Sunday, April 05, 2009

Reflections on Passion Week: Palm Sunday

Just a change of title; no new material.

Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Passion Week, the final week leading up to Jesus' crucifixion and Resurrection. A number of different approaches to this event reveal layers of meaning....

The first approach is that of responding with the crowds. When churches celebrate Palm Sunday by giving out palm fronds and encouraging the congregation to wave them in recognition of Jesus as messiah, they are encouraging this response.  On the surface, the crowds appear to recognize Jesus as messiah, although the liturgical and celebratory usage of Psalm 118, which the crowds were quoting, was already well established, for example as the benediction to the feast of Sukkot (Tabernacles). Mark seems to leave open the possibility that Jesus was in the middle of a celebration that was not necessarily self-consciously directed toward him (11:8-11), but Matthew and Luke tie the celebration directly to Jesus' presence (Mt 21:8-11; Lk 19:36-40). John also ties the celebration to Jesus but adds, "At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him" (12:16 NIV), indicating that whatever they had understood themselves to be doing at the time was given new meaning after the Resurrection. So this first response is one of recognition: we are to recognize that Jesus is King.

The problem with this response, as the second approach argues, is that it ignores subsequent events, especially the crowds' later rejection of Jesus before Pilate (Mk 15:11-14; Mt 27:20-23; Lk 23:13-23). While it is dangerous to regard "the crowds" as a static group of people comprising the same individuals, it is at least possible that members of the "crowds" of Palm Sunday were also members of the "crowds" standing before Pilate at Jesus' trial--at any rate, the crowds crying "Hosanna" were not a force of opposition to the crowds crying "Crucify him"; they had either changed allegiances or disappeared into anonymity. The second approach recognizes the crowd's recognition of Jesus as messiah as superficial, and calls for not mere recognition, but for commitment to him. The crowds were fickle: as long as the wind appeared to be backing Jesus, they were with him; but when the going got tough, they ran, or worse, turned on him. This approach recognizes the possibility of apostasy, especially in the face of persecution, and encourages steadfastness. The second response is one of commitment: we are to commit ourselves to his service, regardless of trials or difficulties.

Yet another approach questions the reasons for the crowds' apparent change of loyalties. It's easy to lose track of the events of Passion Week, since the Gospels give so much detail to them: about 3/8 of Mark (by chapter count) is devoted to the events of Passion Week; 1/4 of Matthew and Luke; and nearly half of John. These chapters do not reveal a rising opposition to Jesus that had not existed before. Certainly we see the Pharisees and Sadducees trying to trap Jesus, but this had long since been going on, as especially John's Gospel reveals. So if the crowds had already recognized Jesus as messiah and were following him as late as the beginning of Passion Week, what happened to change their allegiance so quickly? The answer would seem to be, not the actions of Jesus' opponents, but Jesus' actions themselves.

The crowds recognized Jesus as messiah, but the concept of messiah was thought of in political terms: the messiah was to deliver the people from their oppression by the Romans. As Jesus rode into Jerusalem with the crowds that were there to celebrate the Passover--a feast dedicated to remembering God's deliverance of Israel from the oppression of slavery in Egypt--it could have been expected that He would rally the people against Rome. Not necessarily to lead an actual revolt, but some anti-empire rhetoric may have been well received. But that's not what he did. On the next day, Jesus enters the Temple and challenges, not the Romans, but the Temple system itself.

We all like to think that Jesus is on our side, challenging issues and authorities that we oppose. We think, in short, that we're on his side, when we're really wanting him to be on our side. What shakes us up is when Jesus starts challenging our sacred cows, shaking up our systems, opposing our assumptions and cherished ideas. Jesus did this, during his final week, to a greater degree than he had done before. It's hard for us to see this in a modern reading of the Gospels, since Jesus is opposing a system that we no longer strongly identify with. We don't recognize how revolutionary his teachings were, how astonishing his words and actions would have been to those who heard him first. And this may explain how those who initially paved Jesus' way into Jerusalem with their own clothing and acclaimed him as their king could, in a few days, turn against him so violently. And it might be worth considering: how many of our cherished balloons would Jesus burst if he were to come physically into our own sanctuaries? And how many of us would be crying out, "Crucify him," if we didn't know for sure who he was, and he was threatening our own beliefs?

What do you think? Anyone want to peel the onion further?


  1. It does make one wonder what "tables" Jesus would turn over today. The more I think about that question, however, the more I realize that my answers are based on my own sacred cows and pet peeves. How easy it is to see the speck yet be blind to the log.

  2. Oh, yes. I worry a lot about those who talk the most about all the different things we need to change--ostensibly including themselves in the "we," but really meaning all the things other Christians (read, "the institutional church") need to change. Specks and logs indeed.