By Craig Tally
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Last Sunday we Christians celebrated Palm Sunday, the first day of Holy Week.
Some of us observed this day with considerable more pageantry than others, but the vast majority of us attended Palm Sunday. We are aware of the procession of Jesus into Jerusalem, riding the celebrated donkey with people spreading palm branches along the roadway, shouting “Hosanna!”
But what do we know about the other procession entering Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday in the year 30?
On the other end of town, an imperial procession was making its way into the city. In all the pageantry and glory of the Roman state, Pontius Pilate was being escorted into the city by cavalry and soldiers. Jesus’s procession proclaimed the kingdom of God while Pilate’s procession proclaimed the empire of power.
Pilate’s procession also represented Roman theology, which declared the emperor of Rome as the son of God. Augustus, Rome’s first emperor, was believed to be the son of the god Apollo. Since Augustus, all emperors were given divine titles.
The gentle breeze of excitement began to stir throughout the city as the two processions entered. Many Jews were expecting a Messiah who would restore Jerusalem to its former prominence, ushering in peace, prosperity and self-rule as in the old days. After all, they reasoned, did not the Scripture speak of this?
The excitement grew stronger as Jesus, from the peasant town of Nazareth, arrived riding on the back of a donkey.
People began to realize the similarity between what they were seeing and what they remembered about Zechariah’s words (chapter 9). There was a well-developed doctrine about the coming Messiah. As King, he would restore Israel to the former days.
So powerful was this messianic expectation that even Jesus had to deal with it in his own understanding of what kind of Messiah He would be. In the temptation narrative (Matthew 4:1-10), when the tempter enticed Jesus with the prospect of receiving all the kingdoms of this world, He was tempted.
It was the expectation of a king-messiah which resulted in the palm branches and the cloaks being laid out by the people as Jesus rode into town. It was the hope for a king-messiah which prompted the shouts of hosannas. In the minds of the people, the Scriptures were unfolding right before their eyes. Their hopes and prayers for prosperity, national restoration and peace were about to be realized.
Only they were wrong. Things turned out differently from what they expected. As the week progressed, Jesus did nothing nor said anything to suggest that he was going to be a king-messiah.
He offended religious hierarchy by removing from the temple those whose responsibility it was to receive the offerings and the temple taxes. His parables were difficult to comprehend. He reprimanded Peter, telling him to put away his sword. He did not resist Judas’s greeting and kiss. He calmly and quietly obeyed the arresting soldiers.
The people, including the disciples, were stunned. Eventually the crowds dispersed. The palms had turned into thistles, as it were.
Later in the week, the terrified disciples scattered like a covey of busted quail. Peter denied association with Jesus, and in his shame and disappointment, he quit. He returned to his occupation of fishing. Fear and disappointment displaced the hope and hosannas of a few days earlier.
He told them, did He not? All along, the theme of His message remained loud and clear: My kingdom is not of this world. Do not lay up for yourselves earthly treasures and expectations.
The message has not changed. Do we have ears to hear?
Craig Tally is the senior minister of First Community Church in Joplin. His column appears bi-weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.