Palm Sunday: laying down our coats | Jeff Nowers | April 14, 2019
The last Sunday before Easter is Palm Sunday, which marks Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem. In the ancient world, palm branches were a symbol of military triumph. In what sense, then, did Jesus triumph when his entry into Jerusalem precipitated his arrest and execution? There is a certain irony to Palm Sunday that illuminates the complexities of Jesus. This is why many churches have combined Palm Sunday with the Sunday of the Passion. The liturgy begins with the palms but then turns dark and somber with the reading of the full account of Jesus’ trial and death. It’s a stark juxtaposition of hope, on the one hand, followed by rejection, torture and execution, on the other. Here at St. Aidan’s, however, Palm Sunday retains its own independent integrity. The account of Jesus’ passion will be read later this week on Good Friday—and I invite each of you to return here for that. But today we reflect on the Gospel of Luke’s description of Jesus’ climactic arrival at Jerusalem.
Why did Jesus go to Jerusalem? In each of the four Gospels, Jerusalem is not front and center in Jesus’ public life until the very end. He’s portrayed as wandering about, mainly in the north (with perhaps the occasional uneventful visit to Jerusalem), and then finally journeying south for a dramatic and decisive encounter. Jesus’ climactic entry into Jerusalem was probably driven by a twofold motive: 1) he wanted to extend his prophetic ministry into the “city of peace” (the literal meaning of Jerusalem) which had lost its way because of Roman imperial control and spiritual apathy; and 2) he wanted the Temple to return to its original purpose—to be a house of prayer, not a cesspool of extortion where many weren’t able to afford even the cost of a dove to sacrifice.
If this were Jesus’ motive in going to Jerusalem, then surely he’d be putting his life on the line by standing against both the Roman powers and the religious leaders who weren’t inclined to rock the boat. His closest followers, if they were clued in, would’ve known that. But they weren’t expecting Jesus to be thwarted. This, for them, was the dawning of the messianic moment in all its fullness. Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah who would now finally restore the fortunes of Israel, liberate the people from the shackles of Roman imperial control, turn hearts toward God and establish lasting peace in the land. It was the moment of triumph. Some of Jesus’ followers, like Peter, were ready to force the issue, even if it meant drawing their swords. King Jesus would not be stopped!
There’s little doubt that Jesus was determined to enter Jerusalem and to do so in a manner that would display his messianic identity—something that he had grown to embrace. But Jesus was also driven by a radically alternative messianic identity, one that his followers didn’t grasp, that countered the prevailing assumptions of how the Messiah would operate.
Whereas a triumphant king would enter high on a horse, Jesus approaches Jerusalem on a young donkey—and a donkey that had apparently never been ridden. Have you ever been horseback riding? I did it once when I was a kid. I was nervous, and the horse picked up on my energy and started to buck. I quickly got off before I was thrown off. This was a horse that was accustomed to being ridden, but he didn’t take well to me. Donkeys have a reputation of being far more stubborn than horses, so you can only imagine how that young donkey reacted when Jesus mounted it. It probably took a number of attempts. Furthermore, that donkey didn’t belong to Jesus. He had to borrow it, and the arrangements seem a bit sketchy. He tells his followers that if anyone questions you about using the donkey, tell them, “The Lord needs it.” Jesus also didn’t even have a proper saddle. He had to rely on his friends and followers to spread their coats on the donkey so that he could ride with some stability. All of this, as Scripture explains, conveys a disposition of lowliness, humility and peace.
How well received was Jesus as he made his entry? On one immediate level, Jesus was very well received—at least by those who were already convinced that he was the Messiah. They shouted, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” And more than that, they took off their coats and spread them along the road, marking the path that Jesus was taking into Jerusalem. But there were also objections to all this triumphal celebration, in particular from religious leaders like the Pharisees, the guardians of the Law. And within a few short days, their objections would be shared by most people in the city, perhaps even by some who had celebrated Jesus’ entry on the donkey.
What happened to their coats, all those coats that had been laid down along the road? Did they continue to follow Jesus into the city, even into the Temple where he drove out all of those who had set up vending stations to extort and manipulate the poor? Did they lay their coats down for good, as a sign of their allegiance to Jesus at all costs? My sense is that many of them returned to retrieve their clothing. Jesus didn’t turn out to be the kind of Messiah they were hoping for. Yes, he confronted the powers directly, but in ways not expected and not appreciated: expanding the circle to include the outcast and sinner, serving others instead of being served, loving the enemy and turning the other cheek, sharing bread and wine.
We’re a long way removed from that moment of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Yet here we gather because we desire, in some capacity, to follow the counter-intuitive Way of Jesus. The human Jesus of the Gospels no longer walks personally among us, but his path is nonetheless marked by those who’ve laid down their coats over the last 2,000 years, right up to the present. At our baptism, we put down our own coats along the way. We give something up of our life in order to follow that same path that Jesus charted into the city, into the heart of power.
What happens next? None of us is fully aware when we first set out of what the demands of following Jesus entail. That’s why from time to time we get disillusioned with Jesus and retreat to retrieve our coats, effectively giving up. We’ve all been there. But the Good News is that God never gives up on us. We can always lay down our coats again, following those who have struggled in the way before us, those who never finally turned away to get their coats. Today is an opportunity for us all to rekindle hope in confidence that the demands of Jesus’ humility, peace and prophetic transformation will carry us through our own Good Friday to new life.