A Case of Mistaken Identity: A Reflection for Palm Sunday 2021

There’s a longstanding joke (of sorts) in Christian circles that the Gospels are essentially passion stories with extended prologues: Close to forty per cent of the Gospel according to Mark covers the week between Palm Sunday and Easter morning. As Jesus’ earthly life nears its end, events speed up, and the narrative slows down accordingly. The week begins with Jesus entering Jerusalem in triumph, surrounded by adoring crowds; by mid-week he’ll be betrayed and arrested; by Friday he will be dead. And so it’s fair to ask ourselves ‘What happened?’ ‘Where did it all go wrong?’ Today, we’ll see that a lot of it had to do with the difference between the expectations of the people surrounding Jesus and the reality of who he is and what he is all about. Once again, it’s a question of the Theology of Glory vs. the Theology of the Cross.

Following along in Mark’s telling of the story, Jesus and the disciples have stopped off at Bethany on their way to Jerusalem. He calls a couple of his disciples to him and tells them: “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it” (11.2). While Mark lets this detail sit there without comment, Matthew tells us (21.4f) that this happens in order to fulfill an oracle from the prophet Zechariah:

Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
(Zechariah 9.9)

It’s not entirely clear what the symbol of the donkey colt would have meant to Zechariah’s audience, but one thing that is certain is that it undermines the military connotations of the oracle. The king will come to Jerusalem “triumphant and victorious,” but not as a conquering military hero riding a warhorse or chariot, but humbly, on the foal of a donkey.

What stood out to me as I was reading the text this week is that Jesus is intentionally fulfilling this oracle. So many of the oracles that are fulfilled in Jesus’ life he fulfills because of what others do to him, or because of his circumstances. But this one, he takes great care to fulfill. He is intentionally taking on this oracle and all of its connotations: Yes, he is about to enter into Jerusalem in triumph, with all the hype imaginable — in Mark’s telling Jesus has just healed a blind man on the road, who used deliberately messianic language to describe Jesus; in John’s telling, it’s at this stop in Bethany that he raises Lazarus from the dead. But, by riding the donkey colt, Jesus is also trying to remind the people of Jerusalem that he is not coming as a conquering political hero.

But, the best laid plans of mice and Messiahs often go awry. And the nuance of this act is completely lost on the crowds. They are all about the first half of Zechariah’s oracle and miss the intention of the second half entirely.

And so the crowds see only what they want to see. They want a conqueror to free them from Rome and restore the honour and pride of their nation. And they have projected all of these desires upon Jesus. On Sunday they cry “Hosanna to the Son of David!” On Friday they will shout “Crucify him!” They turn on him because he refuses to meet their expectations. They turn on him because he was never who they imagined him to be. They turn on him because they demanded a mighty champion, when he was the Suffering Servant. They turn on him because they demanded a theology of glory, when he was offering them a theology of the cross.

This seems like a worthy question to contemplate as we enter Holy Week. What is Jesus trying to tell us that we are choosing not to hear? Where have we stopped our ears to his message? Do we close our hearts to his teaching on forgiveness — that we must forgive ‘seventy-times-seven’? To his teaching on judgment — that we will be judged by the standards by which we judge others? To his teaching on money — that we cannot serve both God and money? To his teaching on nonviolence — that we must turn the other cheek and walk the extra mile?

Jesus’ way is always counter-cultural, always hard. If we choose to follow him, we have to be careful that we are actually following him and not our imagined version of who we want him to be.

And so, as we commemorate his triumphal entry today, let us welcome him into our hearts, relationships, and communities, but truly welcome him, as he truly is.

4 thoughts on “A Case of Mistaken Identity: A Reflection for Palm Sunday 2021

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