Palm Sunday Year: B
Is 50.4-7; Ps 21 (22); Phil 2.6-11; Mk 14.1-15.47
There is an old story about a preacher who was having problems and decided to leave the ministry. But he ran into trouble finding another job. Finally, in desperation, he took a job at the local zoo. The gorilla had died, and since it had been the children's favorite animal, the zoo officials decided to put someone in a gorilla costume until a real replacement could be found. To the minister's surprise, he liked the job. He enjoyed ministering to children as the donkey on Palm Sunday carried Jesus. He got lots of attention and could eat all he wanted. There was no stress no deadlines, complaints or committees. And he could take a nap anytime he wanted. One day he was feeling particularly frisky. So he began swinging on the trapeze. Higher and higher he went. But suddenly he lost his grip, flipped a couple of times, and landed in the next cage.
Stunned and dazed, he looked up and saw a ferocious lion. In his panic he forgot he was supposed to be a gorilla and yelled, "Help! Help!" That ferocious lion turned in his direction and said, "oh shut up, man, I'm a minister too." Unlike these gorilla and lion ministers, all of us are supposed to be donkey ministers by becoming donkey-givers like the man Jesus met long ago and who loaned his donkey to Jesus to ride as he entered Jerusalem for the last time. We become donkey-givers when we give something that promotes Jesus and his kingdom. Five hundred years from now, as we delight in the glory of God's kingdom, we will not even remember how much money we earned on earth or how big our houses were or whether we had much status or popularity. But we will celebrate forever every single donkey we gave to the Master in the form of little things we have done for others in Jesus’ name for God’s glory.
It has been estimated that some 2.5 million people were in or around Jerusalem for the Passover observance. Jesus was mounted on a donkey -- the beast that the prophet Zechariah of old predicted would bear the Messiah. The people were shouting "Hosanna" - "save us!" - the traditional cry of the Jewish people to their king. A crowd estimated to be between 100,000 and 200,000 lined the roadsides to cheer an itinerant preacher from Nazareth named Jesus. The palm branches and the shouts harkened back a century-and-a-half to the triumph of the Maccabees and the overthrow of the brutal Antiochus IV Epiphanes. In 167 B.C. Antiochus had precipitated a full-scale revolt when, having already forbidden the practice of Judaism on pain of death, he set up in the middle of the Jewish Temple, an altar to Zeus and sacrificed a pig on it. Stinging from this outrage, an old man of priestly stock named Mattathias rounded up his five sons, all the weapons he could find, and a guerrilla war was launched. Old Mattathias soon died, but his son Judas, called Maccabeus (which means "hammer"), kept on and within three years was able to cleanse and to rededicate the desecrated temple. "Mission Accomplished?" Well, it would be a full 20 years more of fighting, after Judas and a successor, his brother, Jonathan, had died in battle, that a third brother, Simon, would take over, and, through his diplomacy, achieve Judean independence. That would begin a century of Jewish sovereignty. Of course, there was great celebration. "On the twenty-third day of the second month, in the one hundred and seventy-first year, the Jews entered Jerusalem with praise and palm branches, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel"(I Maccabees 13.51). So says the account in I Maccabees - a story as well known to the crowd in Jerusalem that day.
It is often questioned why Palm Sunday is also the Sunday of the Passion. What starts off as what is sometimes called the “Triumphal Entry” to Jerusalem at the beginning of the Liturgy seems to race all the way forward to Good Friday by the end of the liturgy of the Word.
The stock answer, of course, is that it’s because so few people make it their business to go to church on Good Friday to hear Saint John’s Passion. This way at least a Passion narrative is read and heard by those who only come on Sundays.
Gospel of Mark
It has also been observed that Mark, which is our gospel for Year: B, can be viewed primarily as a Passion narrative with an extended introduction. That is, to understand Mark at all, one must look at the cross. The whole narrative in Mark moves us toward the cross. As one reads the full version of the Passion, we immediately sense how the Passion events seem to play themselves out in horrifying slow motion.
The Inevitability of the Cross
As much as we would like to have Jesus not go to Gethsemane, as much as we might wish to stop Judas, as much as we would like to get after Peter for his three denials of Jesus, in Mark, the cross is not to be avoided. As we will see and hear on Easter, even the young man sitting in the empty tomb will say, “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who has been crucified. He was raised.” For Mark, Jesus is the Crucified One more than the Risen One.
Also, on this question of why the Passion seemingly intrudes upon Palm Sunday – “It never did when we were younger!” the people cry – it is the Passion that places the entry into Jerusalem in some sort of understandable context.
We may as well face it, Jesus and his rag-tag parade of the poor, the halt and the lame, sinners and outcasts, and he himself riding into town not on regal horseback but on a pathetic little donkey, does not a particularly triumphal entry make. It is at best, in the midst of Passover, Jerusalem’s busiest week of the year, it was an annoying little demonstration that symbolically challenged the occupation of Rome and the authority of the religious professionals, the Pharisees, the priests, and the Herodians.
We are to remember that all the way back in Chapter 3 of Mark, we read, “the Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” The Herodians were those Jews who were already conspiring with the ruling party of the successive Herods, who in turn were in a political alliance with Rome. They were considered by the people to be collaborators with the occupying enemy, Rome.
That is, we must recognize that the little demonstration we call Palm Sunday was, in at least one dimension, a political demonstration. Taken together with the next event in Mark, which is the episode at the Temple with the animals and money changers, it is easy to see how once word got to Pilate, whose primary responsibility was to maintain public order, something would have to be done to calm things down so that the Passover celebration could come off without any further disruption.
Freedom from Rome
Also, given the fact that people in the streets wanted nothing more than to get rid of the yoke of Rome, Barabbas – which curiously translates as “son of the father” – a known insurrectionist, becomes a more attractive captive to liberate since he at least was willing to take to the streets and kill as many Romans and collaborators as necessary to inspire some sort of wider scale insurrection or civil war.
The key to this whole story very well may be that Jesus refuses to fight the pain that has been inflicted on him by inflicting pain. He refuses to overcome injustice with an easy, optimistic plan for progress. He refuses to fight back against the shame poured out upon him by a mighty, flashy display of Rome’s imperial power: crucifixion.
We speak of a service economy, and businesses looking eager to “serve” the public. But such service comes of self-interest. It is not service in terms of laying down one’s life for the customers’ sake, but rather it is service intended to impress – like Pilate, whom we are told wished “to please the crowd.” Jesus does not serve to impress or please, to win the favor and sympathy of those whom he helps, let alone those whom he confronts. Jesus is the chosen one of God who has displayed his power over demons and disease, who chose to serve and refused to avoid suffering and even death on a cross.
All those things that we decry as the power of sin in our world and in our lives, even death itself, will not be overcome by force. They will only be overcome by the service and ransom of the very one, the only one, who needs neither to serve nor to pay off any debt.
Could this have been done any other way? Perhaps it could have, if we could live lives without suffering and sin and death; which, of course, is another way of saying, “No.”
What we see in Mark’s version of this narrative is a Jesus who does not so much defeat death but rather refuses to avoid it. His forsaken cry from the cross should not be tempered into anything but a true cry of desperation that echoes the truth of the pains we experience in our lives – individually, as well as collectively as the church, as a community, and as a nation.
Defeat of Sin and Defeat of Death
Make no mistake about it, this entire narrative takes place within the context of an international military and political occupation and conflict. Jesus rises above the petty political, religious, and military background noise. He literally is raised above it all on the cross. He defeats sin through bearing sin. He defeats death by dying on a cross.
In Christ crucified we begin to experience authentic life. Such life is not easy in a world still mad with power and prestige, a world that wants to sell a path of service to others as a commodity to be purchased rather than as a life lived like Jesus lived his. It’s a good thing the good news can only be given away!
Fr. Rudolf V. D’Souza OCD
Canada - Vancouver