Today we turn a page as we begin the commemoration of the holiest week on the Church calendar. We also turn our face toward Jerusalem, as Jesus does, and we begin the journey towards the celebration of the Resurrection.
Palm Sunday is a day of contrast. First, we began our service outside, waving palm branches and shouting Hosanna. Then, in the Gospel of Luke, we heard the glorious story of Jesus coming into Jerusalem riding on the colt of a donkey. This is another contrast.
When a king enters a city after a victorious battle, the king comes riding on a horse. The horse is a symbol of power and strength. The king has come to take possession of the city from the king that lost the battle. The people of that city are now under the control of the new king.
When a king enters a city as a friend or visitor, that king comes riding on a donkey. The donkey is a symbol of humility and peace. The donkey is a beast of burden and not one of war. The king comes as a friend to being greetings to those in the city and the other king.
Jesus comes not on a symbol of power but on a symbol of humility. Jesus has not come to conquer the City of Jerusalem but to bring a message of peace and a message of hope. Sure, Jesus is going to turn things on their head, but he will do it peacefully. No longer is he here to turn over the tables in the Temple; Jesus has come to turn over the tables in your heart.
But as we know, soon those shouts of Hosanna will turn to screams of “Crucify Him, Crucify Him!”
In reading Passion Gospel from Luke, we see this play out. A few days before, the people were hailing Jesus as king and laying their coats on the ground and waving palm branches; by Thursday, they were out for blood.
We witness what can happen when the rulers of the day spread lies and make false accusations. It stirs up the people into such a frenzy that they storm the home of the Roman Governor and demand he does something. They want blood and are willing to spill the blood of an innocent man to get what they want.
There is also a contrast between the leaders. The religious leaders want Jesus put to death. We see them conspiring against him, and they enlist the help of one of his inner circle, Judas. In their belief, and rightly so, Jesus has come to change everything. He has given the people another way, and they do not like it. Whenever power gets threatened, power acts with its power, be it the state or be it religion.
Jesus came to transform and reform how the people thought and worshiped. God was no longer held captive in the Temple, where a sacrifice was demanded. God was not present in all of creation, and the sacrifice demanded was one of love and acceptance of everyone. Jesus is the completion of the law and all the prophecies. Jesus came not to change the law but to simplify it, love God, and love neighbor. This made the power brokers uneasy as they were going to lose control.
But the state was not convinced. We see the Roman Governor Pilate as a conflicted character. On the one hand, he has pledged absolute loyalty to the emperor in Rome, and he has promised to keep the peace in Jerusalem or lose his job. Empires are at their best when there is peace. During peace times, everyone works, and trade can happen. When war or strife breaks out, all of that comes to an end. Wars cost money; peace makes money.
Pilate has a dream, and, in that dream, he is to have nothing to do with this man. Pilate’s wife comes to him and tells him the same thing. But the religious leaders, so afraid of losing power, convince Pilate to put Jesus to death. They would rather have the blood of one innocent man spilled than risk losing their control. In the end, Pilate gives them what they want.
But there is another contrast, and we will hear more about this later in the week. The modern contrast of Jesus needing to die to satisfy some debit and to satisfy an angry God contrasted against the idea that the suffering and death of Jesus were voluntary and necessary to show us the way. I do not buy into this idea that Jesus’ death, although necessary, was to fulfill any debit.
We reduce God to a vengeful, blood-thirsty being if we believe that. And for me, that does not square with the God of love we read about in John’s Gospel. The God that loves the world so much that he sent his Son, knowing he was going to die to show us the way of love. There is much more to unpack, so you will have to come to the services this week.
So today, it begins. Jesus now knows that his end is in sight. Everything he does from this point forward is to ensure his death. This action today, riding into Jerusalem and being hailed as king, is the final straw, and he knows it.
But the point of today is a personal one. Today, and in the days that follow, are times for us to examine our lives and look for those times we went from waving palms to outright denial. Times when our words and actions betray our commitment to follow the way of love.
Take some time this week to walk with Jesus. Meditate on his words and witness his actions. Walk in the way of love, for the way of love will change the world.