By David Timms
Confusion marked that first Palm Sunday.
To the casual observer, it looked fairly straightforward. Jesus, the renowned teacher from about 70 miles to the north, was riding into Jerusalem on a colt—a young horse. According to Luke’s account of the event (Luke 19:29-40), Jesus’ disciples lined the road ahead of him and cried out, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” The Pharisees, predictably, didn’t like the fuss and asked Jesus to rebuke the disciples. Apparently he didn’t comply.
Sometimes this event is portrayed in grand and glorious terms. Some folk imagine the whole city of Jerusalem turning out to welcome the coming Messiah—cutting down palm branches, standing four-deep along a triumphal processional route; a royal ticker tape parade for just one person—Jesus. Indeed, Matthew’s version of the story indicates that “all the city was stirred, saying, ‘Who is this?’” (Matthew 21:10). But asking what’s going on and participating in the parade are quite different.
Seeing It Straight
We might imagine a wonderful reverence in the crowd, a recognition of Jesus’ kingship, and a moment of spiritual clarity. At last, the previously indifferent multitude now acknowledged the power and authority of Jesus. But such a picture probably asks too much of the biblical text.
The Passover feast was just a few days away. The ancient Jewish historian Josephus noted that the population of Jerusalem could swell quickly to nearly three million people for this special annual event—mostly pilgrims who arrived from around the Roman Empire.
Thousands of small encampments surely dotted the landscape all around Jerusalem as strangers pitched their tents in eager anticipation of the holy day to come. Amid this throng of people, many of them bustling in and out of the city and its temple area during the day, a crowd of Jesus’ disciples (perhaps a couple of hundred?) started crying out, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Literally, it meant something like, “The king has come to save us!” It no doubt turned some heads, though it hardly converted any hearts. It surely aroused curiosity but did little to soften the spiritual calluses of the establishment or the pilgrims. In fact, it created a scene of remarkably mixed images: worship and indifference, commitment and curiosity, honor and rebuke. Utter confusion.
In many ways, Palm Sunday stands as a powerful metaphor for our day. It reminds us that holy lives don’t fit well in an irreverent world. In much the same way that oil and water do not mix, so the coming of Christ—be it on a colt or to a heart—has a way of disrupting everything. His arrival evokes hope for some and hostility from others. It’s always been that way.
Earlier this year the Baltimore Foreign Policy Examiner reported that Dr. Nazir S. Bhatti, editor of the Pakistan Christian Post and founder of the Pakistan Christian Congress, receives hate mail and death threats on a daily basis for carrying reports on the persecution of Christians in that South Asian country.
At about the same time, International Christian Concern reported that radical Islamists in Nigeria gunned down 29 Christians for conducting worship services.
In Iran, Youcef Nadarkhani has languished in jail since October 2009 for no other reason than his refusal to recant his Christian faith. In October 2010 an Iranian judge sentenced him to death, though the sentence has been deferred (not overthrown) until international pressure eases. The appeals judge has specifically ordered authorities to keep Nadarkhani in prison, using whatever means necessary to force him to recant his Christian faith and convert to Islam.
The stories continue all over the world—Egypt, the Philippines, Laos, Iraq, Afghanistan, India, Somalia, and even the United States of America. They are stories of conflict whenever Jesus rides in, however humbly.
The world tolerates Christians as long as they keep their faith private. But no Palm Sunday celebrations are allowed. No public demonstrations of faith are permitted. Just ask Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow. Or ask former senator Rick Santorum, who faced hostile questioning on the campaign trail about his Christian views on marriage, contraception, and the gay agenda.
Palm Sunday confusion—today. Holiness continues to be unwelcome in unholy environments. Darkness will not honor the Light.
Jesus disappointed many people that final week before his crucifixion. He had an opportunity to stand up and be counted, to drive home his highest level of popularity since starting his ministry three years earlier. He had good name recognition, strong momentum (especially after raising Lazarus from the dead!), and a strong support base. “The multitudes were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee’” (Matthew 21:11). And, in a moment that must have thrilled his hopeful followers, he swept into the temple area and confronted the corrupt moneychangers and dove sellers (Matthew 21:12). Briefly. But he then retreated quietly to the city of Bethany, about two miles from Jerusalem on the road to Jericho.
The about-face must have left many people confused and disoriented. Perhaps no one felt more disillusioned than Judas. He had walked with Jesus for several years and certainly joined the throng the previous weekend announcing the arrival of Israel’s new king. And now Jesus steps back out of the limelight. So, in a bold and calculated move to force Jesus’ hand—to make him take over and take charge—Judas betrayed him.
He could hardly imagine that the way of Jesus should lead to pain or death. Surely following Jesus meant success, liberation, power, and influence. So, in a moment of Satan-inspired recklessness, he traded holiness for personal ambition—an act that destroyed him.
Within days Jesus’ shine had faded dramatically, and a frenzied crowd cried out, unopposed, ”Crucify him! Crucify him!” (Matthew 27:22). Predictably, Palm Sunday confusion led to Easter Week conflict.
Jesus still has a way of disappointing us. He still fails to rise to our expectations. He confronts our corruption and refuses to endorse our own ambitious plans. Palm Sunday, which comes almost every day in one way or another, reminds us that the way of Jesus looks nothing like the way of the world. But will we trust him? Will we continue to declare with confidence, “The King has come to save us”?
Reverence and Irreverence
That first Palm Sunday had all the appearance of reverence. The disciples unashamedly declared their confidence in Christ. They quoted Scripture—Psalm 118. They paid homage to Jesus by laying down their cloaks and palm branches, traditional marks of great respect. But the events of the next few days highlighted the shallowness of such reverence, as those same disciples scattered for the hills in fear and abandoned Jesus to the hands of his enemies.
While we may tut-tut about the irreverence of the chief priests and scribes who felt indignant about Jesus’ “triumphant procession,” perhaps we could also pause to consider the disciples’ feeble level of reverence exposed by the events that followed.
True reverence involves more than words of adulation when there’s a supportive crowd behind us. Our greatest levels of respect and veneration are revealed by our response to God when things don’t go as we expect or want.
Will we still lay down our cloak for him when the church is less than we want it to be? Will we still cut the palm branches when suffering looms on our horizon? Will we bless his name even when our hearts are broken?
Will Palm Sunday continue to highlight our confusion, or produce a defining moment of clarity for us this year?
David Timms teaches at William Jessup University in Rocklin, California.
Christ showed reverence for God in the midst of chaos, pain, and betrayal. Where is God calling you to show him respect and trust? The answer is easy to find when you identify parts of your life that aren’t what you’d expected, where you feel let down.
Does your job require too much energy, steal too much joy, and pay too little? Do you feel like you and your spouse live in your own separate mental spaces? Are you dismayed by the choices your kids are making? Has the heartbreak of having no spouse or no kids swept your life with sadness? Do you attend church each week only to leave feeling more utterly alone and far from God? Is everything at your home breaking, one item at a time? Do your friendships feel like a hollow formality? Are debts and bills swallowing up your income? Has the freedom of adulthood strapped you with a load of fear and worry rather than the excitement you anticipated? Have you had to say goodbye to the retirement you dreamed of? Can you see no way to care for your ailing parents with the love and attention they deserve—in the midst of everything else? Are you unsatisfied with food? Does God’s Word feel like an archaic riddle or a wishy-washy daydream?
You know where the hurt is, and it’s okay to admit it.
Acknowledge the heart of your disappointment before God.
Ask him to help you show him reverence.
Pray about this area of your life as you study Christ’s last week on earth.