Palm Sunday is an artificial celebration. Jesus is hailed in triumph, but the faith expressed is superficial and fleeting. Soon enough, the crowds will reject Jesus’ call to true discipleship and demand he be put to death. No one wants a messiah who calls them to self-discipline and sacrifice.
Palm Sunday is the perfect symbol of modern American Christianity. The crowds that day hailed Jesus as the messiah because they thought he came to overthrow Rome and reward them. They were looking for the kind of faith defined by what they could get out of it.
The recently deceased Marcus Borg, in his book The Last Week, pointed out that, across town, on the other side of Jerusalem, there was another procession. While Jesus entered Jerusalem from the east, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, was entering the city from the west.
Pilate came to ensure there was no trouble from the crowds who filled the city for the Passover. His procession included Roman legionnaires coming to reinforce the garrison permanently stationed there.
So the residents of Jerusalem awoke that morning with a decision to make. Which procession would they go to see, which would they welcome, whose arrival would they celebrate? It was a powerfully symbolic choice.
On the one hand, they could welcome the political and military power that brought them peace and kept them safe, though at the cost of their civil liberties, or, across town, they could greet the humble teacher and healer from Galilee. On one side of town, the symbol of the greatest military power rode a great charger beneath the banner of Roman imperialism. Across the city, a humble donkey carried Jesus beneath branches of trees, waved in the hope that God’s reign had come at last.
We know the folly of those who trust in military might. Still, nation after nation has followed faithfully in the footsteps of Rome, who believed that their military power would allow them to enjoy peace and wealth while the rest of the world lived in fear and poverty.
Those who welcomed Jesus across town, however, were hardly any wiser. They belonged to a long line of people who thought that religion was all about getting God to reward us and punish our enemies.
The residents of Jerusalem were not so unlike those who live in this country and think that God has blessed us with abundance and a divine right to use might against others to enforce our will or to shut them out and keep our wealth for ourselves.
Those waving palms were not the last people of faith to forget that God’s people are blessed so that they might bless others.
Rev. Michael Piazza