What have we just heard? We began with the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem riding on a donkey. We ended with the story of his crucifixion, death and burial. Palm Sunday begins with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, and with it we begin our entry into this Holy Week. What can we notice about this story, what can we notice about this death, to help us understand it, to give it purpose and meaning?
To start, let’s notice that it was no accident. Three times before this moment Jesus has told his friends that he will be killed. He is well aware of the destiny that awaits him inside the city gates, and still he moves ahead purposefully. Jesus makes plans for his entry into Jerusalem: he has made arrangements for a colt, he has instructed those in his entourage what to say, he has choreographed his arrival to resemble the kind expected of a conquering king.
The people shout “hosanna” – literally meaning “save us,” but used here as a sign of deference. “Hosanna in the highest heaven,” they cry – signaling their hope that Jesus brings with him God’s power to save them from their oppressors. “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David,” they cry – making clear their hope for a return to the past, to the days when they were sovereign in their own land. The people combine religious and political appeals as they praise Jesus, naming him at once both savior and Lord. All this symbolism apparently orchestrated by Jesus himself, an intentional provocation. A challenge to both the religious establishment of the Temple and the occupying military force of Rome. Both will respond with deadly force.
Jesus has not responded with deadly force. In his preaching, his teaching and his healing, Jesus has noticed and named the powers of empire and idolatry, but has offered a new way forward. Jesus alive has shown those who follow him a path to reconciliation that takes the shape of love.
When he arrives in Jerusalem at the Mount of Olives, the place the people of Israel expected their liberation would begin, he does not act like one preparing for a conflict – he doesn’t arm himself or the people – he acts like one who has already won a war. He doesn’t arrive in Jerusalem on a war horse, the sign of a military challenger. He arrives on a donkey, the sign of a victorious king. Hidden inside his entrance Jesus shows both friends and foes the way to reconciliation is the refusal of violence. He arrives in the city having already won because he has loved the people, he has healed the people, he has removed the line between insider and outsider by reaching out to the acceptable and the unacceptable. He has shown us all that God’s reign has already begun. The battle is over.
Why then this horrible death? Why this humiliation?
Jesus dies the most horrible death, the kind reserved for criminals and dissidents. In religious language many of us have been taught to say that he died to save us, “he died for me.” What does that mean? What have I done that is so wrong that I, or someone else should have to die to make up for it?
I believe God answers that question with the cross. Not that God sends Jesus to pay the price that God demands, but that God in Jesus pays the price that the world demands. It is the world we live in that condemns people to die homeless and hungry. It is the world we live in that answers one death with another, one war with another. An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. It is the world we live in that shames and humiliates all who speak differently, who look differently, who walk differently, who think differently, who love differently, who pray differently. It is the world we live in that passes judgment on those who refuse to live by its rules. It is the world that sentences us to the cross, but it is God who is willing to join us even there.
Jesus enters Jerusalem as the messenger of the supreme court, the highest authority on earth or in heaven, with a decision rooted in love. God’s love for the world is unflinching, even in the face of death. There is nowhere we can run, nothing we can do – even what we have done to Christ himself – that can separate us from that love. It joins us in our own humiliations, it holds fast to us even in our own cruelty, it strips away our illusions of power and supremacy, it teaches us to transcend ourselves and to live for each other.
Enter now into this Holy Week. Look at the cross and see not only Jesus, but all the suffering world, and God’s commitment not to leave us there. Tell the stories of God’s saving work through all of time and remember that God is saving us still.
Hosanna in the highest.