Growing up in the Catholic church, I loved getting palm fronds and having someone make woven crosses on Palm Sunday. I loved the upbeat worship music, and the day of celebration to kick off the more serious Holy Week.
But the original Palm Sunday was a little bit different.
Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey was actually a subversive act — much more a protest than a parade, a party, or an impromptu worship service. A call for revolution against the systems and institutions that stay in power through unjust practices and economic policies.
Palm Sunday commemorates one of the most politically explosive acts of Jesus’ ministry, an act that calls for a revolutionary nonviolent disruption of systems of oppression. It might be appropriate to say it’s the most political Sunday of the year.
Curious? Uncomfortable? I invite you to look with new eyes and an open heart and mind at the event on which Palm Sunday is based.
Setting the Stage
The scene opens during the week of Passover. People from all over are gathering in the city of Jerusalem. Passover is one of the most important Jewish holidays, celebrating the exodus from slavery in Egypt. At that time, it drew more than 200,000 people to Jerusalem.
Because it was a time of remembering the Jewish liberation, it had also been the occasion for riots and revolts against the occupation of the Roman empire. And so it was the Roman practice to increase the presence of imperial troops in and around the temple during the days of Passover.
With lots of pomp and circumstance and to remind the Jewish people that Rome was still in charge, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate rides into the city from the west, the head of an impressive procession of imperial cavalry and foot soldiers. The people could commemorate an ancient victory against Egypt if they wanted to, but real, present-day resistance (if anyone was daring to consider it) was futile; Rome was watching.
About the same time, on the other side of Jerusalem, coming in from the east, Jesus and his disciples arrive in a very different kind of procession.
He rides into the city on the back of a young donkey. This donkey, the most unthreatening, most un-military mount imaginable, is very important to the story. It speaks volumes about who Jesus was and what message he was preaching.
It was a prophetic act, a provocative public deed performed for the sake of symbolism, and intentionally associated with the words of the prophet Zachariah.
And let’s not forget the palms themselves. As Jesus rode into the city, the people in the crowd waved palms and threw them at his feet.
But did you ever wonder why they used palms?
This too was a symbolic gesture. Roman occupation was especially repressive and brutal. Before the occupation, when the Jewish people had been free and self-governed, they had their own currency. On their largest coin, a palm branch was prominently displayed.
Laying down palm branches ahead of a man riding a donkey was an act of defiance and an aggressive political statement. We want to be free, it says. This guy is going to change things and restore what was lost.
The Gospel text covers the actual entry by Jesus into Jerusalem in just a few verses. Most of the action in this passage takes place before the actual entry event. The main focus of the Palm Sunday story is on the careful planning Jesus takes to arrange for everything in advance.
Anyone who has been part of planning a nonviolent action knows that perhaps 90% of the work takes place beforehand. In the planning and in the nonviolence training and in bringing people together to set the right tone and deliver the right message. The actual action can happen fairly quickly.
That Jesus planned a counter-procession is clear from the account of the event.
- Jesus knew he was going to enter the city on the back of a donkey; he had already made arrangements to procure one. He has planned this in detail, in advance.
- The colt has been arranged. Signals for his disciples to use with those watching the colt have been arranged and probably even practiced.
- He even chooses the east gate of the city because it had symbolic meaning related to the scriptures.
Jesus was not the passive recipient of impromptu adoration on Palm Sunday. Though worship might have happened along the way, it wasn’t the point.
Rather, Jesus' parade-by-donkey was a carefully orchestrated staged joke. It was an act of political theater, an anti-imperial political demonstration designed to mock the obscene pomp and circumstance of Rome and their attempt at intimidation.
Jesus on a donkey was the procession of the ridiculous, the powerless, and the explicitly vulnerable.
The followers of Jesus, those who traveled with him, those who joined along the way ... THEY recognized the symbolism and significance of what is happening. They joined in the procession, the protest, they wave their coats and palm fronds, they lay them on the ground to join in the anti-imperial protest, they shout “hosanna” and sing as they march down the street towards Jerusalem.
Hosanna is a Greek word with the root meaning, “help, save or rescue” and a suffix that indicates urgency.
“Save us now” the people shout. Literally, save us from our oppression.
These dueling processions showcase the conflict between the kingdom of Caesar and the kingdom of God, between the kingdom of corporations and the kingdom of human rights.
For those of us living in the United States these days, it’s hard not to draw contemporary parallels.
What would Jesus-on-a-donkey have to say about oppression in our institutions? Where and how would his parade-of-the-radically-vulnerable speak truth to today’s centers of power?
Did it work? Yes!
In the short run, this nonviolent protest might seem like a failure. A few days after these events, Jesus is arrested and then crucified on a cross. People who cheer him during the procession turn on him in his hour of need. I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say that Jesus' political joke hastened his crucifixion.
But Jesus was willing to put his life on the line to expose the ungracious sham at the heart of all human institutions. Holding up a mirror that shocked his contemporaries at the deepest levels of their imaginations. Even when he knew that his vocation would cost him his life, he set his face towards Jerusalem, mounted a donkey, and took Rome for a ride.
Jesus was no fool; he knew exactly what it would cost him to spit in Rome's face. Like all good revolutionaries, he understood that political satire can be serious business; at its best, it points unflinchingly to truths we'd rather not see.
But the seeds of the nonviolent revolution of the early Church are sown at this moment. After his death, the subversive act Jesus enacts here helps to liberate his disciples from the psychological hold the empire has over them.
Love subverts. Love wins.
I want to leave you with a beautiful, but challenging Franciscan blessing that can help us take up the revolutionary cause of Palm Sunday in our own lives:
May God bless us with discomfort — discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that we may live deep within our hearts.
May God bless us with anger — anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that we may work for justice, freedom, and peace.
May God bless us with tears — tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, hunger, and war, so that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and turn their pain into joy.
And may God bless us with foolishness — enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world, so that we can do what others claim cannot be done.
Watch a video of this talk being given at Unity Church & Spiritual Center on March 28, 2021.