What Really Happened On Palm Sunday?
Indianapolis First Friends Quaker Meeting
Pastor Bob Henry
April 14, 2019
Luke 19:29-40 (NRSV)
29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38 saying,
“Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!”
39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
Palm Sunday has always been a special day for me. It actually was the day as an infant that my parents took me to church to be baptized. Something that today as a Quaker has a completely different meaning for me than it did while growing up. And in many ways, my understanding and view of Palm Sunday has dramatically changed as well. As a child, Palm Sunday seemed a celebration. Much like we did this morning with our children, there were Palm Branches waved, people sang songs of “Hosanna!” and “Blessed is he comes in the name of the Lord.” At my childhood church, it was always like going to a parade.
As a child I loved going to parades, not just because of the candy they threw out from the floats, but because of all the joy and happiness it brought to our town. Like my oldest son, I was not fond of sirens and loud honking trucks, but for that one day, I put up with it.
As a child, I don’t remember being taught about parades being about patriotism or showing our military might or honoring our veterans, or even reminding us that we are part of the “best country on the planet.” Maybe because my growing up years were right after we ended the Vietnam War and that was not the focus then.
But while living in Oregon, just a few years ago, I came across some unexpected tension while at a parade. In our local parade in our little town of Silverton, we had all the usual police officers on their bikes and in their cars, fire engines, military from each branch of service, flags and lots of pomp and circumstance. But at this parade just before the veterans passed us, were a group carrying a banner that read, Silverton People for Peace. They also carried signs much like the Friends Committee on National Legislation one’s that read “War is not the Answer” as well they had crafted a large peace dove made of white fabric that several people helped guide and fly over them as they walked. Ironically, several people around us, including people that attended our meeting sitting with us, spoke negatively about their presence – almost as though they had no right being part of the parade.
That day, I realized that even fun things from my childhood have deeper meanings. That what we celebrate and believe may be different from what others celebrate and believe. And why we have parades in our towns or country may be for reasons that I may differ on or may simply be ignorant of.
Well, I remember that year thinking about all of this when Palm Sunday came around. It had me taking a deeper look at what all was going on and just what was really happening. Like my view of parades as a child, I had a happy, celebratory, even fun view of Palm Sunday, but as I began to study what was really going on it was much more than that.
Now, I don’t want to pop anyone’s bubble, but I do want to give you a better picture of what all was going on and what Jesus was trying to do.
Several theologians, scholars and writers, like Debie Thomas, Marcus Borg, and Dominic Crossan, who I will be sharing some of their thoughts this morning, have helped me see that Palm Sunday was really a subversive act – or what we might call a protest more than a parade, or celebration.
Here is what we may not know about the story that will give us some insight. In the book, “The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teaches about Jesus’ Last Days in Jerusalem” by Borg and Crossan, they talk of two processions that entered Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday.
“Every Year, the Roman governor of Judea would ride up to Jerusalem from his coastal residence in the west, specifically to be present in the city for Passover – the Jewish festival that swelled Jerusalem’s population from its usual 50,000 to at least 200,000.
The governor would come in all of his imperial majesty to remind the Jewish pilgrims that Rome was in charge. They could commemorate an ancient victory against Egypt if they wanted to, but real, present-day resistance (if anyone was daring to consider it) was futile; Rome was watching.
Borg and Crossan’s describe the procession this way,
“A visual panoply of imperial power, cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinks of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.”
Debie Thomas (Parade or Protest? 03/18/18) goes on to say,
“According to Roman Imperial belief, the emperor was not simply the ruler of Rome; he was the Son of God. So for the empire’s Jewish subjects, Pilate’s procession was both a potent military threat and the embodiment of a rival theology. Armed heresy on horseback.”
So to get a better picture of what was going on, from the West came Pontius Pilate entering with all the pomp and circumstance, the military adornment, and in the typical Roman imperial way. It reminds me of the pictures of Hitler’s army being paraded in Germany, or for that matter Darth Vader’s stormtroopers all lined up awaiting the Emperor’s arrival in Return of the Jedi.
While across town at the East gate came Jesus in one of the most anti-imperial, anti-triumphant ways. Jesus had planned out this entire counter-procession. He made the arrangements for what Crossan notes was, “the most unthreatening, most un-military mount imaginable: a female nursing donkey with her little colt trotting alongside beside her” (the opposite of a military horse in every way). Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. This was political theater at its best and it was intended as a mockery of the pomp and circumstance of the Romans. Jesus was taking his plan from the Prophet Zechariah who predicted the entering of the king “on a colt, the foal of a donkey” and this king would be a non-violent king who would “command peace to the nations.”
Without the other processional, we are left a little confused by what Jesus was actually up to. It seemed out of character for Jesus. Actually, the Bible never says if the people knew what he was up to.
Yet Debie Thomas says,
“I suspect they did not. After all, they were not interested in theater, they were ripe for revolution. They wanted – and expected – something world-altering. An ending-to-the-story worthy of their worship, their favor, and their dusty cloaks-on-the-road. But what they got was a parade of misfits. A comic donkey-ride. As New Testament scholar N.T. Wright puts it, what they got was a mismatch between their outsized expectations and God’s small answer.”
There is also one other thing we may miss or don’t understand at the end of this story and our text form this morning that is very important to the impact of this unique entry of Jesus. Not only was he making a mockery of the Roman government, from our text, he had also caught the attention of the religious leaders. It says, “Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
I have seen all kinds of Christian paraphernalia in my days with “Let the rocks cry out!” Or “If you don’t speak up then rocks will have to do the job.” My boys even had a cartoon series called “God Rocks” with characters that sang “rock songs” along with bad digital animation.
But again, there is so much more in this phrase of Jesus. Unlike this event being aimed at the Romans, at this point Jesus is speaking to his people, the Jews. The Pharisees would have know exactly what he was talking about because of their location.
Now, I first came to understand why Jesus spoke of the stones while watching the movie Schindler’s List. If you have ever seen the movie, at the end after the credits, a steam of Jewish people, that Schindler saved from the atrocities of the Holocaust, are seen in the year the film was made, walking single file and passing Schindler’s grave and putting a stone on his grave marker (so many stones that the entire grave marker is covered). It is such a sacred and moving moment at the end of the movie. Yet in my ignorance, I simply thought it was a beautiful gesture. I didn’t realize its deeper meaning until one day, back when we were living in Michigan, I pulled into a Jewish cemetery by our home. As I drove through, I saw that each of the markers were covered with stones, not flowers like in typical Christian cemeteries.
You may remember in the Old Testament, people took rocks and made altars, and that has become what is called “Placing an Ebenezer” to remember a location or place where God had done something special. But as I began to research more about Jewish rituals, I found that placing stones on graves specifically goes all the way back to the Temple days in Jerusalem. I read on a Jewish education site the following,
During the times of the Temple in Jerusalem, Jewish priests became ritually impure if they came within four feet of a corpse. As a result, Jews began marking graves with piles of rocks in order to indicate to passing priests that they should stay back.
The Talmud mentions that after a person dies her soul continues to dwell for a while in the grave where she was buried. Putting stones on a grave keeps the soul down in this world, which some people find comforting. Another related interpretation suggests that the stones keep demons and golems from getting into the graves.
Flowers, though beautiful, will eventually die. A stone will not die, and can symbolize the permanence of memory and legacy.
Because of what Oscar Schindler did, his family was given special permission to be buried in the Catholic cemetery at the base of Mt. Zion outside of Jerusalem’s wall. Just North of his grave is one of the largest and oldest Jewish burial sites in Jerusalem. It sits outside the East Gate and lines both sides of the road to the Mount of Olives.
Now, if you were paying attention to our scripture reading for today, Jesus’s triumphal entry began with a descent from the Mount of Olives. And his path to the East or “Golden” Gate would lead directly through (in his day and still today) one of the largest Jewish cemeteries.
The scene would have had Jesus saying, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out” while completely surrounded by piles of stones on graves. And not just those graves, but layers and layers of graves that go back to what some consider the beginning of time.
Can you imagine what all those layers of stones had witnessed, what stories they could tell, what truths that went to the grave with Jewish and non-Jewish people alike could be revealed. He was saying to the Pharisees, these stones could tell the truth about who I am and why I am here.
So why was Jesus jabbing at the Roman Government and the Religious Leaders in such stunning and theatrical ways? And what was Jesus’ trying to accomplish with all of this.
I return to Debie Thomas who gives us an explanation worthy to ponder, she says…
I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say that Jesus' political joke hastened his crucifixion. He was no fool; he knew exactly what it would cost him to spit in Rome's face. Like all good comedians, he understood that real humor is in fact a serious business; at its best, it points unflinchingly to truths we'd rather not see.
For those of us who struggle to reconcile the role of God's will in the death of Jesus, this story offers a helpful but troubling clue: it was the will of God that Jesus declare the coming of God's kingdom. A kingdom of peace, a kingdom of justice, a kingdom of radical and universal freedom. A kingdom dramatically unlike the oppressive and violent empire Jesus challenged on Palm Sunday.
So why did Jesus die? He died because he unflinchingly fulfilled the will of God. He died because he exposed the ungracious sham at the heart of all human kingdoms, holding up a mirror that shocked his contemporaries at the deepest levels of their imaginations. Even when he knew that his vocation would cost him his life, he set his face "like flint" towards Jerusalem. Even when he knew who'd get the last laugh at Calvary, he mounted a donkey and took Rome for a ride.
From Parade or Protest? By Debie Thomas
Today, you and I are called to declare the coming of God’s Kingdom by how we live. Since our beginnings as Quakers, and as George Fox himself taught, the kingdom of the Son of God, the kingdom of justice, mercy, peace, and freedom — is within us as a seed, a living potential, because Christ the Logos, the light that enlightens everyone; that which can be known of God is within us in just that way.
And that means we too are being called like Jesus to expose the ungracious sham at the heart of the human kingdoms surrounding us. We too are called to hold up a mirror to ourselves first, and then the governments, authorities, and religious organizations of this world. That is what it means to follow in the footsteps of Jesus….and that is what Palm Sunday was and is all about.
Are you living your potential as one who is called to bring forth the Kingdom of justice, mercy, peace, and freedom?
How might you help to expose the human kingdoms surrounding you?