Palm Sunday, Year A
We call today “Palm Sunday”
in honor of the palms that waved Jesus into the city,
or sometimes we call this passage from the gospel
the “triumphal entry into Jerusalem.”
And when it is portrayed in dramas of the Passion,
or in movies such as Jesus of Nazareth
or The Passion of the Christ,
it is a joyous occasion.
For me it is perhaps portrayed best in Broadway adaptations
such as Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar.
A friend from Spain said that when he was growing up
they sang Andrew Lloyd Weber’s song that accompanied
this scene in Superstar:
“Hosanna, hey sanna, sanna, sanna, ho!”
It has the feel of a festival, maybe even a Mardi Gras carnival,
or a St. Patrick’s Day Parade,
or some kind of Jewish Pride Parade.
Then again, Hollywood or Broadway or even the liturgy
might not quite capture what was going on in Jerusalem
all those years ago.
As I’ve been reflecting on this event,
I’ve found myself wanting to call it, “The Battle for Jerusalem.”
You see, there was another “triumphal procession” going on
on the same day, at the same time, as Jesus and his merry band.
Pontius Pilate was also on his way into the city for Passover,
coming from the Roman garrison town
not far from Jerusalem,
like Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem, but for another purpose.
Passover, after all, was and is Jewish independence day,
the celebration in ritual of God’s liberation
of the Hebrew slaves
from another emperor, the Pharaoh in Egypt,
and it was Pontius Pilate’s job not to let the Jews of Jesus’ time
get any similar ideas into their head.
And so he marched down into the Jewish capital,
not on a donkey or a colt, but on a warhorse
and not with a crowd carry branches
and throwing cloaks on the streets,
but with hardened soldiers armed to the teeth,
men whose job it was to keep people in check,
men whose job it was to crucify,
to make sure that Jerusalem and ancient Israel
stayed firmly in Caesar’s grasp.
And there were crowds, too,
shouting “Hosanna” to Pontius Pilate:
there better be, or there would be hell to pay,
and it was the job of the Jerusalem elite
to make sure Pilate was properly applauded.
The Battle for Jerusalem, a battle between two armies,
each going to its own castle:
Pilate to the Antonia fortress that overlooked the Temple,
and Jesus, in the very next verse after this gospel,
to the Temple itself, where he famously drove out
all those involved in the “business” of the Temple,
his attack on the cozy relationship
between the Temple collaborators
and the Romans who were bleeding the people dry.
A battle between two armies:
Pilate versus Jesus, God versus Caesar.
God takes a side, the side of the losers, the side of the poor,
but unfortunately his general
has brought a palm frond to a swordfight.
God’s warrior is a man of peace, a suffering servant,
a man who would rather die than kill,
and a man who will indeed be dead by Friday.
With God there is fullness of mercy,
but with Caesar, there is none.
Which leaves us in the unfortunate position:
Not 20 minutes ago we pledged our allegiance once again
to Jesus’ peaceful army, waving our palm fronds and singing Hosanna.
In ritual we made a public commitment to the losing side,
the side that keeps getting crushed
by whatever Caesar is in power
which is also the side that God keeps choosing.
We are part of the procession that ends,
or at least pauses very painfully, at Golgotha.
I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say
that we live in a world in which the battle for Jerusalem
is still going on;
the Caesars and Pilates and Pharoahs of the world
are still leaving their boot prints,
their tank tracks and bullet holes
and foreclosed houses and abandoned neighborhoods,
and polluted rivers and mounds of hazardous waste,
all over the place.
And they are still keeping “the losers” in line:
the victims of street violence, the undocumented,
the long-term unemployed, the sweatshop workers,
the hungry and homeless and poor.
God’s poor are still crying out: “Hosanna”—
which means, “save us.”
And God is still choosing their side, the losing side:
Are we ready to join Jesus’ merry band,
all the way to Golgotha?
How will we know we are in the right parade?