Palm Sunday

Erica Olson-Bang

Today’s Liturgy of the Palms and the accompanying reading from Mark 11 are celebratory. We weren’t able to process with palms this year, but the usual procession with singing and rejoicing feels festive and, well, triumphal.

These celebratory acts come right out of the Mark 11 reading, and is usually referred to as the Triumphal Entry. Jesus, like a conquering king, rides into the city to the cheers and adoration of the people. Cloaks and branches are spread out on the road ahead of Jesus’ colt. Those marching into Jerusalem with him, before and behind, shout: “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” This word, Hosanna, by the way, means “Save us now!” and suits the timely arrival of a conquering king. 

It’s clear from the kingly imagery and the references to the coming kingdom of David that those who gathered and cheered hoped that Jesus was the Messiah, that he was the one anointed by God to lead the people. They expected Jesus to rule the way David did–in the here and now–, the way so many other amazing leaders selected by God to lead Israel had. They hoped Jesus was the long-awaited king who would restore Israel to its former glory.

Unfortunately, at least from Mark’s perspective, they’d got it all wrong.

Don’t get me wrong, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is the Messiah.  That’s the whole point of Mark’s gospel. The problem is that the disciples’ expectations for the Messiah (and maybe ours) were all wrong.

The Gospel of Mark opens by announcing that Jesus is the Messiah. It begins,  “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah.” After this very clear opening statement, most of the rest of the gospel is focused on the question of Jesus’ identity (who gets it and who doesn’t) and is full of misunderstandings about who Jesus is and what it means to be the Messiah. The reality is that almost no one in the Gospel “gets it.” Even Jesus’ closest followers don’t seem to understand who he is or what he’s about. 

This dynamic is clearly seen in what I think is the key passage in Mark: Mark 8: 27-33. In this passage, Jesus asks his disciples: “Who do people say that I am?” They answer by identifying some of things that others are saying: like, you’re John the Baptist, Elijah, a prophet, and so on. Then Jesus turns the question on them, “What about youWho do you say that I am?” And Peter answers: “You are the Messiah.”

And for that one moment, Peter was absolutely, perfectly correct.

Unfortunately, this moment of clarity was short lived. Verse 31 picks up again, saying, “[Jesus] then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected…and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.” This teaching alarmed Peter, who pulled Jesus aside and “rebuked” him! Jesus was not having this and retorted with a surprisingly strongly-worded response: “Get behind me, Satan!…You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” Yikes. I’d imagine that Peter was shocked, even embarrassed, by this rebuke.

I think this surprisingly harsh comment by Jesus signals to us that there’s a significant misunderstanding happening. Peter correctly identified Jesus as the Messiah, but was dismayed when Jesus started to talk about the Messiah’s death. Peter’s idea of the Messiah couldn’t be further from Jesus’ understanding: for Jesus, the number one thing to know about the Messiah is that the Messiah will die.

This equating of the Messiah with death is precisely why the Triumphal Entry seems so out of place in the Gospel of Mark. The image of the triumphant king entering Jerusalem to the praise and adulation of his followers? It has nothing to do with Jesus’ own understanding of the Messiah who will suffer and die!

I wonder if this is why the end of the Mark 11 reading seems so anti-climatic: Jesus just sort of wandered around the temple for a bit and then headed home because no one was there. It feels a little aimless to me. Maybe this is a signal to readers that the story of Jesus-as-King isn’t going to go the way they expected (or we might hope).

We see this in the Mark’s Passion as well. Pilate asked Jesus if he was the King of Jews, and Jesus deflected by saying to him: those are your words. And while there’s a great deal of kingly imagery in the reading as well (Jesus is given a crown and a robe and so on), but it is done in mockery. This leads me to the conclusion that Mark is resisting this narrative of Jesus-as-king throughout.

I think the problem with the image of Jesus as triumphant king (which I think is one that many of us share and is certainly present in the Liturgy of Palms) is that it isn’t really connected to the historical reality of the Jesus we see in the Gospels. Jesus-as-king might be precisely what Peter and all the others were hoping for, but it is very much out of step with Jesus’ identity and self-identity in Mark.

I wonder if we too are hoping for Jesus to arrive in the here-and-now in this sort of kingly way that actually has nothing to do with the Jesus we see in the Gospels. Aren’t we all hoping for someone to ride in on a horse, Prince-Charming style, to save us all? I can just hear us shouting “Save us now!”

But the Jesus of the Gospels is definitely not kingly, and the basic Christian posture, which is modeled on the life of Jesus, is also to be one of service and sacrifice, not kingly triumph. The Liturgy of the Palms, in this sense, feels like an anomaly for the Christian church. Perhaps it’s not very Christ-like at all?

Fittingly, the moment of triumph that opens today’s service doesn’t even make it all the way through the Palm Sunday service. We might start by singing “All glory, laud and power to thee Redeemer King,” but by the end of the service, we’ve turned our sights, like Jesus, to the coming cross. We have joined with the mob to shout, “crucify him,” and we have recognized with the Centurion that this crucified man was “surely…the Son of God.”

Like Jesus who turned his face to Jerusalem, we turn our faces now to Holy Week.

What does it mean for us to be the followers of a crucified man, instead of a triumphant king? What does it look like for us to be a people that gather at the foot of the cross, instead of parading through the streets?

If we turn our back on our misplaced hope of Jesus coming to us in the here and now as conquering king, who do we see? We see Jesus, the one who “gave [his] back to those who struck [him], and [his] cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; who did not hide [his] face from insult and spitting,” as it says in Isaiah. We see Jesus, who “become a reproach to all [his] enemies and even to [his] neighbors,” as it says in the Psalm. Jesus, the one who “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of  death – even death on a cross,” as it says in Phillipians. We see Jesus as the humble servant, and we are invited to humbly serve alongside him. 

Following the Humble Servant looks like keeping company with the humble, and not the important. Following the one who hangs on the cross, looks like gathering with those who suffer and mourn, not with the triumphant. Following the one whose resurrection has not-yet-fully come looks like doing the work of the kingdom until it does come, not sitting back as if it were already here.

As our collect concludes: “Mercifully grant [, O God,] that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection.” Amen.