Palm Sunday: Being on the Right Side When it Is Easy

Today is Palm Sunday, when we remember Jesus entering Jerusalem triumphantly on the back of a donkey. All four gospels tell the story, as well they should. It is the moment that Christ is recognized as the king that he is. As Mark relates it,

Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
“Hosanna!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Mark 11:8-10)

I love Palm Sunday and the great liturgical tradition associated with it. I love hearing the King’s College Choir sing “All Glory, Laud and Honor.” I love G.K. Chesterton’s marvelous poem about the donkey that Christ rode–“the devil’s walking parody of all four-footed things” that had, nonetheless, his hour of greatness. I love the image of Christ being glorified as an earthly king.

But I also can’t help wondering what happened between Sunday and Friday, when the crowds in Jerusalem were assembled around Jesus and chanting a very different message:

Pilate spoke to them again, “Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” They shouted back, “Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him!” (Mark 15:12-14)

Perhaps nothing shows the fickleness of crowds more than the five-day transition from “Hosanna” to “crucify him.” What happened?

We don’t know, of course. The text doesn’t give us a clear answer. But we can imagine. It is likely that the people assembled outside of Pilate’s palace on Friday night weren’t exactly the same people who laid the palms before Christ’s feet on Sunday. At least not all of them. But this is also important. Where were Christ’s supporters? Why didn’t they show up?

It is also possible, and indeed quite likely, that some portion of the crowd abandoned Jesus when they saw him in chains before the authority of the Roman Empire. Wasn’t he the Messiah? Throwing off the yoke of Rome was sort of his job description. Perhaps the people who were laying palms down at the beginning of the week expected to see Pontius Pilate in chains and Jesus Christ standing triumphantly in the public square offering to release Barabbas. This would not be the last time that a political hero was abandoned by his followers for failing to deliver.

But this doesn’t satisfy me either–mainly because it doesn’t gel with what we know about the one person that we know switched allegiance, albeit very temporarily: the Apostle Peter, who proudly affirmed at the Last Supper that he would never deny the Christ and then managed to do so three times before the night was over.

Peter did not deny Christ because he lost faith in him. Nor did he expect the Messiah to sweep in and deliver Jerusalem from the Romans. Peter denied Christ because, in the situation that he found himself in, affirming his relationship with Jesus was hard. And I don’t mean just a little bit hard in a “what-will-the-neighbors-think-of-me” way. It was hard in a “it’s-freaking-anarchy-around-here” and a “this-could-get-killed” way.

This gives us a glimpse into the minds of all of Christ’s supporters on the night he was crucified. Voicing support was hard. It was dangerous. It had been easy to lay palms down on Sunday, when everybody else was doing it and it seemed like a parade. Who doesn’t love a parade? But there wsn’t much of a downside then. One could be on “Team Jesus” without suffering any real consequences. This was not the case five days later.

What changed? Here’s a hint: it was not pressure from “the world.” The world, or at least that portion of the world represented by the Roman Empire, thought the same things about Jesus on Friday that they did on Sunday, which was they didn’t think about him at all. And even if they had, it wouldn’t have mattered much. Opposing the Romans wasn’t hard at the time. Everybody opposed the Romans.

What changed between Sunday and Friday was that the religious authorities condemned Jesus in public. They made it clear that, to support this man was to reject their religion and forsake the prophets. They made denouncing Jesus a test of one’s commitment to their faith. And this was not just enough to turn the crowds against Jesus; it was enough to make his most faithful disciple pretend not to know who he was.

This part of the story is crucial because it tells us that there is more to taking upon ourselves the name of Christ than simply declaring loyalty to a religious leader or ecclesiastical structure. Loyalty is not the same thing as faith, nor does it lead to the same kinds of actions. It was faith that caused people to lay palms in front of the triumphant Christ and shout “Hosanna” to his name. It was loyalty that caused them to shout “Crucify him” and “Give to us Barabbas.”

The story of Palm Sunday is, among many other things, a cautionary tale. It reminds us that there is a difference between standing up for things when it is easy and standing up for the same things when it is hard. This is an important lesson, and it is a test that most of us will fail over and over again before we get it right. And when we do get it right, our friends won’t be shouting our praises and cheering our integrity; they will be questioning our motives and accusing us of disloyalty and of being on the wrong side. And this is when doing the right thing matters the most.

Comments

  1. Daniel Ortner says:

    This is a really beautiful post. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. The one line from my patriarchal blessing that stays in my head without ever refreshing on paper is this lesson (in its own words of course). It is important to me. Thank you.

  3. Jared Livesey says:

    Jesus was killed – permabanned – for being a troll.

    Luke 23
    1 And the whole multitude of them arose, and led him unto Pilate.

    2 And they began to accuse him, saying, We found this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Cæsar, saying that he himself is Christ a King.

    3 And Pilate asked him, saying, Art thou the King of the Jews? And he answered him and said, Thou sayest it.

    4 Then said Pilate to the chief priests and to the people, I find no fault in this man.

    5 And they were the more fierce, saying, He stirreth up the people, teaching throughout all Jewry, beginning from Galilee to this place.

  4. Flymetothemoon says:

    Thanks for this beautiful and timely post. :-)

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Very nice, thanks.

  6. Olde Skool says:

    I weep every year as I, along with the rest of the congregation, must make our contribution to the liturgy: “Crucify him! Crucify him!” It reminds me how close that demand is, how easy to fall into when it’s part of the script and everyone around me is doing it.

  7. Lamentable Potion Maker says:

    Read this to my family. Made me cry. Thanks.

  8. Jennifer says:

    For a long time this puzzled me, too, but then I got a very different perspective by studying these events as told in John’s gospel, which I always think has a you-are-there feeling to it — the language is so plain and unadorned. The apparent about-face looks different from John’s perspective — mainly because of the ordering of events, which is different than in the synoptic gospels.
    Chapter 11– Jesus raises Lazarus.
    Chapter 12 — Jesus goes to Bethany, Lazarus’s town, where they make a dinner for Him, clearly in celebration and gratitude for Lazarus’s life.
    Here, Mary (no doubt the sister of Lazarus) anoints Jesus’ feet.
    Then the chief priests plot to kill Lazarus, because he gives Jesus too much positive exposure.
    The next day is the triumphal entry. It seems clear that the people with the palm fronds would have been the same people at the banquet, plus their friends. If the ruling priests were after Lazarus and his friends, they would have stayed away from this event, and would have found a way to bar this group of people and make sure their own people were at the trial in front of Pilate. My guess is that these were very separate groups of people, and the people in the first group may not have been aware that the trial was taking place, and likely would have been barred from it.
    But, of course, it had to happen.
    Telling this story from the perspective of Matthew, who places the cleansing of the temple during Holy Week, thus challenging the temple authorities, prompts a very different interpretation for the cause of the trial and the crowd that would have had an interest in attending. (John’s account of the cleansing of the temple is in chapter 2.)
    It may be possible to harmonize these stories — but for me, John’s account provides a persuasive explanation for the dramatic change in Jesus’ standing with the people.

  9. Do you have an example of the religious leaders publicly condemning Jesus? Every example that comes to my mind involves the Pharisee s being too afraid to publicly condem him.

  10. Jader
    He was arrested and brought before Caiaphus and the Sanhedrin and beaten and convicted of blasphemy, (for claiming to be God’s son) at which point the religious authorities started to seek Roman authorization for the execution on different grounds (claiming to be a King).

  11. Michael, this has given me some fortitude. Beautiful and tender, thank you.

  12. Marianne says:

    Thank you for this beautiful perspective. I hadn’t thought of ot this way before.

  13. Thanks, Michael. Good thoughts.

  14. Lona, Jesus was arrested, brought before Caiaphus and the Sanhedrin, tried, beaten and convicted, all in one night while the public were sleeping. I suspect most Jerusalem citizens went to bed thinking that Jesus was a great guy, and surprised the next day to wake up and learning that he was under Roman arrest.
    I’m not trying to argue that this is a flawed and bad blog post (I think it’s great), but I’m not entirely persuaded that the “Crucify him” crowed wasn’t intentionally packed. I completely agree that it’s easier to support a parade than it is to supports a person against a mob.

  15. Jader
    “, but I’m not entirely persuaded that the “Crucify him” crowed wasn’t intentionally packed. ”
    I think you are right Jader

  16. blondeandfullofgrit says:

    @Jared Livesey: I don’t know whether to laugh or cry! My faith and testimony have grown recently, and I hope I would have the chutzpah to run up to Him and grope his ankles, preferring to be flogged with Him. The Pharisees already despise me. So what?

  17. One other thing to note here, as we are now on Holy Monday:

    This post asks the question of “How could the people go from praising Christ on Sunday to shouting crucify him just four days later?”

    On Monday, Christ went to the temple and ousted the wealthy money changers who were getting rich off the faithful by trading unclean money for clean money at the temple gates for exorbitant surcharges and then selling sacrificial animals at higher prices. Jesus overturned their tables (creating or foreshadowing the origin of the modern term bankrupt) and dispersed them, making room in the temple instead for the lame and the blind, the marginalized, whom he healed.

    So to answer your question of “How?”, if you want to make people angry, mess with their money.

  18. The three synoptic Gospels imply it was Jesus throwing out the money changers that sealed his fate, as Matt W. notes above. This, however, would have applied to the ruling elite — the “mob” shouting “crucify him” would actually have been helped by this “reform” Jesus introduced by whip and action.

    The Gospel of John describes the episode with the money changers as happening at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. (I recently learned for the first time as I taught this episode in John earlier this year that some Latter-day Saints who are apparently uncomfortable with seeming discrepancies in scripture actually try to harmonize this by believing that Jesus threw out the money changers multiple times — I’d never heard this and frankly don’t find it persuasive or necessary.) By contrast, in John 11 and the beginning of John 12, the writer of the Gospel of John clearly believes it was Jesus’s raising of Lazarus from the dead that sealed his fate among the priestly elite. Until then, to them he was an annoying “prophet” not unlike John the Baptist whom they had to tolerate because the people supported him. But raising someone from the dead was so far above any miracle he’d supposedly (as they thought) performed so far that this had the real potential to spark an uprising against them (the High Priest and religious leaders).

    Either way, I think Michael’s post is very insightful that, ultimately, the people’s loyalty to the religious leaders won out for them over faith in Truth and power they witnessed personally. (Unless it was indeed a completely different crowd on Palm Sunday and Good Friday.) It is a horrible thing to be accused of being a betrayer of the faith because you look outside of a particular hierarchy for Truth.

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  22. Matt Harmer says:

    I’m sorry, but I have to ask . . . I know there are moderators here on BCC. How did Mark get through? Was he allowed solely for entertainment value?

    Back to the OP, Michael, I really enjoy your thoughtful posts. Happy Easter everyone.

  23. Kristine says:

    Sometimes the moderators eat, sleep, and try to make their kids do the same :)

  24. I am occasionally accused of being on the wrong side of history. If I read your post right, you are saying that when we stand for principles and not popular opinion, we will sometimes appear to the waffling crowds to be disloyal, ‘flip floppers’ unsteady ourselves. I guess I’m OK with where I stand, even if to some, it looks like I”m on the wrong side.

  25. Angela C says:

    So the “Crucify him” crowd were hired actors?

  26. Not sure where the “hired actors” idea came from. I probably missed something there. But I found it interesting that the 2010 Oberammergau Passion Play made such great efforts to reduce the earlier versions’ anti-semitism. Actually, I don’t know it was first done in 2010, but that’s the one I saw. In the case of the “Crucify him” crowd, it did not to my recollection treat them as hired actors, but did show Nicodemus trying to get Jesus’ Palm Sunday supporters admitted to the trial local and their being excluded by or at the orders of Caiaphas and the rest of the Sanhedrin (other than Nicodemus). While there is no NT record I’m aware of as to such actions, they are plausible. It’s an interesting response to the post’s question “Why didn’t they show up?” But it doesn’t change the plausible or likely idea that some of the Palm Sunday supporters changed positions. I think the point in Oberammergau was that the “Crucify him” crowd did not represent all Jews and they as a whole people could not be held responsible for the result.

  27. crisis actors, 33 BC edition