Apr 5, 2013

Revisiting a Palm Sunday Question

Recently an astute and committed Bible student asked me the following question:

Should we have palms in the service on Palm Sunday?—By all means! But they should be the symbol of false adulation by ignorant and willful people who chose not to believe Christ’s teachings. All they wanted was an excuse for a party. By teaching our kids that waving palms is a fun thing to do in church, the church is sending the wrong message & omitting the true meaning of scripture describing the event. Hence my question . . . why does the church do this?

I must say that these are good questions—and there were a litany of them, by the way. One classic interpretation of the Palm Sunday morphing into Good Friday reveals the contrast that the crowd “turned.” That is, they were completely sincere (or, as sincere as humans beings ever are) when they shouted in the Palm procession, but that their disillusionment caused them to change their allegiance. Of course, we can understand the palm processional in this way—and be main-stream about it and do so with theological integrity. Indeed, sometimes our understanding of God has to move through disillusionment to death, before a better faith emerges/rises.

Yet we could entertain another explanation. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan describe that Gospel reading of the Palm Sunday text (see: Luke 19:28-40) in The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem. On the first few pages, these authors describe two processions, an imperial procession involving Pilate on his way into Jerusalem to stand guard during the often politically tense atmosphere of the Passover, and a second “peasant procession” involving Jesus, as prophetic sign of the reign of God, not of the Roman Empire. 

This reading, of course, reflects the post-colonial reading and theology of Borg and Crossan. That particular way of reading that Borg and Crossan advocate addresses the political-religious tensions that led to the crucifixion. Nonetheless, that doesn’t necessarily mean that persons could not be in both crowds—everyone likes parades and the more the merrier.

Thus this circumstance of the Palm Parade is similar to the contrast in John’s Gospel when Jesus is called “King of the Jews,” but called so in derision. Yet if we read the text we see that no matter what the deriders believed, they unwittingly paid homage to the King of the Jews—and in three languages. See for yourself.

19 Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews." 20 Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. 21 Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, "Do not write, 'The King of the Jews,' but, 'This man said, I am King of the Jews.'" 22 Pilate answered, "What I have written I have written" (John 19:19-22).

The Bible has a funny way of telling the truth, but slant as Emily Dickinson in a wonderful little poem reminds us all.

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise


As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind —

+++++++++++++++

Come—Worship

Stay—Learn

Go—Serve

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