The city was shaken. The people of Jerusalem were unnerved. “What’s going on here? Who is this?” they asked. The spectacle of this Rabbi from Galilee riding through the city gates on the back of a donkey was such a scene, that the daily life of the city ground to a halt for a short time while nonparticipants tried to wrap their heads around what was happening.
“The donkey, palm branches and the whole entrance into the city was Jesus’ way of engaging in a form of political street theater” (Cleaveland). It was planned and choreographed, intentionally set up to challenge not only the established order of the city but the people’s very notion of what a king looks like.
In a Palm Sunday sermon a few years ago, Adam Walker Cleavland, a Chicago-area pastor noted that “All around the world, people use street theater as a way to subvert the status quo. You may have seen demonstrations or some other types of creative street performances that had a political message they were trying to get across. These types of performances are not all subversive simply for the sake of rousing up trouble… but they can be done to be prophetic, to present an alternative reality to the way things are.”
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem that day was set up to be reminiscent of a conquering ruler entering triumphantly into a city in victory. Jesus “choreographs his approach to Jerusalem to resemble the advent of conquerors and kings throughout the Mediterranean world. If the people of Jerusalem were following the script, they should come out to meet him on the way, outside the gates of the city, and sue for peace, pledging their obedience in hope of the king’s benevolence” (Saunders). Up to this point, the trajectory of Jesus’ ministry has rallied the people around him, and their hopes and expectations of a liberating king were, in this instant, at their pinnacle.
To fully conceptualize what is taking place here, we need to ask the question, “What kind of king did they expect?” Throughout the history of Israel, the promised Messiah was idealized as a mighty warrior who would unite the people and drive the occupying force from their land, which at this point was Rome. Watching Jesus ride triumphantly into Jerusalem, I imagine the feverish exhilaration that came from the rapturous vision the people would have imagined of the defeated Roman army crawling away, their dead falling along the road back to Rome. It can be quite intoxicating to imagine one’s enemies falling to the sword. But Jesus will, over the course of the coming week, turn this violent hope on its head.
While there are many images in this story, the image of the donkey is the one that is most striking in this context. A donkey is the last thing you would expect a mighty king to be riding in victory. A large beast of a horse, thronged with gold and weapons is much more the idea the crowd probably expected. And it is procured in a less-than-honorable way. This donkey has not been bred for the sole purpose of bearing the Christ into the city of Jerusalem. No, this was a true-to-life beast of burden, who was likely a worker, pushed day in and day out to bear the weight of her master’s work. The disciples are told to go steal this donkey… sorry, “borrow” her (though they only are given the line “the Lord has need of this” in case they get caught… not really sure that line would work these days…). It is an undignified procurement, for a quite humble entrance. And it is impossible for us not to make the association with the donkey Mary rode while pregnant with Jesus as she and Joseph made the journey to Bethlehem.
“On that day as Jesus was preparing to enter the city, throngs of people were waiting. They heard word of this amazing teacher, this powerful man coming to the city, and it’s easy to understand why they might have been so filled with hopes and desires. It’s easy to understand why they wanted liberation from the oppression of their Roman rulers. It’s easy to understand why they were hoping for the coming of the Messiah, a military King who would ride into town on a stallion prepared for battle. A true… mighty King who would bring soldiers with him, someone who would be prepared and able to defeat the despised Romans. A powerful king who would finally take his rightful throne as the King of the Jews” (Cleaveland).
But instead, Jesus subverts all expectations (ours included) and shows the people a different kind of king. Michael Lindvall, a pastor in New York City writes, “The Palm Sunday reality was a living parody of that dream. There was no stallion for this Messiah, just a donkey on loan. There was no army for this Messiah, just a rag-tag assortment of unemployed fishermen, an errant tax-collector, and some vaguely disreputable women. And this Messiah was no vanquisher of Romans; he was just a Galilean rabbi” (cited in Cleaveland).
By entering the city in such a humble way, Jesus flips the narrative on its head. He will be the bearer of liberation, but in ways we never dreamt. His “liberation [is] not the political liberation they are hoping for. As they were laying down their palms and their cloaks before Jesus, they would also have to lay down their ideas of who Jesus was… and what his purpose was in their lives” (Cleaveland), as well as what kind of Messiah he would be.
Place yourself in that crowd this morning. We have all been to parades and celebrations, so it shouldn’t be too hard. We know the fervor that gets struck up in a crowd when the marching band begins to play the national anthem, or the town dignitary walks along the route shaking hands and kissing babies. It is a grand thing to celebrate.
But what would our reaction be if we saw this man in simple clothes perched atop an undistinguished animal coming down the road? Our yelling and waving of palm branches, our excitement that the time of liberation is finally here, might be tempered a bit. In fact, we’d probably cling to our cloaks a little tighter, unwilling to let go. “We don’t want to lay our cloaks down before Jesus,” because, let’s be honest, that would mean letting go of our expectations and “perceptions of how Jesus is going to bring about liberation” (Cleaveland).
When we lay our cloaks down for Jesus, we also have to lay them down for the ones he bears with him: the poor, the sick, the orphan, the widow, the homeless, the despised, the alien. And that is something we are not very good at doing.
This past week on the global stage has been a tense, and at times, horrifying one. In the first half of the week, images filtered out of Syria of men, women, and children suffering the effects of a chemical attack, our stomachs were turned, and our rage was stoked. Then in the second half of the week, American war ships in the Eastern Mediterranean launched 59 warheads at an airfield in Syria. Both actions have had the effect of increasing tension, escalating global fears, and adding fuel to the anxiety felt by people here at home and abroad.
For six years the people of Syria have been living in chaos and terror as the civil war there tears their country apart. For six years the global community has sat by, unable or unwilling to act. Sometimes it has been impossible to know what to do. Other times there hasn’t been the political will to act. But for six years hundreds of thousands have been killed, and millions of people have been displaced.
The largest refugee crisis since World War II has been met by the global community, at best with lukewarm solutions. At worst, these sisters and brothers, desperate to escape the bloodshed, have been turned away from what should be safety. This is a moment of global and national shame. We bear partial responsibility for the lives that have been lost.
This is not a partisan issue. It is extremely highly complicated, and I’m not going to claim to fully understand it. But one thing is painfully clear: our response to those who are suffering is our response to Jesus himself.
And perhaps this morning and this week are the most appropriate time for us to reflect on this. We read two scripture lessons this morning, one from the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, and the other from the later part of the passion narrative, where in a dark, quiet room, Jesus shares his final meal with his disciples around a table.
The lectionary calendar calls this Sunday Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday, depending on which lectionary texts we focus on. But “the Liturgy of the Palms and the Liturgy of the Passion occupy the same stage, their dramas unfolding so close in proximity that we can scarcely make the emotional shift. Celebration and praise converge with loss and grief; strength and vulnerability share one liturgical moment, inviting us to shout ‘Hosanna!’ while also bracing ourselves for the poignancy of the crucifixion and the mourning that follows. The Liturgy of the Palms punctuates the moment with a call to communal faith, courageous proclamation, and conspicuous actions as we consider again our shared identity as the church and community of faith” (Miles).
The events of Palm Sunday and the rest of the narrative we will recall throughout the week point to liberation, but not just our liberation; the liberation of all people. If we are going to truly live into the story, that is, truly believe the good news Jesus brought us, we have to be willing to lay down our cloaks for those Jesus bears with him, and today that means our Syrian brothers and sisters who, for too long we have ignored, turned away, told “there is no room here for you.” It means, possibly, laying down our very lives so that others might have the opportunity to be freed. It means calling on our elected representatives to demand an end to violence, which is always the weaker choice, the choice Jesus himself rebukes.
Because in the narrative of this Holy Week, we cling to a hope that surpasses all understanding: the hope that through Christ, all the world will be reconciled to God. We profess a faith that prayerfully lifts up this table as a table of hope, where all people will find peace and justice.
As we walk toward Jesus’ cross, we are called to take up our own, and that is sometimes an incredibly difficult calling to accept. Turning away from what is comfortable, what is safe, is always hard. But it leads to a better place, where one day, all are made whole.
Syria is not the first time the world has failed to act, and I fear it won’t be the last. But I was reminded this week of the words of Immaculée Ilibagiza, a Rwandan American author, and motivational speaker, as she reflected on the genocide that took place there in 1994. She said, “Rwanda can be a paradise again, but it will take the love of the entire world to heal my homeland. And that’s as it should be, for what happened in Rwanda happened to us all- humanity was wounded by the genocide.”
Humanity continues to be wounded by what is taking place in Syria. We are wounded whenever violence is perpetuated. When bombs are dropped, when children are killed, when innocents are turned away from safety, we are wounded again and again and again.
This morning, the question is, “what’s stopping us from laying down our cloaks before Jesus? Why are we holding on so tight? Would it really be so bad if we let go? Would it really be so bad if we trusted God more than we trusted ourselves?” (Cleaveland). Honestly, it would be so much easier to retie the cloak around our necks and go on home. That’s pretty attractive. Home is comfortable. Home is safe.
But we aren’t called to “safe.” We aren’t called to stay home. We are called out into the world; out to Golgotha; out to a place from which we may not return. But that is where our freedom lies, freedom to truly live, and live abundantly. Amen.
Cleaveland, Adam Walker. “Palm Sunday Sermon: “Lay Down Your Cloaks”.” Pomomusings. N.p., 30 Jan. 2012. Web. 7 Apr. 2017.
Miles, Veronice. “Palm/Passion Sunday.” Daily Feast: Meditations from Feasting on the Word. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2013. 215. Print. Year A.
Saunders, Stanley. “Commentary on Matthew 21:1-17.” Working Preacher. Luther Seminary, 29 Mar. 2015. Web. 7 Apr. 2017.