We’ve all watched a movie where we know something terrible is about to happen. Whether you’ve seen the film or not, you know if the character opens that door or goes around a corner, they’re going to be in serious trouble. In fact, when we witness such a scene, it’s not uncommon for us to yell at the television, “Don’t go in there!” or “Don’t open that door!” Hoping to warn the person of their impending doom, they never hear us. They’ll turn the corner and open the door only to find what we knew awaited them: a gruesome demise. Well, we tried to warn them. Why didn’t they listen? We yelled at the TV, didn’t we?
This is how I feel when I talk about Palm Sunday. I am watching the parade. People are lining the route as Jesus rides into Jerusalem on his donkey. Palm leaves are waving and you can hear the crowds shouting, “Hosanna in the highest, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” It’s the perfect Palm Sunday scene. Yet, I know what’s coming around the corner. I want to shout at the television. “Jesus, turn around and go back. Don’t trust these people. Don’t go into the city. In a few days these same people are going to kill you.” As much as I shout at my imaginary Palm Sunday television, Jesus keeps going. He doesn’t go back the way he came. The parade keeps moving. However, was Palm Sunday ever really about the procession?
Today, I’m less interested in the parade, palms, or the cloaks over the road. The Palm Sunday procession which brought Jesus into Jerusalem was little more than a distraction. Palm Sunday is a theological sleight of hand, designed to distract the Roman and Jewish authorities from Jesus’ actual goal. While the right hand marches down the street on a donkey, don’t pay attention to the left hand headed toward the Temple. The parade was never about the parade. Everything was about getting Jesus to the Temple.
From all we know about Jesus, does he sound like a “parade” kind of guy? It’s one thing to enjoy watching a parade. It’s another thing to become Santa Claus in the Christmas Parade and have the whole event built around you and your image. Does Jesus sound like the kind of person who would be comfortable with a whole parade or event centered on him or his image? No, he doesn’t. Remember, this is the same man who repeatedly told the people he healed “Don’t tell anyone I healed you.” Jesus was not much for publicity. He’s always been cautious about how his disciples and the world perceive him. Remember him asking, “Who do you say I am?”
A parade doesn’t fit with Jesus’ character. Jesus has never been a showy, look at me kind of guy. Why would his personality undergo such a dramatic shift in the last week of his life? I don’t think it would. Jesus never wanted to be or become a spectacle. I want you to hold on to that thought.
What about the parade, though? Isn’t that some prophecy in scripture? Isn’t Jesus fulfilling something Zechariah said by entering Jerusalem on the back of a donkey? Jesus is aware of scripture. He knows his Bible. Jesus is also under a tremendous amount of pressure, expectation, and this parade (however Biblical) is everything that Jesus is not: a spectacle. It’s still procession for an Israelite king in a traditional sense, which Jesus is not and has never claimed to be, but that’s what the scripture says. And as we know from our own time, if we want the Bible to make a point, why let the truth get in the way of something Jesus actually said. Jesus MUST be the Israelite king because Israelite kings ride donkeys. Jesus is on a donkey. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If Zechariah says it, we must do, then the prophecy comes true. See what I mean?
A decision was made. With so many battles ahead of him, he knew what struggles were in the comings; did he decide to let Peter and his disciples have their parade? That sounds more like the Jesus I know. Someone who puts the wishes of others ahead of his own; that’s the Jesus I’ve come to know up to this point in the Gospels.
For Jesus, the parade is a distraction, a concession, and a means to an end. The destination is more important that the journey. Palm Sunday is ultimately about where the parade/procession ends. The goal is more important than the route. The donkey is just the mode of transportation. Where is the parade headed? Where is Jesus going? It’s going to the Temple. The parade simply takes us where we need to be going. Everything comes to a head at the Temple.
The parade people left as quickly as they arrived. The crowds were gone, the disciples had vanished, and this was where the rubber met the road. Peter and others had same to him, “Jesus, King Herod, the Temple and the Romans, it is what it is.” Jesus hated that expression, “it is what is”. What if it wasn’t what it was? Palm Sunday was the day the “is”, the status quo, changed forever.
This is the purpose of Palm Sunday. It’s about Jesus’ relationship to the Temple. Jesus, alone, no crowds, walks into the Temple. That’s a scene for the ages. In one sense, it’s all come down to this moment. One man, a solitary figure ascending the vast staircase of a monumental building (the embodiment of religious power and authority) to say God doesn’t dwell within these stone walls. Our relationship to God is no longer based on paying men to kill lambs, goats, and pigeons. God is free and you are free. Is God in a building or does God work through people?
What is that they say, “You can’t fight City Hall”? Well, Jesus was about to fight City Hall, the White House, Congress, Buckingham Palace, the Vatican, and the Kremlin all wrapped up into one entity. That’s right, one person against that much entrenched religious and political power. The parade was for show. This was always intended to a job for one man.
Mark’s usually not the evocative storyteller. He’s no Luke or John. However, when it comes to Palm Sunday, his is my favorite version of the story. I can see and hear Mark describe the events as if I’m standing right there. You can almost feel the crowd dropping away as each verse passes. By the time we reach verse 11, Jesus enters Jerusalem and finally makes his way to the Temple.
It must have been a long day. We know this because Mark gives us one indication of time, “Because it was already late in the evening.” Imagine how he felt. He was exhausted, tired, and achy from sitting on that stupid donkey for hours on end. He may have been holy donkey but I’m betting he was a dumb as any other run of the mill jackass.
Still, Jesus decided to go inside the temple. This is what moves me in this passage. You know the temple had to be quiet and relatively empty. It was probably peaceful when compared to the chaos of a normal workday. What did Jesus see? What did Jesus think? Mark says, “He looked around at everything.” Notice that he had no problem being admitted to the temple. He was in the grounds. Did he remember the time he was “lost” as a 13 year old and his parents came to find him? Was he sitting right over there? Did he think, “That feels like yesterday”? Maybe he remembered all of the other Passover feasts he’d attended in the intervening years, or his teaching and arguing with the Rabbis and priests. Who knows?
We can’t climb inside the mind of Jesus but my guesses are not far off base. The Temple was the most important and powerful place in all of Judaism. It had shaped Jesus’ belief and helped defined who Jesus was and what he opposed. Standing in the empty courtyard, he came to this realization: the Temple system and all it represented must go. By cooperating with the Roman authorities, the Temple had lost its integrity and humanity. Corrupted by greed, a system once made holy by Moses was now more of a barrier to God than a conduit to God’s divine presence.
Jesus would return the following day and make a stand which would provoke a confrontation; a crisis that would lead to his arrest, trial, and execution.
In the darkness, he returned to the Mount of Olives. The disciples were already there. This would be their home for the next week. In this camp outside Jerusalem, he would sing hymns, share food, and wait eventually to be betrayed and arrested. On Sunday night, after a day of parading through Jerusalem, he was tired and sleep came. It may have been the last good night of sleep he knew before the week began in earnest. In the morning, he would return to the temple. This time there would be no parade. Some tables needing turning over. Many People would be unhappy with him. The crowd which loved him a few hours ago would slowly begin to change their mind about the carpenter from Nazareth called Jesus.
When the crowds get fickle, how easy is it for us to change our minds about Jesus? Pretty easy. All someone has to do is tell us “it’s in the Bible” and we’ll hop on the first donkey riding by. Maybe the donkey isn’t the point. Perhaps the point is to see where Jesus is going and what he’s doing and not get so caught up in the fanfare. It’s an idea.
Richard Lowell Bryant