Wednesday, 26 September 2018


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Palm Sunday and Divine Commentary

March 25, 2018


March 25, 2018 (Palm Sunday/Sixth Sunday in Lent)

New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Arkansas


John 12:12-16

12 The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—
   the King of Israel!’ 
14Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: 
15 ‘Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion.
Look, your king is coming,
   sitting on a donkey’s colt!’ 
16His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.

Have you ever thought about God’s sense of humor?  We have heard people talk about the “wrath of God.” We have heard people speak and sing about the “love of God.” We have heard people speak and sing about the “faithfulness of God.”  We have heard people speak, sing, and even argue about the “goodness of God.”  But how often have we heard people speak, sing, or even imagine the humor of God?  Even now, as you hear or read these words, what comes to your mind when you reflect on whether God has a sense of humor?


Welcome to Palm Sunday 2018.  


Each of the four gospel accounts of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus includes his entry into Jerusalem several days before the beginning of the Passover festival near the end of his life.  On previous Passover years, Jesus entered Jerusalem without fanfare as simply one of many faithful pilgrims.  


But this time, Jesus took a different approach.  He rode into Jerusalem, rather than walked.  He was welcomed by a cheering crowd of other festival attendees.  The account we read in the Fourth Gospel mentions that the crowd “took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord – the King of Israel!”  Literally, they were saying “Save!”  And they were saying, “Blessed is the one who comes with the authority of God.”  Their chant drew on messages and hopes about social justice that were associated with the deepest meaning of Passover (see Psalm 118; Zechariah 9:9-10).  


If we are not careful, we will read the Palm Sunday passages as religious history.  If we are not careful, we read them in a spirit of piety.  Palm Sunday was (and remains) more than an event in the history of Jesus.  Palm Sunday was (and remains) more than an expression of piety.  Palm Sunday was divine commentary.  


John’s Gospel declares that Jesus was God among us!  When Jesus entered Jerusalem before earlier Passover festivals he did so inconspicuously, without calling attention to himself or allowing others to publicize his identity and presence.  God went to Passover on earlier years “under cover,” as it were.  But on Palm Sunday, John’s Gospel declares that God was welcomed to Jerusalem by a crowd of people who chanted about salvation.  God was welcomed to Jerusalem by colonized people.  God was welcomed to Jerusalem by unprivileged people.  God was welcomed to Jerusalem by people oppressed by the militaristic imperialism of Roman rulers and the religious imperialism of the Jerusalem Temple hierarchy.  


According to John’s Gospel, when Jesus entered Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday, God showed up.  God showed up on the back of a donkey, not a stallion or a chariot.  God showed up surrounded by people who would not have been on the “A” list of the Jerusalem rich and famous.  God showed up looking unlike a conqueror and was welcomed by conquered people.  


That was a commentary about salvation, but not the kind of personal salvation we usually sing and preach about.   It was a commentary about salvation from domination.  It was a commentary about salvation from oppression.  It was a commentary about God identifying with marginalized people rather than with the rich, famous, and powerful.  Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the back of a borrowed donkey while people threw palm branches and their outer garments on the ground before him was divine satire on the Roman Empire – think superpower – and on the way religion had become a cultural enterprise instead of the driving inspiration and force for justice in the world.  


Palm Sunday was God doing a first century version of Saturday Night Live!  Palm Sunday is divine commentary that mocks the whole idea of peace and justice through armed conflict and conquest.  Palm Sunday mocks the notion that faith is about religious attendance, religious buildings, and religious cash.  Palm Sunday mocks the idea that God needs to be on any “A” list.  Palm Sunday is God’s way of calling the whole ball of wax a joke, a farce, and ridiculous.  


Then and now, the people who were closest to Jesus didn’t get it!  They thought Jesus was about to take over the government.  They thought Jesus would take over the Temple.  They didn’t realize that Jesus was treating the whole imperial enterprise of militarized law enforcement and ethically compromised and conflicted religion with disdain.  


What would it look like if Jesus showed up in Washington, DC this Palm Sunday?  Do you think he would visit the White House?  I don’t think so.  Aside from the fact that President Trump is rarely in Washington, DC on weekends, we should remember that Jesus didn’t meet the Roman governor Pontius Pilate on a Palm Sunday courtesy call.  


If Jesus showed up in Washington, DC this Palm Sunday, do you think he would appear on the Sunday morning news shows?  


If Jesus showed up in Washington, DC this Palm Sunday, would he attend lavish parties with rich and famous people to brag about their tax cuts and global trade deals?  

Would Jesus be photographed at the Pentagon chatting with generals and admirals about planning a military parade, invasion, air strike, or commando raid somewhere?


  Don’t get Palm Sunday’s meaning and importance twisted!  Jesus was doing a satire on religious pietism and popular notions of theocratic nationalism!  Palm Sunday presents the world with the weird – even scandalous – notion that God had the nerve to show up in the heart of the Roman Empire and the capital of Judaism as a colonized Palestinian Jewish man riding a borrowed donkey surrounded by low income people in what someone has called an orchestrated piece of “street theater.” 


God didn’t show up in a 1st Century version of an armor-plated SUV with blacked out windows surrounded by a sunglass-wearing and automatic weapons security detail.  God showed up riding a 1st Century version of a Prius on loan from someone who came to Jerusalem for the Passover festival.  God didn’t show up to hang out with K Street lobbyists.  God didn’t show up to compliment the status quo, didn’t show up to cooperate with the status quo, and didn’t show up to condone the status quo.  


God showed up without weapons in a war torn world.  God showed up without handlers in a world choked by influence merchants.  God showed up on Palm Sunday to mock everything the movers and shakers of that time and place valued as important.  Jesus entering Jerusalem riding a borrowed donkey and hailed by a crowd of common folks who had been nursed, spoon-fed, and addicted to notions of salvation built on national domination commercial wealth is God’s commentary about every human notion of relationships based on domination, privilege, violence, and greed.  


When we think of Palm Sunday as divine commentary – and satire – about our obsession with domination, wealth, privilege, and the vicious and violent things people do in the name of national honor and religious zeal, we realize that religious people today, like the disciples of Jesus and the crowd on that first Palm Sunday, seem to misunderstand that Palm Sunday is a prophetic mockery of every human notion of salvation based on supremacy.  Palm Sunday mocks our notions of military superiority, material wealth, and social privilege.  Palm Sunday mocks our notions of religious superiority.  And in that sense, Palm Sunday reveals God’s sense of humor.  


This is not to say that God is laughing at us.  Rather, it means that God calls us to see the whole business of trying to dominate one another, show ourselves to be superior to others, and mistreating one another while claiming to love and honor God is foolishness.  For the remainder of what we call Holy Week, Jesus was a bold example that life with God and in God doesn’t involve having the biggest military, the most money, or even being in what is considered the “right” religious crowd.  

Well, what about us?  Do we get the message?  Most of the time, it doesn’t look that way.  Most of the time, people seem stuck between viewing Palm Sunday through the lens of religious pietism or religious nationalism, not as divine commentary on pietism and nationalism.  


But there are moments when the Palm Sunday example of Jesus becomes visible around us.  Perhaps we see such a moment in the thousands of young people who are showing up in places of power to challenge the power of the gun lobby and expose our culture of religiously sanctioned violence.  Across the nation, young prophetic voices are showing up to demand change.  They aren’t showing up as a Political Action Committee.  They aren’t asking whether they can show up.  They are, like Jesus and the other prophets in Scripture, showing up without lobbyists and without armed security details.  They are showing up and demanding to be saved from gun violence, not claiming salvation through gun violence.  


Now, as it was on the first Palm Sunday, religious leaders have not been numbered among those who support what these brave young people are doing.  Like Jesus, the young people don’t appear to care.  They are not waiting for the Empire or the Temple crowd to sign on to their demands.  They are not waiting for permission from anyone.  They are not waiting for school officials.  Their protest marches around the nation yesterday remind us, in a 21st Century kind of way, of Jesus showing up in Jerusalem riding a borrowed donkey.  God is still trying to get through to us. Amen.


Wendell Griffen, 2018