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Sunday, March 20, 2016

Not “Palm Sunday” but a Certain Inevitability

We call it Palm Sunday and in Christian churches around the world the faithful are celebrating Jesus’ ‘triumphal entry’ into the city of Jerusalem by waving palm branches and shouting “hosanna!” Palm branches were considered a symbol of victory and triumph. When Simon Maccabeus defeated the Jewish people’s Gentile enemies and recaptured the city of Jerusalem, “the Jews entered the city amid a chorus of praise and the waving of palm branches, with lutes, cymbals, and zithers, with hymns and songs, to celebrate Israel’s final riddance of a formidable enemy.” (1 Maccabees 13:51 Revised English Bible) In the Revelation given to John on the Island of Patmos he saw: “a vast throng, which no one could count, from all races and tribes, nations and languages, standing before the throne and the Lamb. They were robed in white and had palm branches in their hands, and they shouted aloud: ‘Victory to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Revelation 7: 9 -10 Revised English Bible)

But in Luke’s telling of this story, there are no palm branches.

The word Hosanna is “a liturgical word used in Judaism and Christianity that means ‘save, we pray’” (Cameron). It was usually shouted by the Jewish people as part of the autumnal Sukkot celebration – the Feast of Tabernacles. Once a day the worshippers would walk around the altar and shout, “Save us now, we beseech thee, O Lord, send prosperity!”(Psalm 118:25) On the seventh day of the festival, this shout was repeated seven times-known as the Hoshana Rabbah-the Great Hosanna. This Hosanna ritual “combines the idea of praising realized victories over nations and sympathetic prayers for salvation” (Avery-Peck qtd. in Cameron).[i]

It also makes a nice connection to Jesus himself as his name in Hebrew is Yeshua meaning “Yahweh is Salvation,” because “he is the one who is to save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21 New Jerusalem Bible) Hosanna! Save us! Jesus! Our salvation!

But, again, In Luke’s telling of this story, there are no shouts of “Hosanna!” [ii] Suddenly our “Palm Sunday” begins to feel a little empty-no waving palms, no “Hosannas!”

Compared to the other gospel accounts of Jesus’ entry into the city of Jerusalem, Luke’s version seems relatively restrained, almost (but not quite) subdued. Luke may have quieted the noise and hubbub of Jesus’ entrance somewhat, but he has not entirely softened or quieted the story, not by any means.

In fact, we find the pilgrim crowds following Jesus that morning joyfully praising God at the top of their voices, praising him for all the miracles and works of power that they’d seen and experienced in Jesus of Nazareth. They are shouting in full voice:

“Blessed is who is coming as King in the name of the Lord,
peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens!”

Luke may have eliminated the waving palms and the shouts of Hosanna but there’s still a lot of excitement here. But not everyone in the crowd was quite so thrilled. There were some Pharisees in the crowd who seemed to be a little irritated by Jesus and his crowd of followers. They urged Jesus to restrain, reprove, and rebuke them.

Luke doesn’t describe their motivation for us.  It could be that they were fearful of a Roman backlash. The crowds were hailing Jesus as a King, something that the Roman occupiers could have interpreted as the beginnings of political uprising. Perhaps the Pharisees feared a violent Roman response to the excited crowd.

It could also be that the Pharisees were concerned for Jesus’ health and safety. I know that we’re somewhat conditioned to thinking of the Pharisees as the bad guys; that’s the way their usually depicted in the gospels, as the enemies and opponents of Jesus. But earlier in Luke’s gospel (13:31) we read of the Pharisees warning Jesus of Herod’s threats against his life. It could be that the Pharisees were warning Jesu for his own safety.

And, of course, it could be that the Pharisees here are expressing their own personal disagreement, disgust, and disbelief. As I said, Luke doesn’t describe their motives for us. So take your pick. It could be any of these or maybe something else altogether.  Whatever their motivations might have been, Jesus ignores their demand that he silence his followers. He tells them that if his followers are silenced, then the very stones would begin to sing and shout the praises of God.

There is a certain inevitability here. “Attention must be paid,” (Miller Act 1, Part 8). Praises must be sung. “Somethings simply must be said; the disciples are expressing what is ultimately and finally true. God will provide a witness though every mouth be stopped; opposition to Christian witness cannot succeed, and the truth will come out. It cannot be silenced” (Craddock).

The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. said that “the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice,” (King) and, I would add, towards praise. The two are linked. With justice will come praise for the just and holy God. Blessed the one who comes in the name of the King, bringing peace in heaven and on earth for those who he favors. (Luke 2:14)

In Luke’s retelling of the “triumphal entry” there may be neither waving palms nor shouts of Hosanna- save us now- but we have an intimation of the inevitable and glorious end: Praise and peace and justice in the Kingdom of God.

Palm Sunday (with or without the palms) is a ray of bright sun before the dark, tenebrous gloom of Good Friday and the silence of Holy Saturday. There is an awkwardness to our praise today because we know we still must go through the passion-that is, pain- the suffering, and blood, and death.

Ride on, ride on in majesty
in lowly pomp ride on to die
. (Milman)

But this is not the end. The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends, not toward suffering and death but towards justice and praise. And the universe is bent towards these wonderful ends because of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

O Christ the triumphs now begin
o’er captive death and conquered sin.

So today, instead of the traditional palm waving and “Hosanna” shouting, we will shout with the crowds:

“Blessed is he who is coming
as King in the name of the Lord.
Peace in heaven
and glory in the highest heaven
Glory to God in the highest heaven
and on earth, peace for those he favors.”

We move inevitably towards justice and peace and praise because of Jesus’ triumph over sin and death.

Cameron, Daniel J. “Hosanna” The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015. Print.

Craddock, Fred. Interpretation: Luke. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1990. Print.

Crossan, John Dominick. Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. San Francisco, CA: Harper Collins, 1995. Print.
Gilmore, S. MacLean. “Luke: Introduction” The Interpreter’s Bible.  Volume VIII. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. 1952. Print

King jr., Martin Luther. "Keep Moving from this Mountain” – sermon at Temple Israel of Hollywood. 1965. 

Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman. 1949.

Milman, Henry H. “Ride On, Ride On, in Majesty” The Salvation Army Songbook, The Salvation Army, London.

[i] Because of the odd combination of details from the autumnal Sukkot celebration with Jesus’ springtime entrance into the city of Jerusalem just before Passover, some scholars have suggested that his triumphal entry occurred during Sukkot and that that story has been combined with the events of Holy Week. 

John Dominic Crossan doesn’t believe the triumphal entry (or, as he calls it, the “antitriumphal” entry) “ever actually happend, except as later symbolic retrojection. (Crossan 128-9)

[ii] In fact, Luke has eliminated almost all Semitic “barbarisms” from his gentile oriented gospel. (Gilmour 3-4) 

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