We all know the story – it’s one of the big spectacles of the Christian year. The triumphal entry, the palm branches cut down and lain across the road, Jesus riding in on a donkey, children shouting “Hosanna”.
And we all know, as well, because we’ve read the end of the story, that the euphoria of the moment doesn’t last. That within a few days Jesus’ following has evaporated to the point where the crowd will call for the release of Barabbas, and for Jesus to be taken and executed.
It’s a spectacular fall from grace. In such a short time, to go from the flavour of the moment to the reject heap. Even today, in the age of the short lived hyper-celebrity, of social media and fifteen minutes of fame, when a celebrity, a star, a hero of the people falls suddenly from grace in the modern world, there is usually a story behind it. A shocking revelation, a terrible miscalculation, a stunning dummy spit.
And the narrative of Holy Week gives us nothing of the kind. Of course, Jesus has his dummy spit of sorts – throwing the money changers out of the Temple, reeling off his list of “woe to you” criticisms of the Pharisees, upsetting, no doubt, the Roman authorities as well by disturbing the fragile peace of Jerusalem at festival time.
But all those parts of the story only really give reason for Jesus to confirm his identity as an enemy of the powerful – the religious powers of the Temple and the Synagogue, and the military powers of the Romans.
It doesn’t explain why the crowds who welcomed him with shouts and palm branches were so easily turned against him.
It seems as if Jesus’ following, his support, was broad, but shallow. Many people willing to join the crowd to shout Hosanna, but not many whose support stood the test of the week. And what we might be looking for in today’s story is some sort of sense of why.
It starts with the way that Jesus obtains his ride – sending two of the disciples ahead to get a donkey (and a colt, for some reason that I’ve never quite understood – “they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them” – did Jesus ride both animals?) – Jesus sends them to get the donkey, taking it as if he had the right to it, with the words “the Lord needs them”.
A claim to authority – “the Lord”, to the right to assume, or at least, borrow, the property of another – but the thing taken is a donkey, a symbol of humility and, well, ordinariness, not royalty, still less divinity. “The Lord wants to ride your donkey” is almost an oxymoron.
Adding to this contrast, to the tension between Jesus’ identification as Lord and the humility of his mount, is the response of the people to Jesus as he approaches the city.
They throw down cloaks in front of him and cut down branches from the trees to line his path – the imagery is that of welcoming a conquering hero as king. When the military general Jehu claimed the throne of Israel, we read that “all the officers took their cloaks and spread them before him; and they blew the trumpet, and proclaimed, ‘Jehu is king.’”
The cloaks, the branches, declare this man on a donkey to be a conquering king.
And not just a king. The people cry out “Hosanna to the Son of David”. A phrase that today is so obviously religious, that we lose sight of its connotations in first century Jerusalem. Hosanna, or the Hebrew Hoshana, is the word used in our psalm today, translated “save us” – it is a cry addressed, generally, to God, calling out for help in time of oppression or hardship.
The cry ‘Hosanna’ identified Jesus as the one who they believed would bring the help from God that they sought.
And if there were still any doubt, they named Jesus “Son of David”, a title points even more to what was on people’s minds – David, the great military ruler of Israel, the man who was forbidden to build the Temple because he was a man of war – David, who God had promised, that his descendants would rule Israel forever.
They cast their cloaks down to welcome a king, descendant of the great warrior king, promised to be ruler forever, and cried out “save us” to the one sent by God. And the whole city was in turmoil.
I don’t think it really leaves much room for doubt about what was going on in the minds of the crowd. And that goes a long way to explaining how it was that Jesus’ support could evaporate so quickly.
For in the coming days, it would become clear that he was not going to be the king that the people were expecting, hoping for, wanting him to be. Instead of uniting the people, he divided them, attacked the Pharisees, upset the Sadducees, missed the window of opportunity to gather a popular movement, throw the Romans out, and establish, once again, an independent Jewish state.
Lots of people shouted their praise of Jesus, but in truth they were not praising him – they were praising their image of what they wanted him to be. They were worshipping the Messiah they wanted, not the one they got.
And I wonder if worshipping the God we want is a pretty good description of much following of Jesus in today’s world, of the attitude of many who will happily identify as Christian, attend Church occasionally – or even every week – or not at all – but for whom faith has less to do with the call of Jesus than with other values.
Values that might be from good traditional conservative morality; or from liberal democratic norms; or from socialist idealism – take your pick.
Values which might have lots of good in them, but are missing the radical, self-giving, graciously including, love of Jesus.
Values which – to reflect back to the Sermon on the Mount – might be enough to make us good people, but are not the life that Jesus is calling his disciples to live.
Many are willing to identify with Jesus when he asks no more than that which they already expect a good person to do and offers a solution to their social and political problems in the form they want – victory for us, defeat for them.
Far fewer stick around when he asks them to live lives that make the grace, the love, the welcome, the reconciliation, of God known, and offers solutions to their problems that take the hard path of reconciliation, solutions that look like victory only when it can be for us and for them.
On Palm Sunday, many people were willing to cheer Jesus on as long as he continued be the person they wanted him to be. But they abandoned him when he insisted on being something else, someone unexpected.
Elsewhere in the gospels we read that people stopped following Jesus because his words were too hard. Even those who stayed with him only did so because they asked, in Peter’s famous saying, “where else would we go”. They only stayed because leaving Jesus seemed even more impossible than continuing to follow him – I can certainly relate to that.
But the majority left him, each time his teaching got hard, or following him got politically inconvenient or socially embarrassing or physically dangerous.
All of which leads me to conclude that if we don’t find it hard to follow Jesus, if we don’t find his teaching shakes us up, changes our mind, forces us to do things that go against our social, emotional, or political instincts: if we don’t find Jesus’ teaching pushing us out of ourselves, then perhaps we, like the crowds on Palm Sunday, have been all too successful at making Jesus into the figure we think a messiah ought to be.
And there is our challenge, as we move towards the end of this series in which we have been thinking about focus; to focus on Jesus, the coming King. To actually look at who it is that is riding this donkey, and not at who we think it is, or want it to be, or expect it to be, or have always been told it is.
As our journey through Lent comes towards its close, I wonder if we have heard the voice of Jesus, the prompt of God, pushing us in a direction we didn’t expect, didn’t want, a direction that didn’t fit easily with our image of what Jesus ought to be? Whether we have read the scriptures and listened to what the words say rather than what we think they say, what we know they ought to say?
Because if we find the voice of Jesus always agrees with us, we must wonder if it is his voice, or our own.