The texts are Matthew 21:1-11 and Matthew 27:11-54.
I’d like to paint a verbal picture for you. Think of how you would feel if you bore witness to an event such as this:
Imagine that Air Force One lands in town. The crowd goes wild as the President gets off the plane and walks down a red carpet, flanked by a crowd of people waving American flags. The TV news cameras are rolling as the band strikes up “Hail to the Chief”. The President is shaking hands and kissing babies as he goes by. After a moment, the band starts to play “The Star-Spangled Banner”. Everyone stops what they’re doing and turns to face the flag with hands over their hearts. Now, imagine that all of this is happening on the 4th of July.
Can you imagine how the people in this Independence Day crowd that day might feel? If so, then you can imagine how the people felt in the crowd on that first Palm Sunday, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem. It was a quintessentially Jewish moment. I mean this, not just in a religious sense, but in a national sense as well.
Let’s look at the details:
First, Jesus rides into town riding a donkey with her colt. This is exactly how the Jewish prophet Zechariah said that God’s Messiah would come. The Jews believed that the Messiah (“Anointed One” in Hebrew) would be a mighty king who would liberate Israel from foreign tyranny so the people could live and worship in freedom. Next, we learn that the people were making use of palm branches as they saw him coming. This is not a random choice. The palm tree was a national symbol for Jews in the first century. This would be like people waving all kinds of American flags as the President drove by. Also, people were shouting, “Hosanna!” This comes from a Hebrew word that literally means, “Save us, please!” It would be like people shouting “Liberty” or “Freedom Now” in our country. This phrase, along with “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord”, is part of Psalm 118, an old hymn for Jews. Finally, all of this was happening on the week before Passover, the greatest of holidays. Passover, for Jews, was not just a religious holiday; it was also a national holiday. During Passover, Jews told and retold the story of how they came to be who they are as a nation of God’s chosen people. It was like celebrating the 4th of July for Jews.
So, when all of this happened at once (donkey, palm branches, Hosanna, and Passover), this crowd of people got really excited. They thought that big changes were about to happen for them and their country! However, we know that this excitement didn’t last very long. Fast forward to five days later and the same people who were shouting, “Hosanna! Hosanna!” had started shouting, “Crucify! Crucify!” about the exact same person. What could have gone so wrong during those five lousy days? Personally, it makes me glad that our elected officials get at least one full term in office before people want to hang them out to dry!
I think the answer to what went wrong that week lies in the excitement we see in the people at the beginning of the week. Excitement is great. It gets people motivated. It makes them feel good about themselves. But it has a dark side. Whenever people get super-excited about something, it usually means that they have some pretty big expectations to go with it. And people definitely had some serious expectations about Jesus as their Messiah.
They wanted their Messiah to be a military commander, a political administrator, and a spiritual guide (at the same time). That’s a lot to ask of one person, but it’s what they expected (and they weren’t going to budge on any of it). When Jesus showed up, they certainly had mixed feelings about him. On the one hand, he healed the sick, challenged the powers-that-be, and radically reinterpreted the Torah (their Bible). On the other hand, he refused to take up arms and talked instead about suffering and forgiveness. What kind of “Messiah” was this?
Their confusion lasted right up until the end of Jesus’ ministry. On Palm Sunday, it looked as if their dreams were about to come true: Jesus was acting exactly like a Messiah should. By Good Friday, it looked as if all their hopes were dashed: Jesus was acting nothing like a Messiah should. The great irony is that Jesus really was their Messiah (at least, that’s what we Christians believe), but his idea of Messiah was very different from theirs. He really did wear a crown, but it was a crown of thorns. He really was hailed as “King of the Jews”, but it was written on a sign posted above his cross. He really did gain victory over his enemies, but it was a victory of love and not a victory of violence.
It’s easy for us to look back and chuckle at the people’s flawed expectations of Jesus as Messiah. We have the luxury of knowing what comes next (on Easter Sunday). They didn’t.
But I think the question is worth asking: do we have flawed expectations of Jesus as our Messiah? Do we think we have all the answers about Jesus figured out? Have we put him in a safe little box that conforms to our own pre-conceived notions about the world? The tendency I’ve noticed is that, if you ask people to describe Jesus, they’ll probably describe someone who is simply a bigger and better version of themselves. For them, Jesus is American, Middle-class, Conservative/Liberal, Presbyterian, or Christian.
The challenge of Lent, as a season of penitence, is for us to realize that Jesus is none of those things. He is Holy (which means “different” or “special”). He rises above the categories and ideologies that we would impose on him.
But we, like the crowds on Palm Sunday, still come with our excitement and our expectations. But, as Jesus fails to live up to our expectations, our excitement turns to confusion, confusion to disappointment, and disappointment to anger. So that, by the end of the week, we too stand with that crowd, screaming, “Crucify! Crucify!”
Yes, the challenge of Lent is for us to let Jesus break out of the box that we have put him in. The challenge is to let go of those categories and those old ways of thinking. But the hard fact of the matter is that we have failed to do so. In spite of our best Lenten disciplines, in spite of the chocolate we didn’t eat or the TV we didn’t watch, in spite of our honest reflection and repentance during these forty days, in spite of all those things: we would still crucify him again. He would still shock and offend our expectations to the point where we would use any means necessary to shut him up. Our shouts of “Hosanna in the highest!” are no more lasting or genuine than the shouts of those people who lived in first-century Jerusalem.
That’s the harsh reality, but it’s not the end of the story. That part comes next week. If you want to hear it, I guess you’ll have to show up! But for now, I’ll just offer this as a foretaste of the Easter gospel:
Jesus knew what was in hearts of those people. He knew what they were going to do to him, but that didn’t stop him. He still drew close to them. He welcomed their praises, shallow as they were. He loved them, even though they would come to hate him.
As it was with that crowd so it is with us. As faithless as we are, Jesus still draws near to us… and loves us.