Palm Sunday - a View from the Margins
Imagine for a moment that you’re a little boy growing up on the outskirts of a tiny village in the shadow of first century Jerusalem. The rhythm of your life is simple. At dawn you feed the animals, after which you walk to the synagogue in nearby Bethany with two of your siblings, where a scribe teaches you Torah – the Law of your people – mostly through memorization. You return home for a quick bite of flatbread dipped in olive oil, made from the handful of trees growing in front of your one room house. Then you take your family’s small flock out to the hills to graze, returning at dusk for a meal. Finally, you crawl into bed.
Each day is much like the last, except for the sabbath of course. But a few times a year there are the Holy Days, with special meals and music and dancing! You especially look forward to Passover, when great crowds pass your village, singing the psalms of ascent on their way up to Jerusalem. And Passover is this week, although you can’t join your father and your older brothers who will soon join the pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem for the Festival. Not until you come of age – something you very much look forward to!
While you’re enjoying the midday meal of roasted grain and dried figs, you watch as two strangers approach the village. They pause, look around and when their gaze settles on your house, they immediately stride towards you. You call out nervously to your father, who is inside. The strangers smile at you, and then begin to untie your colt from the wooden rail! Your father walks out, sees them and says, “Why are you untying the colt?” One of the strangers says, “The Lord has need of it.” Your father holds their gaze for a long moment, then nods. The men walk off with your colt, much to your amazement. You turn to your father, who says, “Go with them, and bring the colt back when the Lord is finished with it.” You hesitate, but he shoos you off, and so you follow the men, confusion writ large on your face.
The men bring the colt to a group of people standing just off the main road up to Jerusalem. Some of the group shrug off their outer garments and place them over the back of the colt. As they assist a man onto the colt’s back, you wait for the animal to buck, as no one has ever ridden it before. But it stands there meekly as the man settles himself. One of the men who came to get the colt takes its halter and leads it onto the road to join the crowd of pilgrims.
As you follow behind, you tug the robe of the other man and gesture towards the colt. “Who is that?” He smiles. “It’s the Lord. Jesus of Nazareth.” You turn back to look at Jesus. Your parents have spoken of him, usually with a smile on their face. Not like the scribe in the synagogue, who spits on the ground whenever anyone says Jesus’ name. So that’s who all the fuss is about, you think to yourself. He’s not much to look at, that’s for sure. What’s so special about him? But as the crowd around him notice the colt and its rider, they begin to part before him. Some take off their garments and throw them onto the road before him. How strange! Then they fall in behind the colt and raise their voices in joyful song.
As they begin to draw close to Jerusalem, someone begins to sing aloud,
“Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord;
peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
The crowd begins to join in, and soon everyone is singing the refrain over and over again. There is a joyful spirit about them, and everyone is smiling. Well, not everyone you realize, as you glance at some men wearing the distinctive garb of the pharisees. One calls out to Jesus.
“Rabbi, rebuke your disciples!”
Jesus turns to the man and responds,
“I tell you, if they become silent, the stones by the roadside will cry out!”
The pharisees scowl, then scurry on ahead of the crowd as the people make their way leisurely into the city, continuing to sing the psalm. As you lift your voice in song with everyone else, one of the pharisees cuffs you on the ear as he passes. Tears of pain and shock stream from your eyes. Later that evening, as you walk home with the colt, you wonder what the pharisees were so upset about…
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Perhaps you’re reading this before you join your church in worship this Palm Sunday. If so, it’s quite possible you’ll hear a sermon about Jesus’s ‘triumphal entry’ into Jerusalem. Perhaps you’ll sing one of the rousing hymns we often sing today – “Hosanna, loud Hosanna,” or, “All glory, laud and honor.” There may well be a parade down the center aisle involving children – and a few reluctant adults – waving palm branches. Palm Sunday often brings with it a festive atmosphere, and rightly so.
In Luke’s Gospel we’ve been waiting for this moment for ten chapters, from verse 9.51, where Luke declares that “Jesus resolutely set his face to go to Jerusalem.” And now, here is Jesus, about to enter the great city, the site of the Temple, which even now is preparing for the arrival of the pilgrim crowds which will swell the city’s population to overflowing. Jerusalem was a tinderbox at Passover. The people gathered to celebrate their ancestors’ deliverance from the tyranny of pharaoh, to re-live the events of the exodus, all under the watchful gaze of the Roman soldiers drafted in to ‘keep the peace.’ You can almost taste the resentment in the air, but resentment blended with hope, the hope that God will finally act to deliver you from your enemies. Would this be the year when Messiah came to the Temple? Would this be the year when the long-awaited king of the line of David would overthrow the tyranny of your oppressors?
That appears to be what the crowds on the road up to Jerusalem believed was happening. Matthew, in his telling of the story, makes the case explicitly, by quoting the prophet Zechariah:
“Behold your king is coming, gentle and mounted on a donkey, even on a colt.”
And that is what appears to have infuriated the pharisees, who tell Jesus to silence his followers. Certainly, they don’t believe that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah. And it’s one thing for these peasants to make claims about Jesus in the villages of Galilee: it is another thing entirely for them to do so in Jerusalem. It’s one thing for them to speak against the Romans in their homes in the hills: it’s another thing entirely to do so in the shadow of the Eagle standards raised in Jerusalem. No, “tell your people to be quiet, Jesus.” This kind of behavior is unacceptable.
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One of the primary ways people are marginalized is by denying them their voice. By telling them to be quiet.
To know their place.
And so, whenever the marginalized and oppressed dare to raise their voices in protest of their lived experience, in hope of change, there are always those who want them to be quiet. People who – like the pharisees – instruct the leaders among the oppressed to find another way for them to express their protest, one that is more acceptable. One that doesn’t inconvenience others who may not share their views. One that respects the tight parameters permitted for protest.
Or better yet, for them to just go home and wait patiently for change to come.
Well, the people on the road to Jerusalem that day had waited for change to come for centuries. They had suffered under the boot of one empire after another, as well as at the hands of their own leadership, who often collaborated with the might of empire to maintain their own, privileged, position. So, when they saw the rabbi from Galilee who talked of a new Kingdom that was coming, who taught them with stories rooted in their own experience of life, a rabbi who stood in solidarity with them – the poor, the diseased, the outcasts, the despised – how could they keep quiet as they accompanied him to the city where they would celebrate God’s deliverance of their oppressed ancestors? But even if they were to stop singing, Jesus responds to the critique of the pharisees:
“If these do become silent, I tell you the stones will cry out!”
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As we begin Holy Week, the invitation before us is to move to the margins, to see Jesus from a different perspective, as well as to look around us from that de-centered place. Most of us picture ourselves in that crowd, waving palm branches, throwing our jackets into the road ahead of Jesus, celebrating the King who rides on the back of that young boy’s colt. Personally, I’m always up for the parade down the center aisle on Palm Sunday.
But am I also up for joining the crowds protesting systemic injustice today? To stand in solidarity with those who speak out against their plight? Especially when those crowds engage in behavior with which I may not be comfortable? As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed in a speech he gave just three weeks before he was assassinated,
“A riot is the language of the unheard.”
The authorities in Jerusalem always feared riots during Passover. They knew any unrest would bring down the wrath of Rome upon their heads, as well as threaten the stability of the societal order, which – after all – worked very well for them. “No,” say those with power, “if people feel they are treated unjustly there are appropriate channels for them to go through to express their concerns.” Channels often created by – and overseen by – the very people with whom those suffering injustice have concerns.
Dr. King was jailed in 1963 following a non-violent protest against segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. Eight white clergymen made a public statement against him, describing the protest as “unwise, untimely and extreme.” Dr. King wrote the now famous ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ in response, in which he decries those who are “more devoted to order than to justice; who prefer a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
“Teacher, tell your disciples to be quiet.”
“I tell you, if they become silent, the stones by the roadside will cry out!”
Image: “Entry into the City”, John August Swanson.