(The fourth of seven weekly Lenten reflections.) All four gospel writers tell the story of what we call Palm Sunday. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the tone is buoyant, celebratory, even though they know what comes next. But John’s account is darker, streaked with shadows. That’s why I can’t think of Palm Sunday without Good Friday; it’s a sobering reminder of how clueless we can be, even when praising God.
Jesus, of course, has done many miracles, in full view of friends and enemies alike. John tells us that after Jesus’ miraculous feeding of a throng of thousands, people got the idea to force him to be their king (6:15), probably for selfish reasons (6:30-34). But Jesus eluded them. Consistently throughout his ministry, he proclaimed a kingdom that was radically different from what his disciples expected, a lesson they didn’t fully understand until after Easter and Pentecost.
But now? The Passover feast is coming. Thousands of pilgrims have already packed Jerusalem, and more are on the way. Jesus has just pulled off the most stunning miracle of all, taking a man who had been four days in the tomb and raising him back to life (John 11:1-44). The news spreads quickly. The crowds want to see not only Jesus, but the risen Lazarus–so much so that the chief priests now have to include both men in their murderous schemes (John 12:9-10).
Jesus, who heretofore has evaded the people’s royal expectations, now seems to accept them. He enters Jerusalem riding a young donkey, in fulfillment of messianic prophecy (Zech 9:9). The people acclaim him as their king, not only in word but in deed (John 12:13). Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us that the people spread their cloaks on the road before Jesus, much as we would roll out a red carpet, a response that declared Jesus their anointed king (e.g., 2 Kings 9:13).
And only John tells us that the branches they laid before him (Matt 21:8; Mark 11:8) were actually palm branches (John 12:13). The symbolism was important. Some two centuries earlier, the people had celebrated Judas Maccabeus’ armed victory over the Seleucids by waving palm branches in his honor; the image of palm branches was even commemoratively stamped into their coinage.
So when the people shouted in ecstasy, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” (Mark 11:10, NIV), or “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Luke 19:38, NIV), or simply “Blessed is the king of Israel!” (John 12:13, NIV), what kind of king were they expecting?
And what would they do if Jesus disappointed their hopes?
John’s telling is a sober one. He frames the events of the day with the evil intentions of his enemies (12:9-11; 17-19); not even those closest to him understand what’s going on (12:16). Indeed, their lack of comprehension is amply demonstrated in their later response to his arrest and crucifixion.
I’m forced to wonder: how many of the people who joyfully praised God and waved their palm branches on Sunday felt jilted by what happened next? Jesus wasn’t the warrior-king they had hoped for; the man who had power over death itself meekly submitted to the abuse of the empire they had hoped to be rid of, once and for all. How many of the Palm Sunday crowd, disappointed and disillusioned, found themselves calling for Jesus’ crucifixion just a few days later?
And would I have been one of them? How do I respond when after an eternity of waiting, I think God is finally answering my prayer, and things suddenly seem to turn out all wrong?
Resurrection hope is the resurrection of hope, in which false hopes die and are raised to new life in truer form. Hosanna to the King–may our hope be true to the kingdom that is and is to come.