thinking theology

Palm Sunday

Today we read again about Jesus’ last days. For the last few weeks, I have heard Hosanna! echoing in my head. Not the triumphal, “hurray” version, but the Hebrew version: “Saviour, save us!” It has lead me to ask some questions about choices, about the nature of salvation in the context of Holy Week, and about what makes this real and relevant, now and here.

After reading the Law in Deuteronomy 30:19, Moses goes on to say to the people that on that day, they have been offered a choice between life and death, blessings and curses. How they choose will affect future generations. Of course, being people not so different than we are, sometimes they will choose certainty and servitude over freedom and risk. They will rationalize why there is poverty and injustice; they will harmonize their sacred stories so that they are immobilized in action and frozen in learning. That is what is real for all of us, living with what we have received, choosing in our own lifetimes, and recognizing the limits of our sight.

When Jesus calls for that donkey, for the colt, it is impossible for us not to see it as a warning and a sign, as Matthew intended. The procession does not originate in Jerusalem, however. What is the composition of that crowd? It is not the employed or the affluent, not the scholars or the children of the wealthy. Jesus gathers his disciples outside the city, in a slow procession of the unemployed, the sick, or injured, children and outcast; they run ahead throwing what they could find – their clothes, the wayside palms – to make a royal procession for Jesus. And they call to him, “Save us, Saviour, save us. We see your power so come and save us.” What do they want to be saved from? What do they want to be saved for?

To guess about this, we need to examine the context. Matthew cleverly tucks the procession story between the healing of two blind persons and Jesus’ temper tantrum at the economic abuses by the temple elite. I think that is the clue here about the expectation of the crowd. The people hope for a new place in their society, a place not on the margins but in the centre of belonging.

So, not surprisingly, the crowd is excited as they approach the gates of the city. Perhaps, as Crossan and Borg have suggested in their book, The Last Week, another procession has taken place, one that is military, political. That procession would have been symbolic of wealth and power and conquest. In stark contrast, Jesus’ procession is about compassion, prophecy, justice.

As Borg and Crossan explain, “Pilate’s military procession was a demonstration of both Roman imperial power and Roman imperial theology. …Jesus’ procession proclaimed the kingdom of God; Pilate’s proclaimed the power of empire. The two processions embody the central conflict….”

So what do these people following Jesus want? Probably not so much heaven as heaven on earth. They want to figure out how to choose life, life without fear of reprisal or violence or poverty.

Why does Jesus do it? What is the point of this story?

When Jesus rides through the city gates, he is showing the people he loves how to choose life with all its complexity of suffering and wrong. He is offering empowerment for change by a revolution of the heart and the heart in community. By this act, he says, “You have a choice: the temple and Jerusalem belong to Jews not Romans; the temple is a place to experience the holy, not economic oppression. I say you have a choice. I choose to walk through these gates and claim my inheritance. I choose to bring with me any who will come. You do not have to let occupation or poverty imprison your spirits. Choose life!”

Although unfaithful to Matthew’s story telling, we also read the story of Jesus passion, his death and trial today. Does it seem odd to be talking of life and freedom in the context of imprisonment and execution? Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Nelson Mandela, amongst others, made choices resulting in physical torture or death. But sometimes, there are things worse than death: choosing to collude with injustice, allowing fear to dominate, losing oneself to oppression. To choose salvation, freedom from fear, may indeed mean paying a costly price for integrity and truth-telling.

What salvation do the followers of Jesus want? They are hungry. They think they want a fish; he gives them a fishing pole and a copy of Fishing for Dummies. They want food and comfort; he offers them struggle for justice rather than struggle against. They think they want a saviour (we still do, don’t we) and he shows them how to choose life from the strength that lives inside us all.

Jesus models for them trust in the big picture, faithfulness, courage; by this he shows them not only how to save themselves, but also to liberate others. In the novel Dune, the priestesses test women for courage. The test involves overcoming their own fear of pain and death. They say fear is the mind killer. Jesus says that no matter how frightened, no matter how beaten, you can stand up and you must! You must learn to manage fear if you want to be free.

And Jesus says this to the influential also. We hear about another crowd today who call for Jesus death, not his vision. Who are these people? These are the influential, the affluent. They may or may not like Roman rule, but they want to be safe, not saved. They are certainly not the people of the streets, not the children. This is the crowd who wants to back a winner, who wants Jesus to either show that he is the messiah and beat off the Romans or do some magic to prove his divine power.

I am so glad for the churches that did not have a crowd shouting “Crucify” today because I hope that each of you would be either standing with the crowd outside or lobbying inside against crucifixion. I hope that some of you would shout “Don’t!” On that day, Rome probably had one hundred or more prisoners, criminals, children, activists, mistaken arrests, to crucify, but Jesus made them nervous. I hope you would be risking arrest yourselves by saying no, or at least running away. Better to accept cowardice than to choose violence with all of its lies about doing the right thing.

Palm Sunday ushers us into Holy Week, all of us disabled emotionally, physically, scared of and scared by, life. But we follow Jesus through the gates, beyond what we thought we could do, and into the vision that sees only God, an eternal and vast universe of life and possibility, that we will not let pain or conquerors or even our own fear, take from us. Choose life. Choose the saviour who only promises healing and justice, a salvation of the heart and mind. Take your palms and place them over your hearts, knowing that all is holy and all is turning into grace. Accept the salvation of passion and fierce concern that loses itself in love.

Moya Cannon: “Taom”
(from Oar, Salmon Publishing, Bridge Mills, Galway, Ireland. 1994.)

The unexpected tide,
the great wave,
uncontained, breasts the rock,
overwhelms the heart, in spring or winter.

Surfacing from a fading language,
the word comes when needed.
A dark sound surges and ebbs,
its accuracy steadying the heart.

Certain kernels of sound
reverberate like seasoned timber,
unmuted truths of a people’s winters
stirrings of a thousand different springs.

There are small unassailable words
that diminish caesars;
territories of the voice
that intimate across death and generation
how a secret was imparted –
that first articulation,
when a vowel was caught
between a strong and a tender consonant;
when someone, in anguish
made a new and mortal sound
that lived until now,
a testimony
to waves succumbed to
and survived.

* Taom is an Irish word which means “an overwhelming wave of emotion.”

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