When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately. They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the Colt? They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
I wish I had been a field reporter outside Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday so long ago. It would have been interesting to interview some of the participants to ask them why they were there and what they were hoping to accomplish. Since I can’t ask those questions to the participants, I have to rely on the information we have.
Mark is not much help. He gives us the bare facts, without any commentary. Matthew contributes the children to the story, and John contributes the palm branches. All the Evangelist says that the parade went into the city of Jerusalem, except Mark. Mark writes that the parade went to the city gates, and Jesus went into the city alone to walk through the temple, not to occupy it, not to cleanse it, but to survey it and to leave it and the city, going back to Bethany, a short distance from Jerusalem. Mark’s account is not only brief, it is restrained and without the claims about Jesus found in the other three Gospels.
Mark’s account is anything but uninteresting, however. The parade was anything but unimpressive. There is the mysterious locating and commandeering of an unbroken colt, the silence of Jesus except for instruction about the colt, the large and loud crowd, the garments and branches to pave his way, and the bursts of praise and blessing. Mark’s account is subdued compared to Matthew which pictures all of Jerusalem in turmoil because of the celebration. It’s like the difference between a press conference at Centcom in Doha, Qatar and a press conference at the Pentagon with Don Rumsfield. You’re just not going to enough out of Mark, unless you are an insider.
The description of the day as a “triumphal entry” better fits Matthew than Mark, and neither account justifies the church’s celebration of Palm Sunday as an Easter before Easter. Craddock states that it is just as easy to celebrate a “false Easter” on Palm Sunday as it is to celebrate a “false spring” the first hint of warmth before spring actually emerges.
Whatever may have been going on, there is more going on here than a parade honoring Jesus. Still, what was it? On the one hand, one cannot ignore the celebration. It was a joyous event. It was like a ticker tape welcome for a national hero. A tidal wave of affection welled up from all sides and swept everything before it. It was the greatest show of affection that Jesus ever received on earth. The foundations of Jerusalem and even the mountains around her seemed to tremble for joy on that first Palm Sunday.
Some have suggested the reason for the joyous exaltation was the fact Jesus was recognized as the Messiah. Books without number have been written about the concept of “Son of God,” “Son of Man,” “Messiah, ” and “Suffering Servant.” Samuel Miller suggests another concept that is often ignored: “The Bridegroom.” In fact, the Bridegroom motif gives a clearer image of what was happening on this day outside Jerusalem.
Realize the common people of Jesus’ day, like the common people of any day, were not used to the attention Jesus has paid them. More often than not, the common people were ignored by the “power people.” Like the psalmist spoke, “I am forgotten like a dead man, out of mind.” They were expected to serve and support the powerful.
During the summers in my teaching days, I worked for Southern Temps. I did everything from a secretary one day at TVA to shoveling gravel at John Thomton’s new house in North Chattanooga. One day in particular I was working for a furniture store in Chattanooga helping the owner move furniture on the showroom floor. All morning I tried to strike up a conversation with the young man, and there was no response. He wouldn’t even tell me where the sofa was going, he just walked until it was time to set it down. Before I went to lunch, he told me to meet him back in the showroom to move more furniture. So I went to lunch, and when I came back I dutifully sat down to meet him. His sister saw me sitting around and came and scolded me saying, “We don’t pay you to sit around. Go to the patio section.” I was humiliated. I went through the patio section and straight to my car. That is how the common folk felt in Jesus’ day – used. If some interest was take in them it was in order to manipulate or extract something from them.
This is why Jesus’ ministry was so astonishing. He was a person of obvious power who did not look straight through the powerless people as if they were not there or abuse them as something to be used. Apparently, Jesus took the Bridegroom image seriously to describe his relationship to the world. He came among human beings as a Bridegroom, a Lover, a Wooer of the world. It was “the great unwashed,” the unloved, the forgotten, the ignored who burst into praise and affection for Jesus. Here were people who loved Jesus because he had first loved them.
Along with celebration, there is another component to what was happening here. Last week we saw an example of this other component. The people of Baghdad and other cities in Iraq were obviously celebrating their liberation. Even palm branches were being waved along with white flags and Iraqi flags. While it was obvious that they were celebrating, there was also a tone of protest in the air. Statues and other images of Saddam Hussein were being torn down and desecrated as a way of saying they recognized the oppression he represented.
It was not by accident that Jesus drew a crowd that day. If the owner of the colt knew of Jesus’ plan, it could be implied that others knew of the protest march that was being planned. At the end of the march, Jesus went into the temple, looked around and left. This image does not simply suggest a nostalgic last look at a building that had meant so much to him.
In the larger context, Jesus had always been at odds with the Pharisees and scribes over the interpretation of Scripture and tradition. In addition to the running debate over table fellowship, sharp differences arose over fasting and Sabbath observance. Jesus protested the subordination of human need and welfare to the rigid and unfeeling application of law. As early as Mark 3 reports that Jesus’ positions on key issues brought threats against his life. And, of course, once Jesus was in Jerusalem, protest followed protest, beginning with Jesus’ protest with temple practices.
Protest has received a bad name in our day. Protestors are common place in our world, especially in a free society like ours. But protest is a valued way to deal with evil in our world, especially the kind of evil which reduces people to nothingness and defeat. In fact, I think Jesus calls us to protest in our world the oppression that comes from any group, religious or otherwise, which reduces and distorts the otherwise good news of the opportunity of having a relationship with a loving God who exercises his power on behalf and for the benefit of his creation, not as a powerful God who is to be placated and appeased in order to win his favor.
We are called to protest when anyone is led to believe that suffering means sin and the presence of suffering means God has removed his hand from them. We should protest when one is led to believe one must earn God’s love as if it something we can deserve in the first place. We should protest when the powerless of our world are used by the powerful for their greed ends. We should protest when we see religious establishments, churches included, replacing a loving God who first loved us, with a Powerful God who is out for retribution and revenge.
If protest is not a part of our Christian walk, then we simply are not paying attention to the world around us. Jesus is outraged anytime anyplace anyone is not wooed, loved and drawn into this Kingdom that he lives in. Jesus was not just willing to die for this kind of Kingdom, He was willing not to kill for it, but to be killed for it. Even though the palms were important to Jesus, it was the nails that made the difference.
That’s protest. That’s the kind of protest that brings change, and yes, even resurrection!
David R. Tullock is Pastor of First Cumberland Presbyterian Pulpit in Cleveland, TN.