After the Parade
Today is Palm Sunday. Churches celebrate today in many different ways. Some hold an outdoor procession, complete with palm branches. Some processions include a donkey, either led by someone or with a Jesus figure on its back—or both. Other churches celebrate by bringing palm branches down the aisle during the opening hymn. For some reason these processionals often feature children, though how children got to be the center of attention on Palm Sunday I do not know. Perhaps it’s because many of our Palm Sunday hymns talk about children.
It’s interesting that only one gospel writer mentions palm branches. Matthew and Mark say the disciples (and onlookers) cut branches from trees. Luke doesn’t mention tree branches at all. Only John specifically identifies them as coming from palm trees.
The type of tree is interesting for both geographical and theological reasons. Geographical first. We know Jesus entered Jerusalem by the eastern road, coming down from the Mount of Olives. The trees would have been (no surprise here) olive trees. It would have been difficult to find a palm tree along that road.
Theologically, both palm trees and olive trees make sense. Olive branches have long been a sign of peace. Jesus rode on a donkey, another sign of peace. Cutting olive branches and placing them on the road reinforces the idea that Jesus is coming in peace. He is not a conqueror—at least not the military kind. He has no intention of starting a coup—at least not the military kind.
Contrast his entrance with the one Pilate would have made into Jerusalem with his troops. They came to ensure no trouble would occur during Passover. He would have appeared astride a white horse—a symbol of military power. He (or someone in his entourage) would have carried a palm branch—another symbol of imperial power. Nothing would have been spared to impress the people with Rome’s dominance. He was there to keep the peace—by force if necessary—not to bring peace.
I believe John had a theological reason for identifying the branches as those from palm trees. For the Jews the date palm branch was a symbol of resurrection. John wanted to impress on his followers that Jesus came to bring life—eternal life—both for him and for all those who follow him
Holy Week has begun. Jesus’ life on earth is in its final days. This time next week we’ll be celebrating the resurrection. But what happens between these two Sundays? The gospels make it clear. Jesus is there to complete his earthly mission. The fact that it will cost him his life means less than nothing. He has a task, one that he must complete in four days.
Mark tells us Jesus goes to the temple, looks around, then returns to Bethany for the night. The next day, Monday, he returns to the temple and drives out the moneychangers and those who sell animals for sacrifice. Remember, these persons were not there to provide a service to out-of-town pilgrims. They were making an illicit profit. Jesus makes it clear that God’s house is a house of prayer, not a place to gouge people who have nowhere else to turn for sacrificial animals and Jewish coinage.
The rest of the gospel account is not separated into days, so we don’t know what happened each day. What we do know is that Jesus spent the remaining time until his arrest making the case for his version of the kingdom of God. That meant confronting the religious leaders and their incorrect version of the future.
Jesus didn’t shy away from conflict; in fact, he seems to have sought it out, spending his days in the temple speaking the words God had given him regardless of the consequences. In so doing, he established the pattern by which we must live our lives.