Try to imagine what it was like that day.
The weather hadn’t started to get oppressively hot in the desert yet; the air was still cool, especially at night. And up there on the Mount of Olives, a long ridge running beside Jerusalem and looking over into the city, there was a breeze that rustled their cloaks and felt a little bit like optimism. I imagine it must have been sunny that day, too. But it wasn’t just the weather. As they looked out over the city they could see that it was turned out in all its finery, the white marble and gold trim of the temple shining in the sun. Entering the gates from every side of the city the traffic was constant, so many people arriving to visit family or to worship at the temple during Passover, some of the holiest days of the Jewish year.
Jesus himself had been, for some weeks, making his way toward Jerusalem. He’d been in the countryside preaching and healing people, picking up new followers who heard his message of love and justice and wondered if he would be the one who would finally deliver the Jewish people from Roman oppression.
Now Jesus stood, looking out over Jerusalem, a city he loved. Perhaps he glanced over his shoulder at the crowd who’d followed him this far. He knew that this was a defining moment: that they were headed toward a collision, a crash between oppressive powers of religion and government, and his gospel of love and justice. Whatever was ahead, it would require such commitment and clarity, an understanding of faith as something we live out loud. Maybe the people standing with Jesus knew what was ahead; maybe they didn’t. But as he stood there looking out over the city, Jesus certainly knew this: we don’t really start living until we find out what we’ll die for.
Today is Palm Sunday, and as we stand on the edge of Holy Week we are still thinking about the work of Lent, how God perpetually invites us to change, to rethink the way we live, to step out from our human constructs of life and into a world that God dreams for us.
But change is difficult, and the world is dangerous, and we are scared.
And this is precisely why we call this the work of Lent—it’s hard. Trying to imagine a different way of living, trying to step into that new way. It will take everything we have: our deepest commitment, our truest resolve, our utmost dedication.
Matthew’s gospel today tells the story of a small crowd waving palms on the edge of Jerusalem, and it presents an invitation to us to change the way in which we understand the expression of our faith. So many of us have learned that a life of faith is the exercise of following an inviolable list of rules, our successful following of which will get us into heaven, and our failure to follow, well, you know.
But I wonder as we set out into this holiest of weeks, whether we’re being invited to understand our faith less as following rules and more as speaking up, as being mouthpieces for righteousness, insisting on justice and peace and wholeness for all of humanity.
God’s way in this world, after all, runs directly counter to systems of oppression and exploitative power. It seems to me, then, that our view of faith must change. Everything about it must change: from an understanding of faith as compliance to an understanding of faith as protest. Speaking up. Refusing to be silent. Not getting tired. Risking everything.
After all, this week especially, Holy Week, if we didn’t know it before, we certainly will by Friday: we don’t even begin living…until we find out what we’ll die for.
All four gospel accounts: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, tell some version of this story, which takes place, remember, just before the start of Passover. Recall that Passover is a holy time of remembrance for Jews then, even as it is now. Passover lasts for eight days and is the marking of the hardship of oppression in Egypt, the calling of Moses to lead the people to freedom, to a Promised Land flowing with milk and honey, the hurried preparations to be ready to flee, the miraculous parting of the Red Sea, the hardship of forty years wandering the desert, the giving of the 10 Commandments. In the marking of that miraculous history, Passover asks the question: Now that we are free, how shall we live? What does the Lord require of us?
To remember. To remember that the journey from oppression to freedom, from unjust violence to just non-violence, has not been completed. Jews then and now leave the door open, leave an empty seat for Elijah, and tell the story in first person—as if they were there—so that one day, finally, with our participation, the will of God will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Sounds a bit like discontent…pushing back against unjust systems…being unwilling to sit silent while oppression continues…insisting on the way of God in a world that does not recognize it…protest.
Filled with travelers and tourists that day, we should also remember that Jerusalem was under the punishing rule of the Roman Empire, its people oppressed and living with the crippling burden of high taxes and limited agency. The crowds were thick and keeping the peace was the number one priority of Roman governor Pontius Pilate and his troops. He wanted to make sure that the people didn’t get too riled up in their Passover celebration. And, he wanted to be sure they remembered who was in charge.
In fact, as part of the festivities of the week and in an effort to show Roman dominance, Pilate had planned a procession into Jerusalem let by Pilate himself. No one in the city could miss it: a huge display with Pilate prancing in on a war horse and legions of Roman soldiers with their gleaming armor marching in concert. They entered through the Western gate, the big main gate that framed a bustling thoroughfare.
People lined the streets waving and cheering, families staked out places on the parade route just so they could watch the army make its way in. It would have been like a celebrity sighting—people craned to get a glimpse of the powerful regent who ruled the whole area where the city of Jerusalem was located.
The message of Pilate and the Roman Emperor was clear: it may be the Feast of the Passover, but this holiday was only being celebrated at the pleasure of the Roman rulers. And no Jew living in Jerusalem or visiting the city for Passover should dare to think of this as anything other than a nice little religious celebration, generously allowed by the magnanimous and gracious permission of the Roman government.
As Jesus stood on the Mount of Olives looking out over Jerusalem, he could see right out in front of him the road to the city, winding steeply down past groves of olive trees, into the deep Kidron Valley, and then sharply back uphill into Jerusalem through the East side, a smaller gate in the back of the city. And we should know that the crowd gathered to cheer Jesus was miniscule in comparison to the huge group watching Pilate’s parade on the other side of the city.
Pilate rode in through the main gate; Jesus rode in through a small gate in the back of the city. Pilate was dressed in his finery, riding a huge warhorse; Jesus had no armor with no Roman insignia . . . and his ride was the colt of a donkey. The people at the front gate pledged their loyalty to the Roman government and cheered the military might they saw. The little crowd at the back gate, led by children waving palms, yelled Hosanna—roughly translated “Lord, help us” . . . and followed it with the treasonous “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” Everything about Jesus’ entry was a protest to the big parade going on right across town.
Once we see the true setting of this story of Jesus on a little donkey and people waving palms and shouting, we can see very clearly that everything must change; that our understanding of faith must be always grounded in protest.
You may have learned in Sunday School that everyone in Jerusalem got it that day. That’s what I learned, anyway . . . that for that one glorious moment all the people understood who Jesus was and vowed to follow him, joining their voices and their lives to speak up for God’s way of love in the world.
It wasn’t so. It’s never been that easy to follow Jesus, even on Palm Sunday.
No, anyone in Jerusalem that day who managed to get through the crowds pressing in around Pilate on the other side of town, just to get to the back gate in time to see Jesus led in the back gate on a little donkey knew . . . they knew for sure that what they were seeing was not a popular endorsement of God’s kingdom coming to be, but a visual demonstration of how much God’s way of life stands in contrast to the way of this world.
And as Jesus made his way toward the temple that day, the folks who fell in behind his parade knew that they were marching in a public protest, a tangible act of opposition to human power and might parading just on the other side of town. They weren’t insincere in their following—they knew as they yelled “Hosanna!” that their cries were radical expressions of opposition and defiance.
Perhaps they did not know as they fell in behind him that they would march all the way through the city that week, out into the Garden of Gethsemane, into the courtyards of the most powerful men in society, and eventually up . . . up that hill to crucifixion and death.
But they did know that this was the parade they would join, this strange little band of defiant marchers who preferred not to sing the praises of the powerful but instead to follow the one who dismantled old structures and called for a new world. They held on so tightly to the conviction that hope for the world is not found in human power, but in the way of justice and love, in the way of Christ.
What better story to begin this week, when we will remember what happens when people of faith and good conscience find the courage to confront the biggest and the most powerful forces that work against love, to protest? To resist the powers of this world that close borders and gas innocents and take away healthcare and send the most vulnerable to detention centers and line the pockets of the excessively wealthy while children in our own country go hungry?
Matthew reports that this little group of faithful protestors sent a loud message in Jerusalem that day. Verse 10 reads: “When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’”
Because speaking up for what is true and right, even in the face of overwhelming power, has greater impact than we can even begin to imagine. As we set out toward Holy Week, we’re invited to decide if we will pick up our palms and our protest signs and join this parade, this protest that is our faith. Because if there’s anything we need to remember today, it’s this: we don’t even begin living…until we find out what we’ll die for.