on. They shouted out.
It was royal and it was festive. There just weren’t any palms.
This Sunday instead of waving palms, the kids in the procession should throw down big piles of coats.
The Praise of Stones
The most evocative thing in Luke’s text, though, the thing that becomes the focus in the end, is Jesus’ interaction with some grumpy Pharisees.
They were indignant at what Jesus’ crowd of disciples were doing.
Teacher, order your disciples to stop” (Luke 19:39, NRSV)
Were they upset that Jesus set up the scene so that he was fulfilling Zechariah’s prophecy? No they complained about the disciples.
Were they upset about the cloaks being laid down like a carpet? Well that was probably a bit scary to them.
Back in 2 Kings 9, when the prophet Elisha sent a young prophet to anoint Jehu king over Israel. He also sent the prophecy that Jehu would defeat Ahab, the current king. Then Jehu told the military leaders:
‘This is just what he said to me: “Thus says the Lord, I anoint you king over Israel.”’ Then hurriedly they all took their cloaks and spread them for him on the bare steps; and they blew the trumpet, and proclaimed, ‘Jehu is king.’” (2 Kings 9:12-13 NRSV)
The military leaders took off their cloaks and laid them down as a royal carpet for Jehu — at the beginning of his journey to overthrow the current regime.
Were they upset about what the people were shouting while, idiosyncratically, not waving any palms whatsoever?
Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!” (Luke 19:38 NRSV)
The first line of their song was from Psalm 118:26. They were putting into words the same hope expressed by their carpet of cloaks
If the Pharisees were concerned about the Romans squashing any rebellion in the Jewish community, you can see how all of this would worry them.
Jesus set it up to show he was the messianic king of Zechariah’s prophecy. I think the Pharisees were worried that the crowd of people, now a “multitude of the disciples”, were thinking of him as an earthly king.
It was the same fear Pilate had, and which Jesus specifically denied in John 18:36 — but not in Luke (cf. 23:3). In Luke this claim of kingship, and this threat of insurrection, is the substance of the accusation brought against Jesus at trial (cf. Luke 23:2 & 5).
The idea that Jesus is king is still pretty dicy for us. We like to sing about it, like the crowds on the road to Jerusalem.
But we have a hard time with the implementation.
If “Jesus is king” means he’ll come and deal with our enemies and our problems, well and good.
But if “Jesus is king” means we have to live by the laws and priorities of his kingdom, that’s a tougher go.
And if “Jesus is king” means we have more allegiance to him than to the totems of our culture — our football team (hey, I live in Pittsburgh…), our flag, or the rights named for us in our constitution — well then that gets to be pretty complicated.
Jesus was very willing to accept the people’s praise for him as king that day. He knew that people would soon be far from praise, and take him to his death.
But that day was about the truth of praise. When they said Jesus should stop the disciples from praising him, Jesus said that was impossible. If they stopped the lifeless stones on the ground would sing out in praise.
All creation was waiting for Jesus the king. All creation needs him as king still.
Anyway, before I go on too long, let me just wish you a very happy Cloak Sunday.
I’d love to send you all my Monday Meditations (as well as my other articles and announcements). Scroll down to the black box with the orange button to subscribe and they’ll arrive in your inbox most Fridays.