Cheering or Jeering on Palm Sunday

parade photo

Alright, I know I’m about two weeks early in writing about Palm Sunday. I’m really excited to start edging toward the Passion Narrative, though, and I don’t want to cram all of the amazing stuff that happens in those texts into one short week. So I’m moving forward, and we’re going to dwell in the Palm Sunday, Last Supper, expectant texts this week, and then move to the full-on passion narrative in each of the gospels in the following weeks.

I preached on Palm Sunday last year, and during my preparation time I loved dwelling on the various stories of the Triumphal Entry. The Triumphal Entry occurs in all four gospels (interestingly, the palms only show up in John), and each of them contains its own nuance. You can read the full text of Matthew 21:1-10 here, but if you don’t have time for that, here’s a summary: Jesus and his disciples are at the Mount of Olives, and he instructs two of them to go into a village, to find a donkey and a colt, and to bring them to Jesus. If anyone challenges them, they’re to respond with the phrase, “The Lord needs them” (v. 1-3). The writer then says that Jesus did these things to fulfill Zechariah 9:9. The disciples do what Jesus asked them to, and they place their cloaks on the donkey and the colt and Jesus sat on them (logistically, I’m not sure how this works — it’s kind of funny to picture Jesus trying to balance on both a donkey and a colt at the same time. I assume that he simply sat on each of them, though). A crowd shows up and they spread their cloaks and tree branches on the road, and shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the Highest!” (v. 4-10).

When I was growing up I sort of pictured this scene as a something like a Superbowl parade or a beauty pageant. We have one charismatic figure or team in the center, and all of their adoring fans surrounding them, shouting, and cheering them on. After re-reading this text, though, I see some distinctive differences. One difference is how passive Jesus is in this text. He doesn’t actually do anything, except pop himself up onto a donkey and a colt. Other than that, his disciples do all of the work.

The other difference is that this wasn’t a scheduled event. We schedule events so that people show up. If a Superbowl parade or a beauty pageant had no attendees, no one flocking to the road or the stadium to cheer and scream, the event would be inconsequential. They need those fans. Jesus, however, didn’t actually need the crowd in this instance. He was there to fulfill the prophecy in Zechariah that he would ride into Jerusalem, “humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (9:9b). The crowd chose to show up and to cheer, because they knew that “he is righteous and victorious” (9:9), and they wanted to celebrate him.

We have no indication of how Jesus behaved while he was riding on the donkey and the colt. If it were like a beauty pageant he would be waving and blowing kisses; if it were like a Superbowl parade he would be cheering, fist-pumping, and chest-beating. Shockingly, I don’t think Jesus did any of these things. In Matthew 20, the chapter before the Triumphal Entry, he predicts his death. He knew, long before he rode the donkey and the colt, that one of his disciples would betray him, that he would be handed over to death, and that the cheers of those surrounding him on Palm Sunday would turn to jeers of “Crucify him” in the days ahead.

Jesus still showed up. He still showed love and favor to those who cheered him, despite the foreknowledge of his fate. He still heals, listens, and teaches as the story progresses after the Triumphal Entry. And what this tells us is that it’s not about us, it’s not about our merit, but it’s actually all about the love that Jesus persistently and tenaciously showed the world while he was among us. Jesus didn’t need the attention, the cheers, and the praises, but the crowd showed up anyway. And while surrounded by all of them, Jesus continued on his mission. So may we show up to cheer and to praise today, all the while remembering Jesus’ larger mission and vision to offer love and redemption to the world.

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