This painting is on our Palm Sunday bulletin today.
Late on Thursday afternoon, after a day at the church full of interruptions, I was unable to think straight. So I joined Jean, our sexton, who having scrubbed toilets and sanitized pews was folding Sunday bulletins. Jean is an wonderful artist. She thinks the Bible is weird. If there is a God, she thinks God is weird too. Noting the title of the painting she said, “Why call this ‘Jesus’ Triumphal Entry…? He doesn’t look very triumphant.”
I explained to her that Jesus’ riding into Jerusalem on a donkey is a parody. A bit of political theater. While Jesus is entering the city via the east gate on his skinny donkey, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor in charge of the Jewish province of Judea, is riding through the west gate on his white horse, with soldiers and weapons, to ensure that the Jewish pilgrims flooding Jerusalem to celebrate Passover don’t get out of hand. I ended saying, “Jesus doesn’t work with this kind of power. That’s his triumph. He resists government sanctioned intimidation and violence with divine love, his only weapon.” Jean took another look at the picture.
Little Jesus on his bony borrowed donkey. It appears he is sitting for a formal portrait, looking quietly into the eyes of painter Oleksandr. What is that look on Jesus’ face? Is there a furrow on his brow? Is he resigned? At peace? In grief? Is there fear in him? Where Jesus’ neck meets his collar and breast bones, the shadows form a cross, an echo of the red cross in the background. The faint gray halo around Jesus’ head looks like a target. Beside him is the repeated Hebrew word “Yerushalayim.” Jerusalem, Jerusalem. Literally, “will see shalom.” They will see peace, completeness, wholeness. Portrait of an anti-hero, with face set toward the future.
This past Tuesday, the last juror was selected in the trial of Officer Chauvin who suffocated George Floyd by kneeling on his neck. Mr. Floyd’s murder ten months ago provoked Black Lives Matter protests around the world, despite the threat of COVID and white supremacists. Fifty-six years ago this month, thousands marched to Montgomery with Dr. King, to protest discriminations that robbed African Americans of their right to vote. There is somebody with a gun watching from the hill.
Today, in many Southern states there are new laws being proposed and passed that are intended to impede the voting rights of black and brown people. All of these realities speak into our Palm Sunday gatherings this year as we remember Jesus, the anti-hero, moving with the crowd toward Jerusalem.
Many interpreters of the Palm Sunday story say that today the crowd blesses God for sending Jesus to save them, but on Good Friday, at Jesus’ trial, they will cry out for his crucifixion. They say these folks are fickle, without real faith in God. Likely, some of them were — as surely as we are.
But as I see these first century Jewish pilgrims through the lens of those who marched with preacher Martin Luther King, Jr., and I think of the courageous faith of the Black Church, manifested in the Palm Sunday spiritual, “Ride on King Jesus, Ride on in Majesty,” I think these interpretations are at least partly wrong.
There is no one in this gospel story who is more eager for Jesus to live than the people marching with him to Jerusalem. Their “Hosanna” means “Please, God, save us, now!” This is the cry of the poor. The powerless. The oppressed. The overtaxed and underpaid. They are beholden to religious leaders who cooperate with an unjust political system. No vote. No right to protest against injustices. Their hands are tied. Their voices are silenced. But on this particular day, they forget all of that. Their hopes are set on Jesus. They have seen God’s saving power at work in him.
So when Jesus comes down the road to Jerusalem, they let it rip. These poor peasants throw palm branches and the only cloaks they own down on the road. They are ready. With reckless abandon they shout with a single voice: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” To hell with the Roman soldiers. To hell with the system. They can taste God’s emancipation. Their courage is up. Their fears are down. They are not fickle.
They have faith in God. And the God they have faith in is the One who “with a mighty arm” defeated Pharaoh’s armies and emancipated their ancestors. They have faith in the God who years later took them out of their exile. This is their story. This is their song. This is who God has been for them and who they want God to be, now. Why would they, of all people, cry out for Jesus’ crucifixion?
On that Friday we call Good, God doesn’t show up in the ways they hope. There is no swift defeat of the enemy. No sudden emancipation. No quick fix for their suffering. By Friday afternoon, Jesus is dead, and what lives in them is profound confusion and disappointment. They are still stuck and powerless. Still waiting for God to intervene.
I feel a lot of compassion for these people who courageously marched into Jerusalem with Jesus and returned home wearing trampled cloaks, carrying trampled hopes.
It is deeply human to want heroes who can bring quick fixes — heroes who can end our own suffering, and overcome the world’s brokenness, conflicts, inequalities, poverty, divisions, and dis-ease. And the truth is, I want that someone to be God. I want God to break through decisively, now. To turn the world right again. I want God to be Almighty. Not an anti-hero.
What can we expect from a God who comes to the world in Jesus, emptied of the kind of divine power that could with a mighty arm defeat Pharaoh and his armies?
What can we expect from this Jesus, who takes the bread and cup of the Passover and passes it to his disciples (knowing they will betray him) saying, “This is my body broken for you; this is my life blood poured out for you.”
What can we expect from this peasant king who has to borrow a little donkey to stage his parody of the conquering hero who rides in on a white horse, wielding weapons?
What can you expect from this One who comes in the name of the Lord and messes with our expectations and domestications of the Holy One of Israel?
What can you hope for from this One who possesses next to nothing; whose greatest possession is a love for the world, a love for you that gives up everything to possess you, and will keep on giving for as long as it takes to turn the world round right?
Ride on king Jesus. Ride on in the wonder and mystery of your long-suffering love. And take us with you, we pray.