Fists or palms? The Palm Sunday decision




Sunday is the only time in the Gospels that Jesus elevates himself above the crowd, but instead of mounting a war horse, he gets on a donkey. So Matthew rightly quotes   Zechariah 9.  “Rejoice o daughter Zion! Shout aloud O daughter Jerusalem!  For your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.” But don’t miss the next bit: “He will cut off the war chariot from Ephraim, and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace (shalom) to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.”   He’s Prince of Peace, not a master of war, but the crowds miss the point.

What about the palm branches? They were used to celebrate the Maccabean victory less than two centuries before, when the Jewish Maccabees conquered and retook Jerusalem from pagan overlords.   This was what what the crowds hoped for when they saw Jesus riding into town – they just missed the point of the chosen animal!

Apparently, Jerusalem went from being a town of 50,000 to a town of 500,000 at Passover. They very worst moment for inflammatory political statements. It seems clear that Jesus even raised the expectations of his own disciples too. In Luke 24, two disillusioned disciples trudge wearily home. “We had hoped (past tense) he would be the one to redeem Israel”  but crucifixion had scotched that rumour altogether.   No one was looking for a crucified messiah in Jesus’ day.

But Jesus didn’t come to be that kind of king, that would run the Romans out of town.  He came to die on a cross even for the sins of the enemies of Israel.  Still to this day, we have a very difficult time understanding this.  Still to this day we tend to think that military solutions to our problems are the ‘final answer’.

The last week of Jesus’ life tells us— this is not so. 

There’s a further irony in the songs they sang on that Palm Sunday.  The pilgrims coming to town with Jesus were singing the so-called Hallel psalms, the ‘let’s go up to Zion’ songs.   Now the Hallel psalms are full of Hosannas which means God saves, and Hallelujah’s which means Praise Yahweh.   They were seasonal  praise songs.The line ‘Blessed is he who comes (to Jerusalem) in the name of the Lord’ was what the pilgrims sang about and to each other as they went up to Zion.  But here it takes on a special poignancy because THIS TIME their king really has come to town.   This time the ultimate son of David really had arrived and the vast majority of them didn’t even know it, or if they did, they had a very different vision of what sort of king he should be than Jesus had.

One of the more interesting aspects of Shabbat worship, Sabbath worship on a Friday night there is that the ultra orthodox dance and sing, and one of the things they pray and sing about  is ‘Give us mashiach, we want mashiach now’.   They are praying for the coming of the messiah.   For the ultra orthodox, the current secular democratic state of Israel is not Biblical Israel.  Indeed Biblical Israel will not show up until messiah comes, in their way of thinking.   I agree with them.

The Israel we have today is certainly not in conformity with the Law of Moses, or early Jewish expectations about the coming of the Messiah.  No, it is playing the same political games that Jereboam and Ahab and many another early Jewish king played to beat their enemies with armies or alliances or the like.    But what is really needed, desperately need by them, and by us, is repentance, and the embracing of Jesus of Nazareth, the one and only Prince of Peace.

I love the little poem of George McDonald,.  The first stanza goes like this— “We were all searching for a king to slay our foes and lift us high,  thou camest a little baby thing, to make a woman cry”.  McDonald understood that Jesus  did not come to meet our expectations of what a King should be like—- he came to meet our deepest needs— our needs for salvation more than temporary political solutions, our needs to humble ourselves in the sight of God instead of trying to exalt ourselves above other nations…

If we want to understand why the original disciples deserted, denied, and betrayed Jesus, well some of them no doubt had the hopes of the Zealots— hopes that Jesus, especially after cleansing the temple, would then kick the Romans out of town, and begin to rule.  The irony is that Jesus during that very week predicted that in 40 years Jews who tried to establish God’s Kingdom that way, would be destroyed, indeed the temple and the town of Jerusalem would be destroyed by the Roman overlords.

And Jesus was exactly right.  In A.D. 70, exactly 40 years after Jesus’ death,  Jerusalem was torched,  and became a pagan city Aelia Capitolina.  After the second lesser Jewish revolt in the second century A.D. which was also squashed by the Romans, no Jew was allowed anywhere near the Temple remains until 1967.    Jesus told us there was no military solution to the problems of God’s people– when will we believe him?   At least the ultra orthodox Jews in Jerusalem know this.  The followers of Jesus should know it too.

Jesus disappointed both the pilgrims and his own disciples during Holy Week.  And when you dash peoples’ hopes that severely it is not a surprise that you end up on a cross by the end of the week.   Today, when we hear the loud Hosannas, and sing with joy about the coming of our true King, the prince of peace, will we remember his words when he said— ‘if anyone would come after me, let them take up their cross and follow me’, all the way to Golgotha.

It was mostly not the macho, male disciples who got the message clearly.  It was the female disciples like Mary Magdalene who were last at the cross, first at the tomb, and first to see the risen Jesus.

Who will we be more like during this week— like the pilgrims,  like Peter who said he would never deny or desert Jesus, said he was prepared to die for or with him,  or like Mary Magdalene?

Let’s pray and take stock of what is important, and become like what we admire— Jesus, the Prince of Peace.  ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ said Jesus,  ‘for they are the ones who will one day be called the true children of God’.

Are we true children of God— or are your fists up?


(from a Ben Witherington piece,more or less)


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2 Responses to Fists or palms? The Palm Sunday decision

  1. Hammad Siddiqui says:

    can we use your black and white crowd picture from this article.

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