By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis — There once was a United Methodist pastor who was discussing Palm Sunday palm branches with his congregation’s worship committee. “Our budget is tight this year, and you know those leafy palm fronds cost us about a dollar apiece…” cautiously began one committee member. “That’s right,” someone else quickly chimed in, “is there any way we can avoid paying a buck a branch this year?” Their pastor reluctantly admitted that of all four gospels in the New Testament, only the Gospel of John talks about palms during Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Mark and Matthew speak only of cloaks and branches being strewn, and this reading from Luke only mentions the cloaks covering Jesus’ path. Someone suggested waving native pussy willow branches that year. “The heck with the branches,” said another, “let’s just toss our overcoats into the aisles and call it “Cloak Sunday!” What was so special about palm branches, anyway, the committee wondered?
For those of us living in the land of hardwood and evergreen trees, the symbolic significance of palm trees may be a bit obscure. There had been other palm-branch waving parades in the life of the Middle Eastern Jewish people, but they usually marked a significant military success. For the crowds in Jerusalem on this particular Passover feast week, memories would have been fresh of the Jewish Maccabean revolt against the brutal Hellenistic ruler of Israel, Antiochus Epiphanes, about 150 years before. When the Maccabees returned triumphant into Jerusalem, re-taking the city, people threw palm branches in their path. But here we have Jesus, in about 33 CE, performing his own bit of street theater with a non-military and even ridiculous-looking entry on a scrappy donkey. Do the crowds think he will be a militant Messiah, bringing down the Romans with violence? Or, are they joining in on the political satire, throwing palms of victory down on the ground before him and thumbing their collective noses at the Roman soldiers.
These people are living in their own land, visiting their own holy city of Jerusalem, but it is now dominated by an oppressive power. We might think of the original native inhabitants of our own country felt or those in the “conquered” American South at the end of the Civil War. There are people in our nation today who experience themselves as living in an alienated land. They remain convinced that their government and major institutions seek to insidiously thwart their religious practices and destroy their way of life. They hunger for an end to their oppressed state and even hint at reclaiming their country by force if necessary.
The crowds who watched Jesus enter Jerusalem were straining against the increasing tax burden and offensive, idol-worshipping presence of Roman rule. Statues of Roman leaders had been installed in their house of worship, the rebuilt Temple, which was particularly repugnant to the local population. Caesar was to be addressed as “the Son of God.” What may be difficult for us to appreciate is how very closely their political situation was of deep religious concern to Jesus’ contemporaries. It is within this complex, first century historical context, that we need to hear the Biblical narratives of Holy Week.
Now, the Jews knew about exile: they had returned to their country Israel after the crushing period of exile under Babylonian captivity in the 6th century BCE. The writings of the prophets grappled with the people’s sense of abandonment by God by calling for repentance, spiritual renewal and social justice. For several hundred years, the Jews were again sovereign people, had rebuilt their Temple and reorganized their lives around the guidance of God’s holy Law described in the Torah. But by the time of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE and through Roman occupation of Jesus’ time, “the Jews faced a new and different trauma,” that had both political and religious ramifications. The Maccabean revolt around 150 BCE was only a short-lived blip.
The Biblical scholar Paula Fredriksen describes this dilemma in her book, “From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Jesus.” She writes: “Nothing in their tradition prepared them to cope with the crisis of continuing occupation. Instead of an exile in an idolatrous kingdom, Jews now faced the situation of living in an alienated land. Their land was now ruled by idolaters whose policies could at any time affect the operation of the Temple itself and the populace’s ability to observe the ordinances of the Torah” (p. 77-78). It is within this context of popular unrest, explains Fredriksen, that the public ministry of Jesus unfolds (p. 82). There was a growing expectation that God was going to intervene militarily, make things right again and re-install the Davidic monarchy.
We can begin to get a sense of how Jesus’ audiences resonated with his preaching that the Kingdom of God was at hand. They would have understood him primarily through the lens and the longings of this very prevalent theology of restoration. It had evolved into a hope for universal renewal: restored Israel and a world filled with morally transformed, non-idol worshipping Gentiles. Prophetic visioning began to happen all over the place, including zealots and insurrectionists embracing guerrilla warfare. They believed they were living in the last days, preparing for the coming Kingdom of God. Charismatic healers and miracle workers, exorcists, rainmakers, performing signs and wonders that were a signal both of their intimacy with God and as pointing to the End Times, all were common in this period.
But Jesus steps onto this stage with a call for a wider type of communal and spiritual restoration than anyone could imagine. This restoration was not going to happen through military might, or excluding certain people, or fencing people out. This restoration involved the transformation of the human heart and soul, a change of perception and behavior that gets at the very root of our yearning for power over others. Jesus’ vision and actions set him on a collision course with authorities that found his call to restoration unsettling, even dangerous, for an occupied nation.
Jesus heads to Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish Passover. It was the commemoration of Jews challenging and escaping from dictatorial rule and oppression in ancient Egypt, many years before. This was a festival drenched with political meaning, allusions to challenging power and facing down Empire. Scholars say that the city population would swell from 5,000 to 200,000 during Passover; no repressive regime likes to see such crowds anytime and particularly not when there are celebrating release from slavery. No wonder Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, leaves his seaside villa and makes the trek to inland Jerusalem for this week. He has to keep a close eye on things to assure stability. Suddenly, in the pressing bodies crowding through the city gate, someone shouts, “There he is! Look, the teacher and healer from Nazareth…he raises the dead, he confronts the authorities!” Another chimes in, “Surely he is the Messiah about whom our prophets speak!” Heads turn and the crowd cheers. People are now singing hosannas and throwing their cloaks on the road, waving palm branches in the air, and welcoming Jesus like royalty.
If we are paying attention, off in the distance we might spot a group of people for whom this is not just a happy holiday, pilgrim parade. The men and women who have been traveling with Jesus as his disciples know he is in danger; his message is subversive and it challenges those in power. His followers have an inkling that this may not end well. And we know it doesn’t. All the ugly detail starts to roll through our collective memories again: Jesus humbling himself, not resisting arrest, submitting to questioning, trial, torture; three crosses on the hill, and the darkening sky. Seemingly powerless.
How very tempting it is to quickly move to the “new life” messages of Easter and miss the depths of restoration to which Jesus will call us. It is an ongoing challenge for us to find meaning in present suffering and powerlessness, to find hope for a changed future. Our lives do sometimes feel like an “alienated land” and we long for restoration. There are those among us these days who promise that restoration for our land will come through repressive, exclusionary, even violent means. Humbling, pouring ourselves out, including the marginalized seems almost counter-intuitive in this clash of current voices.
At the conclusion of today’s passage, Jesus moves into the heart of Jerusalem; he takes a closer look at the city and weeps over it. “If you had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace,” he moans. The ambiguity and turbulence of Holy Week will bring complicated themes of life and death. It will confront us again with the question of God’s awesome and restorative presence in the midst of human suffering. Always the realist, Jesus knew it is not enough for us to simply lead decent lives. There he is, ahead of us: humbling himself, emptying himself, obedient to the point of death….even death on a cross. Holy week lies before us; we follow Jesus together, through Jerusalem towards Easter. Amen.