I’ve been pondering the significance of the “Palm Sunday” story, and it was in my thoughts during Quaker meeting for worship this morning.
The earliest surviving version of the story is in the Gospel of Mark, written around 66-70 C.E., possibly in Syria, and excerpted here from The Complete Gospels: Annotated Scholars Version (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 1994, pp. 39-40):
When they get close to Jerusalem, near Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, he sends off two of his disciples with these instructions:
“Go into the village across the way, and right after you enter it, you’ll find a colt tied up, one that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone questions you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ tell them, ‘Its master has need of it and he will send it back here right away’.”…
So they bring the colt to Jesus, and they throw their cloaks over it; then he got on it. And many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut leafy branches from the fields.
Those leading the way and those following kept shouting,
“Hosanna! Blessed is the one
who comes in the name of the Lord!”
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!
“Hosanna” in the highest!
(Mark 11: 1-3, 7-10)
[Note from the translators: The disciples shout words from Psalm 118:25-26. Hosanna is a Greek transliteration of Hebrew words meaning “Save, we pray!”]
Those of us from Christian backgrounds, and others who are familiar with Christianity, tend to hear this story in the context of how we know the gospel “comes out” and of what we’ve learned the story is “supposed to mean” theologically.
This morning, though, I was simply considering the story in terms of the people around Jesus that day, and I wondered what that might say to us now.
They were people living under the joint rulership of a foreign invader and a local priesthood. They could be punished either for disobedience or for heresy…or merely for stepping out of their prescribed social classes and roles.
Some of them knew this man Jesus because he had brought them into his intimate circle. Others felt they knew him because they followed him around or heard gossip about him.
He both inspired and disturbed them all.
They wanted him to fill the role of their mythic heroes, to rescue them from the human beings in power over them…or at least to rescue them from their own failures.
“Hosanna. Save, we pray!”
Jesus, meanwhile, knew that he would likely be caught, tortured and killed by some combination of civil and religious intervention, once he entered Jerusalem. He wasn’t there to rescue anybody but simply to speak truth to power.
Those who spread their cloaks and waved branches, on the chance that Jesus might be their rescuer, later fled his captors in the garden, or jeered him on the road to Golgatha (“You failed to save us, imposter!”), or denied him fearfully in the high priest’s courtyard.
Today, those of us who long to stay true to the courageous, compassionate path Jesus shows us often stall in despair at our repeated failures to do so. It’s as if we flee or blame him or deny him, we are so disappointed in ourselves.
Yet I have gradually come to an unorthodox understanding of dynamics here. None of our failure is “fallenness.” It is merely part of normal, finite, fallible, hardwired primate survival behavior. God knows.
Or, rather, it is only “fallenness” in that we fall short of our better expectations of ourselves.
That means, then, that the forgiveness we need is not forgiveness from God. It is forgiveness from ourselves, forgiveness from those whom we hurt and betray and, perhaps, abandon when we fail.
Being human, Jesus knew the people around him—even those who loved him most dearly—were likely to fail in human ways. He asked them to watch and stay awake with him as he prayed in the garden before his capture (Mark 14: 31-42). He scolded them for sleeping. Yet he still loved them.
Today I thought of the Palm Sunday story in terms of my own failures. My anger at rude drivers on the road. My fear and avoidance of transients on the street. My struggle to center down—or even just to stay awake—in meeting for worship.
But I also thought:
Jesus knows, God knows.
Just wake up and follow him again. That’s all we can do.
And so it is.