In year B the lectionary gives four different options for the Gospel reading for Palm Sunday–or “Passion Sunday” as it is called when either the third or fourth option is taken.
First is Mark 11:1-11 — Palm Sunday #1 is Mark’s year in the lectionary and this is Mark’s presentation of Palm Sunday.
Second is John 12:12-16 — Palm Sunday #2 is John’s version. Whenever the lectionary takes a break from the Synoptic Gospel for the year it slips over to John.
Third is Mark 14:1-15:47 — Passion Sunday #1 is Mark’s version of the entire vast Passion narrative, presumably for churches that won’t have Maundy Thursday or Good Friday services and want to make sure their people hear about the Cross.
Fourth is Mark 15:1-39 — Passion Sunday #2 is for churches like the above, but which are too faint of heart for the whole two chapters of the Passion. It’s the Readers’ Digest version.
Personally, and pastorally, I always favor focusing on Palm Sunday. It’s a big day. Spending time on it puts us in sync with the whole of Holy Week. And it puts the Cross in context.
Today I’m looking at Mark’s version.
Palm Sunday — Mark 11:1-11
Stories that appear in all three Synoptic Gospels are always fun to compare. The handful of stories that appear in all four Synoptics and John are even more fun.
I tend to hold a mash-up version in my head:
I think about Jesus sending friends to pick up a donkey he has previously arranged to borrow.
Then there’s an impromptu parade, with Jesus riding in on a carpet of coats while the crowd waves palm branches.
The kids sing “Hosanna!” and the grumpy critical people object. Jesus says to lighten up because if they quiet down the stones will take up the song.
But that’s not the version told by Mark — or any one specific Gospel.
Let’s just think about the things Mark has uniquely, or as a minority opinion among the evangelists.
In Mark the journey to Jerusalem starts near Bethany. Luke is the only other Gospel to share this detail.
I think of Bethany as something like a home base for Jesus. You can do your own word search to see all the doings that happen in and around that village.
Bethany is where his dear friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus lived. I imagine it as a place that felt safe and friendly.
Jerusalem, on the other hand, is a place of peril. If you don’t believe me, read the texts for Passion Sunday. Jesus knew what was going to happen in Jerusalem.
A second detail shared only with Luke is that Mark shows the owners of the colt coming to make sure it wasn’t being stolen.
Matthew is more concerned with this as a fulfillment of OT prophecy, leading him to feature two donkeys. John ignores this bit entirely.
Significant? Not very — though it goes to my sense that Jesus had arranged in advance for the use of the colt.
Along with Matthew, Mark’s crowd cut “leafy branches.” Oddly, Mark says they got them from fields while Matthew, more logically, says trees.
Only in John do they specifically bring palms.
Since it’s Mark’s year in the lectionary maybe we should advertise “Leafy Branch Sunday.”
Or “Leafy Branches and Coats Sunday” since Mark includes those too, as does Matthew.
Next year when Luke’s Gospel is up there won’t be any branches at all. It’ll be “Cloak Sunday.”
Isn’t it funny that we call it “Palm Sunday” when only one Gospel has that detail?
Kingdom of David
All the Gospels have the crowd singing “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” though Luke says “the king.” I expected them all to say “Hosanna!” but Luke leaves that out.
But even if the song was basically the same for all, Mark includes a special verse:
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!
Mark 11:10 NRSV
Matthew also emphasized David as Jesus’ ancestor, but Mark leans into David’s kingdom as something in the future, the messianic kingdom.
That’s something worth pondering as I roll into Holy Week with Mark.
The end of this joyful royal journey is the thing most distinctly different in Mark.
- Matthew has Jesus jump right into cleansing the temple.
- Luke has Jesus give a mournful soliloquy over Jerusalem.
- John finds a bunch of Greeks who love God seeking to see Jesus — which we had in the lectionary last week.
In Mark, it’s all different:
- Jesus enters Jerusalem.
- He looks around at the temple.
- And he calls it a day.
- He heads back to Bethany for the night.
This, I suspect, is the most significant detail in Mark’s version.
The core story is, of course, the main thing, even if you have a blurry version swimming in your head like I do, with a mixture of details from all the Gospels.
- This is the Sunday that commemorates Jesus riding on a donkey, fulfilling Zechariah’s prophecy.
- This is the scene that shows the disciples and the crowd giving Jesus the royal welcome he deserves.
- This is the scene that hammers home to us that the Jesus who faces the Passion is the rightful heir of David’s kingdom, the Messiah.
But since I’m meditating on Mark’s version, it is worth noting his specific and unusual details.
First, the direction of Jesus’ journey in Holy Week is from Bethany to Jerusalem. That is, he travels from the familiar to the unfamiliar, from comfort to pain, from a circle of friends to abandonment, from safety to utter risk and incalculable cost.
He did it, as another New Testament writer put it “for the joy set before him.” But it wasn’t joyful in the moment. Joy came only after.
And that kind of journey is, quite often, ours too, as we follow him. Whether in the particular journeys we take in obvious mission and service, or in the very personal challenges we face that the world never sees, we move from safety into risk.
And Jesus has already gone that journey before us.
Jesus travels that road with us today.
Second, we can see in Mark, and only in Mark, that Jesus enjoyed a good piece of theatre.
- He set it up in advance.
- In he rode on the donkey.
- He allowed them to make a carpet of clothing and wave branches and sing a royal song.
- And when he got there, it was done.
- He turned around and went home.
The rest of Holy Week is filled with other things:
- Teaching, prayer, feasting, fellowship.
- Abandonment, accusation, torture, death.
But on Palm Sunday? Holy drama.
And we Protestants could learn a thing or two from that. We don’t really do drama that well.
My favorite Palm Sunday drama experience was at Beaches Presbyterian Church in Toronto one year. The whole congregation took instruments (including lots of drums and cymbals and shakers) and we paraded around the entire neighborhood. We waved palms. We sang hymns. We raised banners. We banged drums.
Alas, nobody laid down a carpet of coats. The dry cleaning bill would have been sky high.
It’s a perfect bit of Palm Sunday drama for a pandemic. It’s outdoors. You can sing!
Just don’t forget to wear your mask.
This year Mark is the main Gospel in the Revised Common Lectionary. Want a great way to creatively engage with each Sunday’s text? Want something to keep your kids on-topic during the sermon on Sunday? Try my Illuminate-You-Own Gospel of Mark. Each story is on a page of its own, with a blank facing page for doodles, prayers, sermon notes, or journal entries. Click the image below to check it out on Amazon. (It’s an affiliate link.)