Palm Sunday and a Contrast of Values, Part 3 of On the Foal of a Donkey

Palm Sunday and a Contrast of Values, Part 3 of On the Foal of a Donkey March 30, 2023

palm sunday

As we wrap up our contrast of values in part 3 of our series for Palm Sunday, I also find current interpretations of Psalm 118 and Jesus’ death at the end of Holy Week problematic. In its original context, Psalms 118 is a triumphal psalm that speaks of obtaining victory over the surrounding nations:

All the nations surrounded me,

but in the name of the LORD I cut them down. 

They surrounded me on every side,

but in the name of the LORD I cut them down. 

They swarmed around me like bees,

but they were consumed as quickly as burning thorns;

in the name of the LORD I cut them down.

I was pushed back and about to fall,

but the LORD helped me.

The LORD is my strength and my defense;

he has become my salvation.

Shouts of joy and victory 

resound in the tents of the righteous:

“The LORD’s right hand has done mighty things!

The LORD’s right hand is lifted high;

the LORD’s right hand has done mighty things!” 

I will not die but live,

and will proclaim what the LORD has done. (Psalms 118:10-17)

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(Read this series from the beginning at Part 1 and Part 2.)

Why is this psalm in the gospels? First, Jesus doesn’t enter Jerusalem as a warrior returning from a military victory. Second, there’s that last phrase, “I will not die but live.” This doesn’t seem to be the way Jesus’ week ended. Jesus doesn’t gain the victory over Rome, but instead ends up on a Roman cross. By the end of the week Rome wins. 

This is why, for me, the resurrection is such an important story element. The resurrection tells us that the crucifixion of Jesus on Roman cross was not the Divine intention. It was Rome’s doing, an act of state violence intended to silence and stop Jesus. Yet this unjust execution ends up, three days later, being a mere interruption. It fails to stop Jesus. The resurrection undoes, reverses, and triumphs over everything accomplished through Jesus’ death and causes Jesus’ teachings to live on in the lives of his followers. This is why for me, the resurrection is much more saving than Jesus’ dying. Jesus didn’t simply come to die: he came to show us how to live. And even though he was murdered and his modeling and demonstration ignored, life still triumphs over death, love triumphs over hatred, sharing triumphs over greed, and inclusion triumphs over fear of differences.

Rather than associating Jesus with the psalmist’s words, “I will not die but live,” we could imagine Jesus, upon his triumphal entry, saying instead, “At their hands I may die, but nonetheless, I will live.” 

Scholars are divided on whether the historical Jesus actually did the things in this weeks’ story or whether Mark created a narrative that Matthew and Luke copied later. 

Personally, on Palm Sunday, I find a lot of life in imagining a Jesus who, taking his own cue from Zachariah 9, uses Zechariah’s form (a donkey) to protest Roman imperial rule for his own entry into Jerusalem. His arrival on a donkey signals the way Pilate and others would have ridden into Jerusalem riding a military war horse followed by military forces parading Roman banners.

Jesus’ vision in the synoptic gospels for how we organize human society was so different from Rome’s. And it was these two ways of shaping a society, whether of domination, exploitation, and control or whether through mutuality, sharing, equality and a distributive justice for all, even those Rome’s present system marginalized and made vulnerable.

I’ve chose to use the term “Sovereign” in our passage for this Palm Sunday to contrast the Jesus of Matthew’s gospel with other sovereigns like Rome that the Jesus community saw competing for Jesus followers’ fidelity. Form functions. Whatever form we use for God and however we choose to characterize Jesus in the scriptures translates into political, economic and social functions that can shape a world that is safe for everyone whatever their class, gender, gender expression, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. Alternatively, those forms can function to politically, economically, and or socially marginalize some people while privileging or empowering others.

Today, what form for Jesus and the Divine could bring the most justice and healing for you?

About Herb Montgomery
Herb Montgomery, director of Renewed Heart Ministries, is an author and adult religious re-educator helping Christians explore the intersection of their faith with love, compassion, action, and societal justice. You can read more about the author here.

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