Palm Sunday — Dr. Joel Marcus

Luke 19:28-40

Today marks a somewhat schizophrenic point in the liturgical calendar. This is Palm Sunday, a joyous celebration of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, to the acclaim of the crowds, shortly before Passover in around AD 30. The keynote of the actual Palm Sunday Gospel passage from Luke, which we read outside before we processed into the church waving our palms, is “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” If the words “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest” ring a faint bell, they should, since they echo the beginning of the Gospel. There, at Jesus’ birth, a multitude of the heavenly host praised God, saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace.” There is, then, an echo of the joyous Christmas story in our Palm Sunday celebration.

But, of course, our Palm Sunday celebration also takes place in the shadow of Jesus’ coming crucifixion. In the literary setting of the Gospel, that shadow may help explain the slight difference between the angels’ words in the birth narrative and the crowd’s words here. We hear no longer of “peace on earth” but of “peace in heaven”—perhaps because peace is about to flee from the earth, as Jesus is driven to the cross. And this shadedness of our Palm Sunday celebration is also why, after we entered the church, we heard the whole passion story read. On Palm Sunday Jesus entered the city where he would soon die.

Our Palm Sunday reading of the passion story, then, reminds us where this story is heading—how soon the hosannas of the crowd will turn into bitter disappointment and cries for Jesus’ death. In fact, there is already a hint of this in the Triumphal Entry story, where some Pharisees, who are part of the crowd greeting Jesus, nevertheless take offense that his disciples are proclaiming his kingship over Israel. These Pharisees apparently share the fear that the High Priest expresses in John’s Gospel: if Jesus is openly proclaimed as a messianic king, the Roman authorities will crack down not only on him and his followers but also on the nation as a whole. In our story, Jesus responds to these timorous Pharisees by saying that the truth of his messianic status can’t be bottled up—“If these people were silent, the very stones would cry out”—and he then proceeds to prophesy the destruction of Jerusalem, because it did not know the hour of its visitation by God.

This doubtless is why our lectionary reading left Jesus’ concluding words out. Because we see here the beginning of a tendency to interpret the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple by the Romans in A.D. 70, forty years after Jesus’ death, as a punishment for the Jewish people’s rejection of Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah. In the post-Holocaust era, there has been a strong and justified revulsion against the view, which became common in the church, that the Jews killed Jesus and have consequently endured suffering and persecution down through the ages. For most of the past two thousand years, this view has made Passion Week a particularly dangerous time for Jews–a time when pogroms were always likely to break out, catalyzed by inflammatory sermons about the evil actions of the perfidious Jews.

As I say, in recent years there has been a justified reaction against this view, and we need to repent of the actions it has spawned. But we also need to recognize that this view is rooted in the New Testament itself, whether or not it actually goes back to the historical Jesus. This may be one of the places, then, where we have to say something different from what the scripture says, in the name of another scriptural principle: “All have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God, but are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:23-24). Or, as the great (and ironically Lutheran) Good Friday hymn puts it:

Who was the guilty, who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.
‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee,
I crucified thee.

I crucified thee. And this, of course, is why, in the reading of the Passion we just did, the whole congregation, all of us, cried out those terrible words, “Crucify, crucify!” Because it is not only Presidential candidates who have feelings like, “I’d like to punch him in the face!”—though it used to be the case that Presidential candidates did not express such feelings openly. But we all have such feelings. There are people who have frustrated and thwarted us, done us wrong, slandered us, unfairly taken advantage of us. We’d like to punch them in the face and worse. We all have those feelings; but thank God they are not the ultimate truth about us. To paraphrase the Good Friday: I crucified thee; but I am nevertheless justified by thy grace through what thou hast done for me on the cross.

So our celebration today contains elements both of exaltation and of suffering, both of Palm Sunday and of Good Friday. This duality is perfectly captured by our Sequence Hymn: “Ride on, ride on in majesty! In lowly pomp ride on to die!” Today we savor Jesus’ moment of triumph and acclaim, with the loud hosannas ringing in his ears; but we know that this acclaim will soon turn to opposition, suffering, abuse, and death.

Some of us, who are of a certain age, can perhaps relate to this scenario in our own lives. We may feel that we are still strong, that there may still be some triumphs and joys ahead for us. But we also know that the next twenty years or so will see an inevitable descent toward what Hamlet calls “the undiscover’d country, from whose bourn/ No traveller returns.” Our lives, like Jesus’ life, will end in death—and death is not pretty. We have seen some death and dying in the past few years, and it’s not pretty, and it’s not easy, and some of those who slipped into it were still worrying about their kids or their spouses or about preserving their dignity in the degrading physical circumstances of dying—in some way or other, they were harried to the last. There is no respite from this struggle until the struggle is over.

But we’ve also seen some of those same folk go their way to the undiscovered country with the words of Romans 8 on their lips, in their last moments of consciousness murmuring the great truth that nothing could separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus. And that, ultimately, is the empowering message of this Passion Week. There is someone going with us on the road we walk, wherever it leads. As T. S. Eliot puts it in The Waste Land:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
–But who is that on the other side of you?

Who is it who walks beside us? There is someone going with us, every step of the way, experiencing what we experience–suffering what we suffer–rejoicing in our joy. And this presence is a promise that there is something beyond the inevitable disintegration that is the trajectory of our lives; that there is a hope for renewal, even in the midst of decline and fall. If the Triumphal Entry story does not make sense without the Passion Narrative that follows it, the Passion story is not a self-contained unit either. It points towards something beyond it, something that can only be grasped dimly but that mysteriously grounds our lives here. There is always someone else walking beside us, and that someone has gone from triumph to defeat to death to something else, a something else that means there is something else in our lives–a quality of surprise that is unpredictable and yet inevitable.

And so, even at the beginning of Passion Week, we can shout out, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!” And it doesn’t matter if we don’t really feel like doing that, if we’re too discouraged, or depressed, or sick, to raise up our palm fronds and holler. Because if we don’t do so, the very stone that sealed the tomb will cry out.