What kind of king do we celebrate? Are we ready for God? The crowds have gathered to shout, “Hosanna!” They will change their minds. By Friday, some of the same people will be calling out, “Crucify him!” Some of his followers were probably convinced that he would reveal himself as the Messiah. Their understanding of what Messiah would be was vastly different from God’s intention in the world.
That’s just like us.
We want God to win, to be victorious, but we want it the way we picture it—happily ever after, castles, and fairy tales. Or, if we’re a bit more realistic, we want health, happiness, and success. Right now, we probably want a God who will end COVID-19 and let us leave our isolation. Right now, we probably want a king who would draw us together into crowds to shout anything. “Go team!” “Score!” “Homerun!”
It’s hard to do the wave at home. It’s pointless to do the wave when there’s no game on. The kind of king we celebrate is a winner, someone who gets things done, and accomplishes a lot. A lot of people value wealth, success, and status. But, is that the kind of king God provides? Is that definition of leader even consistent with the Bible?
Earlier in Matthew, we learn much about who and what God values in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are the poor in spirit… peacemakers… mourn… meek… those who hunger for righteousness… merciful… pure in heart… [and] those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” How does this compare with what the world values? It doesn’t.
When we arrive at Palm Sunday, we have a strange mishmash of celebration and jubilation, alongside anticipation and denigration. These same crowds who shout “Hosanna!” will soon be shouting “Crucify him!” When we prepare for Easter, we have to pass through this uncomfortable celebration.
Palm Sunday typically feels triumphant. Jesus enters Jerusalem. People gather around, lay their cloaks on the ground, and shout “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” We have been here before. Part of the rhythm of the liturgical year brings us on a Lenten journey that culminates in the glory of God’s power over death. Before we get to Easter, we have to go through Holy Week. And, Holy Week begins with Jesus entering Jerusalem.
All four Gospels include this story with slight variations. Biblical scholars can tell us the number of words that differ between each one. I’ve read analysis of how the Synoptics agree and disagree, where Matthew expands on Mark, how Luke and Matthew share parts in common, and even how John connects with the Synoptics. Is that the point? We can understand the significance of Palm Sunday without getting bogged down in determining how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
Today brings the joyful songs, “All glory, laud, and honor” and “Hosanna to the King.” This is Jesus having his moment! Or, is it? In Matthew 20.17-29, Jesus told his disciples he was going to die. He pointed to the way the week would play out, but we all hear what we want to hear. They missed his point. Quite honestly, we usually miss Jesus’ point too. It’s okay. We’re not unique. People see what they want to see, and the faith required to live through Holy Week is a lot to ask of anyone. Like the Holy Week depicted in the Bible, life has twists and turns. What starts with people shouting something that sounds triumphant can quickly change.
The world is strange right now. Students are entering another week of online learning, or starting a spring break that looks like every other week. Social distancing pushes families closer than they might be accustomed to being. The same social distancing can isolate others. Every day can feel like the 1993 movie Groundhog Day. Bill Murray plays the main character who wakes up each day to find himself caught in a time loop, repeatedly reliving the same day. New developments race down the newswire and I, personally, keep watching those numbers from Johns Hopkins, the WHO, and the CDC to see if the curve is starting to flatten. In the U.S., it really doesn’t appear to be.
Now would be a good time for Jesus to have a moment. Now would be a great time for God to intercede in the world. There are so many people struggling. Unemployment is rising. Quarantining drags on. It would be amazing if Jesus showed up and we joined together to shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Maybe we can. Maybe we should shout, “Hosanna!” The crowds shouting “Hosanna” in Matthew 21.9 echo Psalm 118.25-26. The shouts of “Hosanna” in Matthew are a prayer for deliverance. They are not a cry of praise.
Our Bibles label Matthew 21.1-11, “The Triumphal Entry.” What happens next? There’s nothing triumphant about the way the week unfolds. On Wednesday, we will explore the story from Judas’ perspective and treat his betrayal. On Thursday, we remember Jesus’ last supper with his disciples and reflect on his arrest. Good Friday is the culmination of Jesus’ mock trial, crucifixion, and death. “Hosanna” is a rare Aramaic word sneaking into the Greek New Testament. Matthew, Mark, and John all include it, and they only have it in connection with Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem. It means, “Save” or “Help” us. Were the people shouting “Hosanna” in celebration? Not really. Romans occupied Jerusalem. They were under foreign control. They wanted liberation. They wanted Jesus to rise up and kick the Romans out.
The donkey and colt point to Zechariah 9.9-17. In Zechariah, the “righteous one” brings restoration. Mentioning both animals in Zechariah is part of Hebrew poetic parallelism. Saying donkey and colt doesn’t meant two animals. It’s like restating something similar. Between Zechariah and Matthew, there’s some mistranslation because the Greek of Matthew points to two animals. (By the way, Mark and Luke only have Jesus riding one animal.) In any case, the symbolism of Zechariah, and starting the story from the Mount of Olives (a symbol of Messianic hope), points to the hope in Jesus. He will deliver. He will bring restoration, just not the way the people shouting “Hosanna” expected it, and not the way we would want God to intercede in the world right now.
We can have hope in Christ. We can move in faith through Holy Week. We can pause and soak in each step along the way. We can be careful not to move too quickly and jump ahead of ourselves to Easter. In days like these, we can recognize that the Christ who will give the most meaning is the Christ of Holy Week, the Christ who will be betrayed, arrested, crucified, and defeat death on Easter. We don’t need the human idea of triumph. We don’t need Jesus to show up wearing a lab coat, saying, “Eureka! I’ve got a pill that can cure and vaccinate everyone against COVID-19.” The brilliant women and men who are working on such treatments are God’s hands and feet right now. The Jesus we need includes the whole picture. The Jesus we need enters Jerusalem in humility. Elsewhere in the city, important people might have come in riding a war horse. The kind of king we need is humble, loving, inclusive, compassionate, and says things like, “Blessed are the meek.”
The Holy Week journey is ahead of us. We can be open to God and grow each step the way. Pause this week. Think about each part. Reflect on how it adds to the depth of the experience. Let Easter 2020 point to a greater hope and assurance that Christ is exactly the kind of king we need in our lives right now, and will be with us every step of the way, no matter where our journey takes us.