We are moving into Holy Week, the climax of the season of Lent and our Lenten journey. Today, Palm Sunday, is the first day of Holy Week. In our Christian tradition Palm Sunday has been one of the more important Sundays of the year. This is the day Jews commemorate liberation from the bondage of Egypt, that is, Passover. For Christians, this is the day we reflect on how the Christmas message of “peace on earth,” is practised on our faith journey. And this is the day we are invited to journey with Jesus into Jerusalem, a capital of both religious and political systems. All four Gospels including John’s record the events of Palm Sunday.
All four stories are similar because they depended on Mark’s record but today’s Gospel in Luke takes a little different twist that I will highlight today. Luke’s Palm Sunday account echoes his Christmas story. Luke tells us that when Jesus was born, angels appeared to sing, “Peace on earth,” (Luke 2:14). Now, as Jesus rides his colt towards Jerusalem, the people look to the sky and sing, “Peace in heaven.” Heaven sings of peace on earth. This is what Luke emphasizes in the story of Jesus’ life, both his birth bringing peace on earth and the last week of his life realizing the fulfillment of that peace throughout the cosmos.
To understand the message of peace we may benefit from the respected contemporary Biblical scholars’ commentaries such as those of Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. According to them the key to understanding Palm Sunday is the realization that there were two processions entering Jerusalem and the Temple that day and that the people responded to both processions. In our scripture reading Luke tells us about the first procession, that is, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem from the east side. It was the season of Passover as it is today. Passover is a festive season, because it is the celebration of the people of Israel being liberated from slavery in Egypt. Thus in the Jewish tradition Passover is the most important of the annual festivals, when the city is the most crowded with pilgrims of all the year.
As Luke tells the story, Jesus enters Jerusalem at the beginning of the week in a provocative manner. As he rides into the city from the east on a colt, his followers chant words that linked his entry with saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” From the west side of Jerusalem there is a second procession at approximately the same time,” I quote, “the Roman Governor of Judea whom we all know by the name of Pontius Pilate, with all the pomp and power of empire behind him, would have been entering Jerusalem from the west at the head of a squadron of Roman troops. The squadron is composed of six hundred troops, a mixture of foot soldiers and horse-mounted soldiers.” There is a great contrast between Jesus’ entry of Jerusalem and the Temple from the east side and Pilate’s entry from the west. Jesus does not enter Jerusalem with any soldiers but with his followers, and not on a horse used for war but on a colt used for carrying people or goods. According to Luke, Jesus’ action is carefully prepared beforehand. When Jesus arrives near Jerusalem at the Mount of Olives he sends two disciples to the next village to get a colt. Jesus says “If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” Thus the procession from the east side clearly has been set up in advance. When Jesus enters into Jerusalem, the people of Jerusalem welcome him with the greeting,“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Other Gospels report that the people shouted “Hosanna.” The people wave Palm branches, and spread their cloaks on the road. These actions are not only a greeting for Jesus by the people of Jerusalem, but a plea, as well, for immediate deliverance from the dominant system, because the meaning of Hosanna is “save us” or “rescue us”.
The people of Judea live in a life-threatening situation. They are suffering under the social, cultural, military and economic domination of the Roman colonial empire and a religious domination particularly of the temple system; they are required to pay about 50 per cent of their income in taxes to the Temple. Under this domineering system and in the spirit of Passover that is the celebration of their liberation from another system of domination in Egypt, the people of Jerusalem welcome and praise Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and the Temple shouting “Hosanna,” meaning save us.
When Jesus enters Jerusalem with the disciples and the multitude, some of the Pharisees in the crowd ask Jesus difficult questions; only Luke reports this dialogue between Jesus and the Pharisees. Pharisees in Jesus time are the people who strictly observe rites and ceremonies of the written law; they are very religious people. Members of the Pharisees ask Jesus, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop [the procession]” (Luke 19:39). Somehow the Pharisees do not appreciate the disciple’s and the crowds’ songs and try to silence them. Jesus, however, rejects their warning: “If the disciples are silenced, the stones themselves will take up the song of the salvation God intends” (Luke 3:8, 19:40).
Jesus answers that if the disciples and the crowds fall away by cowardice or complacency, God will raise up more! If anybody is silent about injustice, God will make even stones speak out. What does this mean? When we reflect on Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, we see that nothing can block his journey. Even though it is dangerous, it is a necessary journey to bring peace on earth. Once it was a holy city, but now it is the centre of the colonial power and the corrupt religious and political system. Thus Jesus’ action is about the realization of the angel’s sing, “Peace on earth.” As we enter Holy Week, we are called to bring peace in our homes, communities and beyond. In this way we become bearers of Jesus’ message: “Peace on earth; Peace in heaven.” So be it.