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  • Writer's pictureFather Nicholas Lang

Palm Sunday

In the spring of 33 AD, there was a strange procession in Jerusalem. An unemployed, homeless young Rabbi entered the city on a donkey accompanied by a group of his scruffy, country bumpkin followers and greeted by a throng of folks waving palms and shouting “Hosanna!” It is Jesus of Nazareth. New Testament scholar

Rudolf Bultmann claimed that “it is not the effect that it has had on world history, that legitimates the Christian faith, but it’s strangeness in the world.” And perhaps nowhere is the strange “stranger” than on the Sunday of the palms and the passion.

Jesus rides into Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover on a donkey. He is heralded by regal acclimations beyond even ticker-tape proportions: “Hosanna to the son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Here arrives that Deliver. The time has come-and now is – for the Liberator of Israel to assert his majesty. Palestinian Jews have been praying for a human king who would wield the kind of political/military power and “restore the kingdom to Israel.” The news of this arrival of the Messiah-King electrifies the crowds.

So, in rides Jesus--not on a white charger but on the back of a jackass. He comes to take over Jerusalem, and the roman military, swordless. He possesses no treasury from which to wage a war. He has no generals. He seems to have friends only in “low places” and none in “high places.” He has no revenue, no military strategy, and no visible mobilization of zealots.

For Jesus, the Kingdom of God could not be set up by force. The kingdom could come only through faith, not force. Jesus did not want a new government. He knew that overthrowing one system of government by another would be like swapping one chain for another in the dungeon of human idolatry. Jesus, riding into Jerusalem, did not want a new government. He wanted a new people.

Not even a week later, the acclamation of “Hosanna to the king!” would become the condemnation of “Crucify him!” To give us the sense of his path to the cross, a Jewish folk tale has been an adapted in Stories for Telling: a young convert approached a bishop and said, “I have heard of a young man who seems to have regained control over large crowds. He advocates the breaking of law, claims to perform miracles, and even says that he speaks directly to God. Finally, he denounces the rich and members of the clergy.”

“I appreciate your willingness to report such a fanatic,” replied the bishop. Unfortunately, we seem to have more of these types of people today than ever before in history. We shall arrest him and charged him with blasphemy and upsetting the public order. If he fails to repent of what he’s doing, we shall have to put him in prison or he will hurt innocent people. Of course, we can’t arrest him ourselves, but we do have contacts with the law. Tell me his name and I shall see to it that he is arrested.”

“Your zeal in these matters is greatly appreciated,” the convert said. “I believe he has many names. Most people simply call him Jesus.”

And so today we chronicle how the cheers for Jesus turned to jeers. The jubilation turns to vilification. The stage is now set. Death is in the air.

I wonder what folks in the pews around the world think when they hear this awful story told in the gospel today. We can judge the crowds who shouted “Crucify him,” the disciple who betrayed him for thirty pieces of silver, Peter who denied him, Pilate who washed his hands of the whole debacle, the soldiers who spat on him. We can chalk it all up to first century violent culture.

Sister Pamela Smith in her Days of Dust and Ashes reflects on this: “Do we also refuse to ask ourselves how a siege of Leningrad, a Nazi holocaust, the torture in Latin America, the genocide in Armenia, apartheid in South Africa, raging homelessness, and blatant racism in America could happen in this century? Have we so been insulated from the killing of our kin and grown callous to innocence that it should surprise us that our human race nailed God to a cross?”

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