Perhaps the most notable thing about Mark’s version of this story is how anti-climactic it could appear to the casual observer. All the excitement of the parade, the crowds chanting, the road strewn with coats and branches – it all leads up to, well, nothing much. Jesus goes in the temple, looks around, and then returns to Bethany.
He’s not even staying in the centre of Jerusalem during Passover, but because it gets so crowded he’s staying with the 12 in one of the villages, outside the city walls.
Whatever the disciples expected to happen, and whatever the crowds expected, just didn’t happen. Their expectations and Jesus’ agenda are worlds apart.
In fact, despite the impression a cursory reading of today’s Gospel Reading could give, there’s an enormous amount going on here. In fact, when you stop and think about it, we are there in the story and it’s a struggle that continues to this day, even if it’s hard to imagine being in a chaotic crowd scene at the moment, unless you’ve been going on these illegal protests recently!
Let’s start with our Old Testament Reading from Isaiah.
The person we hear describing themselves as teacher seems to be someone who will come and lead the people of Israel, in that person the Israelites also see that they collectively need to turn to God, return from exile and rebuild their relationship with him.
We heard in our Isaiah reading ‘ The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near.’
Many of Jesus’ followers would have been familiar with this passage and they were desperate for a figure to lead them out of oppression, to build a new future, drawing upon their knowledge of scripture to find hope. Such a teacher, leader, prophet would have God at his side and surely this must mean victory.
But had those throwing down their coats and palms stopped to really understand what Jesus meant or were they just looking for a regime change which would make their lives more tolerable?
At this stage, are our we open to the shocking radical generosity of Jesus?
Of course, we know what happened next but if we had been Jesus followers at this time, what would victory have looked like in our eyes, in our hearts? Had we learnt and understood Jesus’ teachings or would we have been stuck alongside many where our own interests continue to cloud our judgment?
Jesus knew what lay ahead, that in a few days the crowds would be crying for his blood, but caught up in the crowd’s euphoria and worship of a new king this wasn’t what they were anticipating.
Their agenda is a revolution that will sweep away one empire and replace it with – a new empire. Jesus’ agenda is a revolution that will replace empires altogether with a humanity in which everyone is included.
Their agenda is to use God to legitimize their vision of a better future. Jesus’ agenda is to realize the divine love that lives in every person.
It seems the crowd are thinking of kingship in the terms of Simon Maccabaeus, an heroic figure who defeated Antioch, a ruler who sought to impose Hellenic ways, Greek thinking and tradition upon Palestine.
We can read the whole story of the struggle between Antioch and Maccabaeus in the first book of Maccabees, but it’s poignant that after Jerusalem had been restored to Jewish rule the people ‘ entered it with praise and palm branches…because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel.’ The story is still celebrated in the Jewish festival of Hannukah.
Many commentators say that Jesus’ procession wasn’t likely to have been the only one entering Jerusalem around this time.
While he rode through the crowds from the east, on the opposite side, Pilate, governor of Judea entered from the west. Jesus would have known that it was pretty standard for the Roman troops to come and police major Jewish festivals so the fact that each came into Jerusalem from different sides was highly symbolic and the ultimate collision course was set.
When you allow yourself to really start digesting this there is a sickening tension here. It’s an uncomfortable and challenging, but appropriate place to stop and dwell a while before the events of Holy Week start to unfold.
So, at the end of the day, after all the excitement, nothing appears to happen. The expectations of the crowd are not realised. But this is a pivotal point, this is the beginning of the end, where the crowds boisterous cheering starts to fade to disappointment and ultimately to anger.
It’s fine to have great expectations. But what happens when our expectations go unmet? Do we turn to thoughts (and actions) of vengeance, or does it cause us to consider whether they were misguided, selfish or shallow?
Prayerful reflection should be our reaction but we know that’s not always easy when we feel embittered, like we have lost a situation we wanted to turn out differently.
Of course, true faith is trusting in God and not telling God how we would like matters resolved then doubting when it doesn’t work out as we hoped.
Jesus remained faithful even in the Garden of Gethsemane with the sweat of mental agony pouring down his face, he was prepared to do what had to be done.
As we enter Holy Week we should try to find ourselves in the story. Let the hurt and pain be real as we remember loved ones that we miss, as we recall times of humiliation and regret let’s offer them to God, be honest enough to cry out to God for the times when it felt that he wasn’t with us.
As we look at Christ in the story we pray that we might increase our own humility, patience and sheer courage. That in our dark times we may find God there suffering and working with us, sustaining and comforting us.
The struggle of Holy week is a choice between that which had to use force to protect it’s values and way of life, its wealth and privilege and a battle for hearts, minds and souls through teaching, acts of love and self-sacrifice.
If we can accept that we are here by God’s grace, already part of his eternal kingdom, then we can be open, generous and not take ourselves too seriously. Whatever our circumstances we can appreciate the beauty of creation and find much to be thankful for as God starts to feel closer.
This is the story of Palm Sunday and this is our story. By immersing ourselves in these events we can make space to reflect on our own life choices, holding close all we know to be good but having hearts open to the change that Christ yearns for us.