Palm Sunday is a Sunday of symbols: the palms that are waved with shouts of Hosanna. Donkeys, that most humble means of transportation, and the coats strewn in the road to cover the path. We might begin with a few words on each of the familiar symbols for this day:
Palms: Palm branches were waved in victorious processionals in the ancient Middle East and the Roman Empire. The palms of this Jesus parade would echo these victorious processional entries. They would indicate that Jesus’ entry might be construed as the entrance of a person or force in victorious conquest or at least opposition to the current authorities and empire.
Hosanna: The oldest root of this Hebrew word is save, or one who saves, or deliverer or redeemer or here is the one who overcomes the forces that destroy us. Shouted out, in its most primitive meaning, it meant save us. The word has the implications of the original Boston Tea Party. It is a shout with revolutionary undertones. The shout became associated with Messianic hope and was used in connection with the Messiah who would deliver the people from Roman rule.
Eventually it becomes a more general word of praise, shouted or sung in the psalms. Gradually it takes on the meaning associated with Alleluia: Praise be to God! For us it is a shout of praise, but in the time of Jesus the word would have had political implications.
Donkeys: In the ancient Near East, as a dignitary approached a city from a distance far away, people would wonder whether or not the diplomat was coming in peace or in war. They would look down the road to catch a glimpse of the one approaching. If the dignitary was coming in peace, a donkey was ridden as a sign of that humble, peaceful intent. If a horse were ridden, the intention was more assertive, warlike, aggressive, or demanding. In riding a donkey, Jesus indicates that he comes in humble peace, and that the kingdom and cause he represents is marked by humility rather than violence.
Coats strewn on the road: The coats strewn on the road are perhaps very similar to our current use of red carpets at award ceremonies. In this period the path of dignitaries and royalty is covered with something that denotes a special processional entrance and deepest respect. A path is being created for the one honored. Probably the coats created a moving carpet as the procession entered the city; those last used by the donkey were placed in the front. The moving carpet of coats would have lifted up the importance of the coming of this messianic figure with royal implications.
The four symbols together create a complex stew of meaning. Jesus is highly honored by this victorious processional, and the words and symbols used by the people challenged the religious and political authority of the temple and the empire. And at the same time, the symbols speak of a humility and peace that make the entrance of Jesus more difficult to interpret in his time and our own.
Further, the symbols are laid upon an event: an entrance into the city at the time of its festival. The processional is part of the gathering of pilgrims coming to Jerusalem at the time of a Passover, a big festival event involving many people gathering on the roads into Jerusalem. The palm processional of Jesus involved pilgrims from Galilee up north where Jesus was from, coming down now to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem, with Jesus as their local champion.
As such the palm processional may have been a bit of street theatre, organized by the followers of Jesus from their base of operations in Bethany located just outside of Jerusalem. The symbols are used to create an event, a stir, a witness, an entry. And the entry is itself an important element as these symbols come together.
According to all of the gospels, what comes next is confrontation. What is entered is not only the city, but a period of challenge to religious and civil authorities. We get the impression that in this particular Passover Season, Jesus has come down from the north to challenge and confront the powers that be in Jerusalem. This confrontation and challenge leads to conflict and his violent death at the hands of religious and civil leaders, despite his peaceful donkey.
These symbols of Palm Sunday are but the first symbols of a deeply symbolic week that includes such things as a whip woven to drive out the money changers in the temple, some bread and wine that become the body of Christ, a lonely prayer in a garden, the overturned stones of a temple, thirty pieces of silver, a cross, and an empty tomb. We will recall these symbols on Thursday, Friday, and Easter. These Palm Sunday symbols foreshadow all the symbols of holy week.
But today the symbols of palms, hosannas, donkeys, and coats raise up for us one basic question: how might the spirit of humility be victorious in our world and lives? This is a political question, for the palms, shouts, coats, and donkey are all political symbols. And as uncomfortable as I am with political interpretations, today we should talk politics I think: the palm processional politics of Jesus.
Please keep in mind, that I’m not all that keen on politics. I’m much more into other things. And I am not particularly skilled at politics, and have no deep insights into the political matters of the day. But there is this political base to Palm Sunday. And so we should talk a bit about that.
The politics of Jesus probably do not translate very well into our current political ways of thinking. We have republicans and democrats, liberals and conservatives. There may even be a few moderates left. But these are not terms Jesus would have found useful. The liberals of his day, the Pharisees; and the conservatives of his day, the Sadducees were usually dead-locked in intense dislike for one another. But both agreed that Jesus was their enemy, and needed to be destroyed. So in Jesus we have someone who would confound both liberals and conservatives, even though today both groups would want you to think that God supports their cause.
Let’s see. It might go something like this. The important thing about a society or a nation is that it is a beacon of hope, wisdom, justice, and compassion for the world to see. Such a nation would always be dedicated to peace and yet always call into question the uses of power. And such a nation would be willing to lay down its own life in witness to this hope and wisdom, justice and compassion.
Other nations, at first would ridicule this obviously weak nation, and may even take advantage of it. It would be rejected by many because it seems so impractical, and so counter to our usual understanding of the way the world works. But in the end this national vision of what life can be like if people in neighborhoods, cities, states and nations loved one another – well, this national vision would prevail. The vision applies to cities, states, and contries. The politics of Jesus calls us to be such a political beacon.
This is so far from where we are in our current politics that I have no idea how we can get there. After all, I’m just a parish pastor. Give me a break here. But this is the political vision of someone like Jesus grounded in the deep prophetic tradition out of which he comes.
Should we care about the distribution of wealth and the benefits the poor receive? Of course, but ensuring the entitlements of its citizens is not the purpose of palm procession politics. What would a church be like if all we did was focus on satisfying our members? Even if we take care of every citizen’s needs, the purpose of the state is not to care for its own. It is to be that beacon. We are too self-centered in our politics to be Palm Sunday people.
Should we care about the national debt? Of course, but we are way too interested in our money and the ways in which that is entrenched in our politics. We have become our own den of thieves as Jesus might say. The money isn’t the matter. Even if we become the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, the purpose of the politics of Jesus is not to make wealth, or facilitate it, or protect it. It is to be that beacon. We are too self-centered to be Palm Sunday people.
Should we care about national or homeland security? Of course, but when we are so engulfed in security and war, and when we want to make guns a part of our daily lives; we will never be that nation of peaceful intent, to whom others turn, seeking to know more about what it means to be wise and just, compassionate and hopeful. All others will see is our fears and our desire to protect ourselves and what we have. We are too self-centered in our politics to be Palm Sunday people.
To Jesus, and the prophets with whom he stands, the world is going to hell in a hand basket. And it can only be saved by a politics that moves beyond our entitlements, our capitalism, our warring ways, so that others may sense that here among us is dawning a new hope, a new compassion, a new justice, a new peace.
The politics of Jesus. You know, they accused Jesus of a lot of things. But no one ever accused him of being too practical. And he wasn’t. Today we have the politics of Jesus, not our own increasingly petty squabbles that disguise themselves as the important issues of our times. No the politics of Jesus call us in this town, in this state, in this country to be that beacon of love and hope, justice and compassion to and for all, in hope that the world might be saved.