Today we celebrate Palm Sunday, a day that signals the start of the most important week of the Church’s year; Holy Week.
For many years, I thought the writers of the gospels were telling us about this event in Jesus’ life to simply show the reader how popular Jesus had become and how the religious authorities were just jealous of him. They didn’t like the attention he was getting. All the people were celebrating his arrival in Jerusalem because they heard all the amazing things he was doing (Lazarus had not long been raised from the dead) so this made the authorities even angrier. This subsequently led them to plot Jesus’ arrest and death.
Well, I was somewhat right. But I discovered there was a lot more happening in this incident than meets the eye. And the reason I missed it was because, in this Gospel at least, Jesus says nothing at all but everything he is doing was sending a very loud and clear message to everyone who witnessed it. And it essentially was the last straw for the religious authorities looking on. In case you are not familiar with what happened, you can read the passage in the link below:
The clue to understanding what Jesus was doing on that day can be found in the way he entered the city. The donkey and the foal weren’t used for a comfortable way of travelling into the city. They were deeply symbolic. We need to go back 500 years before Jesus to a prophet named Zechariah.
The people of Israel have been attacked and exiled from their land by the King of Babylon. They spent many years in Babylon at the mercy of the King (some of us less younger readers might remember the song By the Rivers of Babylon by Boney M). But the people saw this as a punishment from God because they had worshipped other gods and forgotten their original purpose – to be a light for the world. However, the prophets repeatedly told the people that this exile would end and that God would allow them to return. This eventually happened 70 years after the first exile and the Jewish people were allowed to return home. And they were allowed to build their temple again and worship God. But they were still under foreign rule. Once they didn’t have their own king and their own land, the Jewish people considered themselves still in exile and still being punished by God. This is where Zechariah steps in.
He encourages the people by telling them that, in the future, the Messiah (their Saviour) will come to Jerusalem. He will arrive through the East Gate of the city. This mysterious figure will be a King, announcing God’s rule over the world and bringing freedom for the people of Israel. There will be no foreign powers ruling over them anymore. And he will be riding on a donkey – the symbol of peace.
But this never happened. Hundreds of years passed and still the Jewish people were invaded again and again. When would this powerful kingly figure come to get rid of these tyrants and rulers? When would there be peace again?
Now fast forward to a spring day in Jerusalem in 30 AD. Thousands of Jews from all over the world are gathering in Jerusalem for the festival of Passover. There is excitement in the air. There is tension too – Passover brought lots of trouble with it. So much so that the Roman prefect had to come to Jerusalem so as to be prepared for any uprisings. The religious authorities are nervous too – any trouble will come back on them and the people. The ruthless Romans didn’t give second chances.
Then outside Jerusalem there is pandemonium. Crowds are gathering around a young upstart from Galilee. They are shouting “Hosanna”, laying their cloaks on the ground in front of him, singing songs that should only be sung for a King. But notice Jesus says nothing. But everyone knows what is happening without him having to tell them…
Arriving through the East Gate. Check.
Sitting on a donkey with a foal. Check.
People singing songs for a King. Check.
Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. He was announcing to the religious leaders and the people that he was the Messiah that everyone was expecting. That he was the King that had been foretold. And that he was going to bring the peace that people so deeply desired. And he never said a word.
And what is more shocking is that Jesus knew what this would mean for his life. He effectively had signed his own death warrant. There was only going to be one result. Death. This King would have a throne – a wooden cross on a hill of execution.
Why is this important for us today? We have “westernised” Jesus – we have forgotten that he was a Jew, living in Palestine and that his whole vision and identity was informed by this. We have also “sanitised” him into a meek and mild Jesus, who always looks so gentle and peaceful, as illustrated in our some of our artwork and statues. He was this but more.
Today we are presented with a Jesus who is cunning, challenging, rebellious and, some would say, reckless. He is challenging the very authority of the religious and political establishments. So far so good – we can go along with that. But here is the most challenging part – he truly believed that the only way that God’s reign of peace and justice could come about is through suffering and death. Added to that, it would be the way for it to happen. And it was going to be him that did it.
So what is this gospel saying to us? Well, all his statements about taking up a cross and following him finally make sense. Christians did exactly this in the persecutions that followed his resurrection over the next three hundred years.
However, we may not all be required to give up our lives for our faith – but many are doing just that even as you read this. But we have to ask ourselves – how far are we willing to step out of our comfort zone for our faith? Are we willing to be ridiculed and even hated for admitting we follow Jesus? Are we ready to lose our “reputation” and “respect” from others for what we believe in? Are we prepared to “suffer” in some way if that’s what it takes?
Uncomfortable questions but Jesus is uncomfortable. That’s what got him killed.
*The next blog post will be on Thursday*