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Palm Sunday: The Great Role Reversal

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Palm Sunday begins Holy Week for much of the Christian church. Palm Sunday also marks Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It begins the series of stories that will culminate at the cross and then the empty tomb. If you think of the Gospels as having a story arc this is the story that begins the climax of that arc.

The Entry into Jerusalem is found in all 4 Gospels. But I want to focus on Matthew and Luke’s rendering of the story

Here’s Luke:

“As Jesus rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

The exuberance of the crowds. There is nothing ironic that is transpiring here. There is no sense that Jesus is about to die. Luke, the authors knows it, but he doesn’t have that knowledge foreshadowed in any part of this story. Even Jesus is caught up in the moment. His response to the Pharisees, is ecstatic, even the rocks must celebrate!

Here’s Matthew:

A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

And notice that there is a difference between the crowd who meets Jesus as he enters into Jerusalem and the crowd demanding his crucifixion. The latter doesn’t know who he is. When Jesus enters Jerusalem Matthew writes “when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?  The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Most scholars I’ve read believe that the crowds who know who Jesus is are from places like Galilee where Jesus spent much of his teaching ministry. Remember that in the synoptic Gospels, Jesus never enters Jerusalem as an adult until now, so the Judeans, those from Jerusalem or surrounding areas have no reason to know who he is.

I mention this because it does change how one treats the crowds, what one believes in happening, there is an odd socio political clash, in this case between those in the hinterlands who have come to Jerusalem for the Passover, and those of the elite, those from the capital city who have no reason pay any mind to such a figure.

A picture I think develops that has made me rethink the meaning of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The crowds that rejoiced in Jesus entry are not the ones that call for his crucifixion. This is not a tale about the danger of crowds. The folks are not fickle, these are two different groups, the folks who are the poorest, in the country, left behind by the powers that be are the ones celebrating.

That celebration is not ironic in these accounts. The joy is genuine, felt by Jesus, felt by the crowds. This is one reason I don’t think Jesus was going to Jerusalem to die. That is how it played out but the joy was real for that moment. A different world was being imagined and experienced. So is it political? Yes and no. But I think more is happening than just a political statement.

Instead I want to hearken to the idea of the carnival as developed in Europe. Wikipedia writes “Carnival involves a public celebration and/or parade combining some elements of a circus and a public street party. Carnival is a reversal ritual, in which social roles are reversed and norms about desired behavior are suspended.”

Why is this powerful? Outside of the fun involved, the role reversal is a critical piece. You have to imagine folks dressed up as kings being mocked, the court jester making fun of the nobles, essentially those who are powerful get theirs during Carnival.

So this role reversal is a sort of dream. And it is a dream by those without power, those on the lower end of things as they dream of a time where they are not stomped down on by the powerful. Because every society has had two groups. Those with power and those without, those on top and those on the bottom, there has always been those who objected to being stomped on. And there have always been those who could dream of a reversal of fortunes.

Not because you have organized some political force, organization that could actually make this happen. Not because you have some detailed plan to overthrow the powerful. That would be the zealots in Israel. No this is broader, more spontaneous, less organized. More of a dream shared by many that gets captured in a moment. Maybe it was not planned. It just happened that way.

That is how I see Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Not as an organized political response to Rome. But as a spontaneous, joyful moment when you could envision a new world and enact it out for a moment. A new king, Israel restored, folks no longer being stomped on! For peasants who had little to celebrate, you can see the need for this event.

And if you juxtaposition this with the entry of Pontius Pilate from Caesarea, his home, to insure the crowds did not get out of hand in Jerusalem. Especially given that they are gathering there to ritually celebrate the story of Passover, a story of the liberation of Israel from being slaves in Egypt. A picture develops.

Picture the Roman guards, the regalia, the pomp and circumstance. And then compare that with the street festival greeting Jesus as he enters on a donkey. There is a joyful poking at Rome in the whole event. And a political undercurrent under girding it all.

Rituals, whether of carnival or at church, gives us glimpses of this experience. The experience of communion, where all are welcome to the table and there is no hierarchy. The joy of heralding a new world on Palm Sunday as we wave our palm branches. This dream, this joy of a new world, this ecstatic glimpse of God’s kingdom is what we do as a church. And it is what makes us human.

It is what encourages us in hope that whatever we see in our world right now is not the way it has to be. Any attempt to nullify that hope, to be reasonable, to take a careful accounting of the forces out there arrayed against us, while pragmatic and important in its own right, cannot govern us in all times and places.

Sometimes we need the experience of actually seeing this new world for a moment.  So today we see a world without emperors, where folks don’t get killed by sharing the good news of peace, where LGBT youth don’t commit suicide, where the poor have more than enough, where no one is stomped on anymore, and we say ‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom.”

Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman UCC, Oklahoma

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