The Passion Week, also known as the Holy Week, traces the last events of Jesus’ life leading up to his rising from death. These events consume eight days, from Sunday to Sunday, and are recorded in the Gospels.
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each write of these details, though they sometimes put them in different order or emphasize different aspects. A careful study of the four Gospels reveal a harmony that is both reasonable and reliable. You can view such a harmony, compiled by Justin Taylor of the Gospel Coalition.
(icon of Jesus entering Jerusalem, painted by the nuns of Saint Demiona Monastery)
Palm Sunday, as it has come to be called, takes it’s name from the leaves that the crowd used to pave the way for Jesus as he entered Jerusalem on this first day of the week. The story is recorded in Matthew 21:1-11, Mark 11:1-10, and Luke 19:28-44. The story enjoys a greater brevity in the Gospel of John. That author records the day’s events this way:
“The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!’ And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written, ‘Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!”
While the crowd did spread palm leaves in front of Jesus, likely waving them in the air like first-century pom-poms, the name of this day has suffered from centuries of misnomer.
I would like to recommend, rather than Palm Sunday, that this first Sunday be called “Misunderstanding Sunday.” Because there were more than just palm leaves flying over people’s heads that day. Like an instruction manual in a foreign language being read in the dark, most folks just missed the point on Misunderstanding Sunday.
The day begins with Jesus in Bethphage and Bethany (just a mile or so from Jerusalem’s walls), and it ends with him returning to Bethany at the day’s end. But in between, he arrives in Jerusalem, a place he had set his mind to get to since Luke 9. He knows his mission. The misunderstanding isn’t with him.
The people that miss it are the assembled crowd–a growing number gathering in the Holy City for Passover. They’ve likely heard of Jesus. Perhaps some have heard of his teaching. They’ve caught wind of his miraculous power. I would imagine some healed ones were among the crowd. They figure this is going to be the best Passover since Egypt, with God rescuing them from slavery again, this time with a new King subverting Caesar as Moses had Pharaoh.
We know this is their hope and desire because of what they say:
This means, “Save us now!” It is a political statement. They are not begging Jesus to save them from their sins and make them right with God. They are pleading with him to take up their cause with Rome, providing the Jewish people with freedom again. Less taxes, more liberty, and a more moral nation in which to raise their kids.
You know, the same stuff people are yelling about these days.
Jesus is uniquely qualified. The hand of God upon him has been evident since his baptism. His legend has only grown. Only recently he raised Lazarus from the dead. He has a good following. He had zeal, wit, and wisdom. If Jesus had a Twitter handle, he would have been retweeted a lot. He was the total package! And the time had come. He was no JV Messiah. He was the real deal. And the crowd was hungry for deliverance.
“…the King of Israel!”
They’re ready to anoint him. This is not the first time. Many other times impressed people sought to make Jesus something he was not. Up to this point, he has resisted. On this day, he does not argue with them. But he doesn’t get a bunch of bumper stickers printed, either. On Friday he would say, “My kingdom is not of this world.” People still wouldn’t get it.
In Acts 1, his closest disciples are still wondering when he’s going to restore the Kingdom. They just don’t get it.
It’s easy to pile on the poor palm wavers, but let’s not let ourselves off the hook. Even about twenty centuries later, we are all still trying to make Jesus who we envision Him to be. And boy, are we wrong.
- Jesus is not a celebrity to be admired. His work may gather a crowd, but it’s not to sell tickets. He doesn’t have a merch table. He’s not interested in Twitter followers, believe it or not.
- Jesus is not a political agenda. He didn’t come to make Israel great and he didn’t come to make America great, either. He cannot be reduced to a platform. He’s not interested in our agenda.
- Jesus is not a self-help book. When the crowd yelled “Save us!” he knew their hearts. He knows us, too. He didn’t come to make our lives easier. When he said he came so that we could have life and have it to the full, he didn’t mean we’d drive a Bentley. I’m not even convinced he was talking about life this side of the pearly gates.
So today we celebrate Palm Sunday. Or Pom-Pom Sunday. Or Misunderstanding Sunday. Whatever you want to call it, it marks the beginning of the Holy Week, and it reminds us that Jesus cannot be squashed down to fit our ideals. He was on a mission, a mission that unfolds over the next seven days and leads to the most curious of conclusions:
When Jesus said, “Follow me,” he wasn’t headed for a throne on which to reign, but a cross on which to serve. He leads us to it to die, not because he does not care about us, but because he is the only one who can raise us when we do.