13 April 2014
Carolyn L Roberts
I confess to mixed emotions about Palm Sunday. I don’t remember much being made of it when I was growing up. Alternatively, I could have been so focused on Easter, I wasn’t really paying attention, and that’s probably closer to the mark. It was only when it was yoked with the Passion, to become Palm/Passion Sunday that it really held significance for me. I saw its relationship to the larger whole, its theological and political framing for Jesus’ passion, crucifixion, and resurrection.
Mark is the gospel writer who first tells the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Matthew follows Mark’s lead very closely except for two significant changes–which build on each other. Matthew explicitly makes the connections for us that Mark only implies, and he begins making that connection by quoting from the Hebrew scriptures, from the little book of the minor prophet Zechariah, chapter 9, verse 9:
“Tell the daughter of Zion [Jerusalem],
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
Never mind that this puts Jesus right up there with the best from Ringling Brothers’ circus, riding two animals at the same time. The and which adds a second animal seems to be Matthew’s mistranslation of Zechariah; Zechariah does not include the word and, but follows the Hebrew pattern of making a parallel statement in different words. Look it up for yourselves–Zechariah is the next to the last book in the Hebrew scriptures: mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
But other than the ridiculous image of Jesus riding two animals–further compounded by having them two different sizes!–Matthew makes an absolutely essential point. Jesus comes as a humble sovereign, as a sovereign of peace. What a contrast: pompous Pontius Pilate and his entry into Jerusalem, with his surge of up to 3000 extra Roman troops, all to keep an iron grip on Judah at its most restive time–the celebration of Passover, the quintessential Jewish story of liberation. No humility; just brute force.
Matthew makes it cler: Jesus, son of David, coming in the name of the Lord, is not entering Jerusalem as a warrior-king, but as the prince of peace. And there’s the rub. We are post-Constantine Christians by nearly 2000 years. You will remember that in 312 CE, Constantine is the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity...just before battle with his brother-in-law and Co-Emperor, Maxentius. The night before the battle, Constantine claims to have a vision, instructing him to fight under the banner of the Christian God. Constantine wins the battle, and flies that banner in every subsequent battle. Constantine becomes the first Holy Roman Emperor; but look at what happens here.
Before Constantine, the Christian community–at best–is a minority voice in the spiritual pantheon of Roman gods and the military, economic, and social phenomenon that is the Roman Empire. Before Constantine, it takes faith and courage “to say that God [is] in control of history and that the reign of God [has] already triumphed in the resurrection of Jesus.”1,166 In other words, before Constantine, the church is an alternative to the existing social order.1,166 But Constantine flips the church. In short order, it is assumed that because the social order is at least nominally “Christian,” of course God controls history. And most specifically, it is in the Holy Roman Empire that the reign of God becomes visible. It isn’t long before the survival of Christianity is linked to the success of the empire.1,166
But there is more. In his excellent book, The Nonviolent God, Denny Weaver writes that Jesus himself is another casualty of Constantine’s conversion. It’s the other leg of the shift from church to empire. The emperor, not Jesus, becomes the standard by which Christian behavior is judged,1,166 especially since the emperor is the protector of the church. The emperor’s behavior, not Jesus’, becomes the model of what it means to be Christian.1,167 Christians taking up the sword becomes the most visible symbol of that entire transition.
All of which brings us back to Palm Sunday. Much is written about the fickle nature of the crowds that shout “Hosanna! Save us!” as Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey. Relatively little focuses on Jesus’ entry as the first-century equivalent of women suffragettes marching in the streets, the Montgomery bus boycott, or thousands camped on the national mall during the Poor People’s Campaign for economic justice. In their own very different ways, each action–Jesus’ included–was a challenge to the governing authority, a challenge to the existing social and political order.
But most especially, these actions challenge our spiritual framework. Matthew makes that vital connection in the next paragraph of our gospel story–when Jesus enters the Temple and symbolically turns it upside down, symbolically destroys it. His action in the temple remind us of many things, but let me name the obvious one: that nothing, absolutely nothing stands between us and our relationship to God.
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem makes visible the dilemma underscored with Constantine: as we sing Hosanna, God save us, we are we called to consider the degree to which we follow the nonviolent Christ, even when it means confronting the powers of our time and challenging the existing spiritual, political, and social order. Like the crowds in Jesus’ time, we may not be prepared to follow Jesus all the way to the cross. But with apologies to Mary Luti, that challenge is not the whole of the story. Palm Sunday is followed by the full story of Holy week. Palm Sunday isn’t Easter. Easter is not followed by Holy Week. It’s not that we don’t love the celebration of Palm Sunday. It’s that for all of us who choose the powers of our time over and over again, Easter can’t come soon enough.2
1Weaver, J. Denny, The Nonviolent God, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, © 2013.
2Luti, Mary, “Lazarus Isn’t Easter,” firstname.lastname@example.org, April 6, 2014.