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Palm Sunday Palimpsest

Do you know the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem that day? If you come from a church that celebrates Palm Sunday you may have heard a sermon about what happened on Palm Sunday every year with as many sermons as years that you have been alive. It becomes a sort of palimpsest—a document that is written on over and over again. The writing is removed and something new is written, but the same paper is reused. The old writing never really goes away.

Another part of how this story may begin to blur together in your mind is this story is what scholars call well-attested. It shows up not just in one Gospel or even two, but rather all four synoptic gospels. Some of the details you know are not there in all of the versions. Did you know the Gospel of Luke does not include palms nor branches nor coats thrown on the path? Matthew and John specify that the branches are palm branches, but Mark does not. John does not include the detail about the coats thrown on the path. John doesn’t explain how they got the donkey.

Remember with me again what happened. As Jesus and his disciples came near to Jerusalem, they stopped at Bethany and Bethphage. Jesus set two disciples the task on getting a young donkey. He prophesied that they would find it tied. He instructs them that if anyone should ask why they are taking the donkey that they are to reply that “The master needs it.” When they get the donkey, they put some of their clothes on it to fashion a place for Jesus to sit on it.

As Jesus came by some spread branches from the field, others palm branches, and even placed their coats on the path where the donkey would walk. Some carried their palm branches with them. The crowds cried out “Hosanna! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord!,” “Hosanna to the Son of David!,” and “Hosanna in the highest!,” “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens,” “Blessings on the king of Israel!,” and “Blessings on the king who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Now that we remember what happened, what did it mean? What did it mean to Jesus? What did it mean to the crowds? What did it mean to the Romans and their collaborators? Jesus chose a donkey and not a war horse. Jesus was riding into Jerusalem from one side and Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor was riding into another. Pontius Pilate rode a war horse and had an army with him. Jesus did not call together an army, but instead rode in with his followers around him. The Gospel of John points to a prophecy from Zechariah to explain what happened:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war-horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.

The crowds praised Jesus, though none of the stories have the crowds praising him by name. The crowds praised God for this event. Some called Jesus a king and others even the Son of David—a great king with an eternal kingdom. Jesus was called a king by the Magi and later would be called a king by Pontius Pilate, but Jesus’ main response seems to be that if he is a king, the sort of kingdom he has is not the sort they expect. While many hoped for a king sent by God to win military victories over the Romans and force the Romans from Israel, this is not the sort of king that Jesus was. Neither was he appointed by Rome like Herod.

Jesus is given a list of titles that are a direct challenge to the power of Caesar. Both Jesus and Caesar were called Divine, Son of God, God from God, Lord, Redeemer, Liberator, and Savior of the World. What these titles meant to each of them and their followers, however, were very different. Caesar brought peace through military victory. Caesar was said to be the Savior of the World, that is, healer because he ended the wars with a great victory. Jesus healed the world another way. Jesus brought peace by eating with sinners, healing the sick, and bringing justice to the people. Jesus’s peace was not an enforced lack of violence, but good news to the poor with enough for everyone. Jesus was not the king or messiah that the crowds expected matching the military victories of Caesar with military victories of his own. Jesus’ new way turned hierarchies upside down and broke down barriers.

On this Palm Sunday will you choose the way of Pilate and Caesar or will you choose the way of Jesus? How will you bring about peace through justice? What will you do to make sure that everyone has enough? You have heard what Jesus meant to others what does he mean to you? How will you work to heal the world?

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