A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Matt. 21: 8-9)
Biblical scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan co-wrote the book The Last Week. In it they claim that two processions entered Jerusalem on the same spring day back in the year 30. One entered from the east and was largely composed of peasants who followed a man named Jesus of Nazareth who was riding a donkey down the Mount of Olives. On the opposite side of Jerusalem, from the west, approached Pontius Pilate, who rode in on a warhorse, leading a column of imperial Calvary and soldiers. Pilate was traveling from his residence in Caesarea Martima and had come with extra soldiers to assure there was no trouble in Jerusalem during the festival of Passover. During Passover, the crowds in the city could swell to as many as 200,000 and this was a prime time for trouble to erupt. So, on one side came a procession announcing the Kingdom of God and on the other came a procession announcing the power of the empire.
Crossan’s and Borg’s description of two processions arriving from opposite directions on the same day is not pure history. Theirs is a historic reconstruction based on non-biblical sources, but it does make its point. They underline the political dimensions of this counter-procession of Jesus. And for too long the church has undersold the historic entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem ‒ we have soft-peddled its political overtones, treating it like some frivolous 4th of July parade. Today we continue to stress the innocence of the procession by having children lead the way, palm braches in hand and shouting Hosanna as we all enter church for worship. Our reconstruction of history is perhaps more imaginative than that of Crossan and Borg because we downplay the tense political context of the original parade. Jesus marched into the heart of the city under Roman rule while we march into the safety of our sanctuary for worship.
So we must ask ‒ what’s really going on in this passage today then? Who are these people who are shouting and where did they come from? And what does “Hosanna” mean anyway? Why is Jesus riding on a donkey and why do they spread clothing and leafy branches on the road before him?
The first thing we should note is that Jesus is at the center of the arrangements being made for the procession. When he and the disciples reach Bethphage, Jesus is the one who starts making plans for his entrance into Jerusalem. He sends two of his disciples ahead to the next village to retrieve a donkey and her colt for the ride into Jerusalem. He tells them that if anyone asks what they are doing – namely the owner ‒ tell them that “the Lord has need of it.” Obviously, he’s made prior arrangements with the owner and those words were the agreed upon catch phrase to assure the owners they aren’t trying to steal the beasts.
Now, this is an important piece of the story because it makes clear that this procession was not the spontaneous notion of the crowd and Jesus was not the victim of the crowd determined to make him king. No, Jesus is conspirator here! He’s arranged this procession. So those who are uncomfortable intermingling of religion and politics cannot blame the crowd for this parade. It’s all Jesus’ doing and he was well aware of the political ramifications of riding into the holy city during Passover to shouts of Hosanna. And starting the procession at the Mount of Olives is also significant ‒ because Zechariah prophesied that this was the location where the Messiah would appear!
So who are these people who form this crowd and what does Hosanna mean anyway? It is unlikely they came out from Jerusalem to hail Jesus because they would not have yet known him. No, these are common folk that Jesus has collected along the way. They came from the villages and towns, some as far away as Jericho. It is festival time after all, and people are headed to Jerusalem for Passover. But this crowd isn’t traveling there for traditional reasons; they are coming because they are compelled by the message and love of Christ. He has fed them physically and nourished them spiritually along the way. They have witnessed his miracles, been blessed by his teachings about the kingdom of God, and their resolve has been building. More and more they are convinced that Jesus is the one for whom they have been waiting. His arrival in Jerusalem is confirmation of this and their joy overflows as they near the city gates:
“Hosanna to the Son of David!” they shout. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
“Hosanna” is a rare Aramaic word that is found in Matthew’s, Mark’s and John’s gospels only in connection with the procession into Jerusalem. Literally it means, “save, I pray” and is used as an exclamation of praise by the crowd. The crowd obviously recognizes Jesus as the one come to save them. And Jesus truly is their savior, but his salvation is not quite what they anticipate, which is why they turn on him later this same week.
So the crowd shouts: “Hosanna to the Son of David!” and it’s true that Jesus is of the lineage of David, but he does not come to be a king like David. They shout, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” and it’s true that Jesus comes in the name of the Lord God, but the crowds are shouting a cheer used to praise God after the king returns home victorious from battle. This is a song of victory! (Psalm 118). Is it any wonder that the whole city was in turmoil as this procession entered the city gates? “Who is this?” The question is asked with some trepidation. Isn’t this precisely why Pilate’s procession had come to Jerusalem ...to quell any uprising over the Passover? So the scene is set for confrontation from its arrival.
The question is why does Jesus not silence the crowd? Why does he not say to them, “Hey, let’s not make a scene here people. Let’s enter the city like reserved Presbyterians, shall we? Your cheers will draw the ire of Pilate!” Or why doesn’t Jesus explain to them that yes, he is of the lineage of David but he’s not a king like David? Or why doesn’t he hand out sheets of paper with politically correct phrases they can shout? Our asking this question reveals our own sensitivity with a showdown between politics and religion. So let me assure you that it’s possible to worship and praise God in such a way so as not to disturb Caesar. It’s possible for the church to be so innocuous that it never ruffles a single political feather. Just don’t speak up for the poor, don’t be the voice of the voiceless, don’t defend the downtrodden, don’t ever march for anything that could be considered political....just worship God in the privacy of your sanctuary and you’ll be fine. Caesar won’t even know you exist...the problem is, neither will anyone else, including God!
Which is why Jesus is silent as he rides in on that donkey to Jerusalem. He orchestrated this procession. He set it in motion. He knows their cheers have political overtones and that’s no surprise. He has already predicted his death on the cross, which is a Roman form of capital punishment, not Jewish. So he know his Jerusalem journey will have political ramifications... even though his ministry did not threaten Pilate’s seat of power, even though his kingship was not of this earth. When you stand up for the people’s needs, and speak powerfully the truth of God, you are bound to draw the ire of the empire.
Forty-nine years ago this past week (April 4th), civil rights leader and Baptist preacher, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis, TN. Fifty years ago on the same date, King delivered his now famous speech “Beyond Viet Nam,” where he spoke powerfully against the war in Viet Nam from the perspective of a civil rights leader. He spoke about “The Poverty Program,” a hopeful national program to eliminate poverty that was gutted as soon as the buildup for war began. He was against the war in Nam because the poor were far more represented in the war than the rest of the population and they paid the highest price of all in injury and death of their sons and daughters. But most of all, he was against the war in Nam because his message to the angry and desperate of the ghettos was that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems, and their response was: “what about Viet Nam? Isn’t our nation using violence to solve its problems?” He said, “I knew I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettoes without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today ‒ my own government.”
So King spoke against the war because he realized he could not be a civil rights leader advocating non-violence if did not. He realized that his focus on human rights was just one part of a much bigger puzzle and he could not simply focus on one part; rather, he had to address the whole. In fact he comes to this conclusion for all America and indeed all nations of the world: “Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.” Those words are prophetic today as we face issues like global warming, the refugee crisis and the issue of world hunger and, yes, the war in Syria.
I recently brought home the video “Hacksaw Ridge.” I knew it was a grizzly movie but I felt I had to watch it anyway. It’s the true story of Desmond T. Doss, a Lynchburg, Virginia, lad who joined the army after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. During basic training, he did everything that was commanded of him, save one...he refused to bear arms. He would not pick up a gun. His drill sergeant and captain did everything in their power to try to get him to quit, believing that he was mocking his fellow soldiers, and that he would be a burden during combat. He persevered bullying and violence from his own companions and never retaliated. In court, he won the right to be unarmed in the army. He eventually succeeded in becoming an army medic and was sent to Hacksaw Ridge on Okinawa. There he not only survived the gruesome battles on that ridge but he personally saved the lives of more than 75 soldiers. He was later awarded the Medal of Honor even though he never fired a single shot during the war.
Today the church celebrates Palm Sunday and we process into the sanctuary waving palm branches and shouting Hosanna. There were two processions into Jerusalem on this day, but we have chosen to join the one following Jesus. Is it political? Not directly, but if you follow Jesus, your march will have political ramifications. Why? Because we take our marching orders from Jesus, and he leads us down a different path. We are set apart because we hold his love for the world and everyone in it...and there isn’t anything more radical, politically or otherwise, than to love the world the way Christ does.