So, what’s with the slash mark? Is this Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday? An either/or or a both/and?
I don’t recall having this difficulty growing up way back in the day. In my congregation it was most definitely Palm Sunday. Sometimes we even had actual palm fronds for the kids to wave around–although you can be quite sure we didn’t burn them all later on so we’d have ashes for Ash Wednesday (that was for Catholics and Episcopalians, maybe a few Lutherans, except I didn’t know any high-church Lutherans back then).
While this “palm/passion thing” is a fairly recent trend for me (and my denomination, Community of Christ), it’s actually not all that new for others. I’ve discovered the Revised Common Lectionary traditionally uses the Gospel passion narrative on the Sunday before Easter (this year it’s Matthew’s turn; the other two years in the cycle it’s Mark and Luke; John’s passion story is saved for use on Good Friday itself every year).
From a somewhat practical and realistic point of view, it makes a certain amount of sense. Not all that many folks attend a worship service in church each and every day of Holy Week, so retelling the story of Jesus’ last supper, betrayal, trial, suffering, and death on the opening Sunday of Holy Week gives those people necessary background to better understand the Resurrection story on Easter Sunday. There’s no doubt more to it than that, and I’ll address those aspects in a moment.
First, let’s look at what Matthew tells us is going on in Jerusalem at the beginning of Passover. His account differs somewhat from the basics of the story provided by Mark (and also used by Luke) in that Matthew appears to be more detail-oriented, carefully setting the stage throughout the earlier chapters for his stunning conclusion beginning in chapter 21, and devoted to relating it all to the writings of certain Hebrew prophets.Three times previously in his Gospel Matthew foretells what’s to come:
“From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matt. 16:21 NRSV).
“As they [Jesus and his disciples] were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, ‘The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised.’ And they were greatly distressed” (Matt. 17:22-23).
“While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised” (Matt. 20:17-19).
Therefore, by the time Jesus makes his entry in Jerusalem it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody reading Matthew where this story is headed. In other words, this isn’t just a big celebration, the first-century equivalent to a flash mob. No, Jesus isn’t merely going into the city, he’s entering the holy city of Jerusalem on Mount Zion to confront his destiny and the principalities and powers lined up against him.
There is in this scene more than passing allusion to the coronation parade of Solomon (see 1 Kings 1:32-40), who rode King David’s donkey into Jerusalem amid great fanfare and accompanied by the priest Zadok and the prophet Nathan. (In the ancient Middle East, leaders rode horses into a city in wartime and donkeys in peacetime.) And, of course, there is Zechariah’s familiar prophecy:
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (Zechariah 9:9-10).
Matthew goes to what at first appears to be rather awkward lengths to perfectly match up Jesus’ triumphant entry to Zechariah’s prophetic description, right down to having Jesus ride on a female donkey and its colt. The image naturally arises for us of something like a circus entertainer entering the big top astride two matched horses. What is probably more likely is that Jesus rode the female donkey, its nursing foal tied to and following as close to its mother as possible. As fascinating as this speculation may be, we miss the point if all we can do is argue about donkeys.
It was Pontius Pilate’s traditional practice to enter Jerusalem (his Roman provincial capital in Judea, Caesarea [Maratima], a city on the Mediterranean coast, was about 75 miles northwest of Jerusalem) at the beginning of Passover by riding in on a magnificent steed, accompanied by row upon row of centurions. Let’s throw in a few dozen chariots, too, just for good measure to complete this picture. The purpose, of course, was not only to impress the Judean locals with Rome’s imperial might but to reaffirm once more who was really in charge in the city.
For all we know, that impressive parade could have been taking place across town at the same time as Jesus’ arrival. Matthew, no doubt, was aware that Zechariah’s central figure was a peacemaker who had “conquered” the powers-that-be and instituted his peaceable rule/dominion from sea to sea and to the ends of the earth. The differences between these two “kings” could not be more striking.
Once in the city Jesus headed to the Temple whose ruling class cooperated with their Roman masters in subjugating and keeping in line the masses of people. He knew what he was doing by upsetting the moneychangers’ tables and the almost-certain consequences. Later in the week, praying mightily and alone in Gethsemene, Jesus would encapsulate his earthly life and ministry: “Let this cup pass from me, but nevertheless may your will be done.”
Walter Brueggeman in The Prophetic Imagination has written:
“Directed by Rome and Temple, this oppressive [Domination] System was responsible for Jesus’ death and for the hunger, poverty, violence, and despair that were part of daily life for the vast majority of his contemporaries.” (chapter 1)
That Domination System had a three-fold identity: (1) A politics of oppression, (2) an economics of exploitation, and (3) a religion of legitimation. In confronting that system Jesus risked it all and prepared the way for his disciples and followers. And how well have we disciples done with that? As Bishop John Spong put it: “Most churches will die of boredom long before they die of controversy. They are unwilling to risk death in order to engage the search for truth.” (A New Christianity for a New World, 125)
Many a church-goer buoyed up by triumphalism would happily jump from the “Hosanna, the Messiah has come” on Palm Sunday to the “Alleluia, He is risen” on Easter without having to deal with all that uncomfortable mess in between. Nevertheless, the intervening days of Holy Week are still there. True, there are also those Christians who appear to be stuck permanently in the pain and suffering of Good Friday, maybe because that’s all of life they’ve ever experienced. Or maybe because for them a theology of the cross explains more of “real life” than a theology of a risen Lord Christ. We need both.
And so is this Sunday’s parade about Jesus offering himself up as a sacrificial lamb (and it’s certainly not hard to find that theological perspective) or a defiant act against not only the imperial power of his day (Rome) but the equally imperial, autocratic, dictatorial, hate-filled, violence-fueled principalities and powers of all eras?
I lean toward the view that Jesus was not killed by God’s hand (as some sort of metaphorical replaying of Abraham and Isaac sacrifice–only this time God went through with it) or even by God’s plan. Maybe there could have been another way, but that’s not how it turned out. Jesus was executed as an enemy of the state, after some of his own people (the “rulers of the Temple”) connived against him. We can as easily get caught up in the details of all that as debating how many donkeys were involved in the Palm Sunday parade.
And so I come back to my initial question: Is it Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday? I think the right answer is “yes.”
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