Palm Sunday and the Parody of Power

Like many people, I preached today on the Palm Sunday story.

On one level it is a story that many of us know: Jesus entered into Jerusalem, riding a donkey, and was welcomed by the adoring crowd who received him as king. It is Jesus being given the glory that is rightfully his.

And yet the story can seem strangely jarring. In the context of the humble king who washed the feet of his disciples and taught that he did not come to be served but to serve, the pomp and ceremony of Palm Sunday can seem out of place. I think there was more going on than we sometimes realise.

As John tells the story, the raising of Lazarus from the dead is the immediate context for Palm Sunday. Jesus told those at the tombside that if they believed, they would see the glory of God, and then he called Lazarus forth from the tomb. The news of this got around, and Jesus’ reputation in Jerusalem grew. People were desperate to see him, and to see Lazarus too. It made the enemies of Jesus kill him all the more, and for a while Jesus kept a low profile. With Passover approaching, the big question was whether Jesus would show his face in Jerusalem for the festivities.

Six days before passover, Jesus arrived at the home of Lazarus in Bethany, and when the crowd started heading that way to see him, he bit the bullet and rode into Jerusalem on a donkey to the acclaim of the crowd. This is the part of the story that we are so familiar with.

As John tells the story, he points out that what Jesus was doing was a fulfilment of a prophecy made by Zechariah. In the prophecy, the coming Messiah would enter Jerusalem on a donkey, and this is exactly what Jesus did. It is not coincidence or that Jesus chose to enter in this way. He knew what he was doing. By riding the donkey into town, Jesus was engaging in a piece of performance theatre as a way of putting forward the claim that he is the one Zechariah prophesied about. It is not only Jesus who knew the significance of what he was doing. His opponents knew too (hence their reaction in John 12:19), as did the crowd (hence hailing him as the King of Israel in John 12:13). Everybody knew what was happening in this moment.

Except they didn’t.

John 12:16 is one of those verses that seems strange in the flow of the narrative, and hints that there may be something more to the story than first meets the eye. There are two things about it that seem strange. Firstly, the disciples did not understand these things at first but only later. Given that everybody else present seemed to grasp the obvious, either the disciples were particularly dull, or there were extra layers of understanding beyond the surface story that they only gained through further reflection. Secondly, we are told that it is only when Jesus was glorified that they remembered these things.

That last statement is odd. Isn’t this the moment that Jesus is receiving glory? He is surrounded by the adoring crowd, receiving praise. He is being treated like a triumphant general, in pomp and splendour, like every hero or strong man of this world. He is playing the part to perfection. But John says this isn’t his moment of glory. That was still to come.

The story continues and some people visiting Jerusalem from Greece for the festival ask to see Jesus. When the disciples bring word, we tells them that the time has come for him to be glorified. Again, he is not talking about the hype and celebrity of the triumphal entry, but instead says “ Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:24-25)

On Palm Sunday, Jesus enters Jerusalem acting the part of the powerful earthly ruler, but over the course of the day he subverts this entirely and shows that his glory is of a very different form. The triumphal entry becomes a parody of how the world sees power, whereas Jesus shows a new paradigm where power is found in humility and sacrifice, and it is through the suffering of the cross that the glory of God is truly displayed. We can be hard-wired to seek those things which appears impressive, strong and triumphant, but what Jesus brings is shameful and weak and looks like defeat. And yet it is glorious.

So what would happen if this Easter we tore down our obsession with earthly power and leaned into the glory of the cross? Less glitz and glam and presentation, more making those costly decisions to lay down our preferences for others. Less presenting like we are doing well, and more being honest about what is really going on. Less performative spirituality, more deep inner work. Less grasping for political power at the centre and more serving the poor at the margins. Less crowd, more cross.

This is the message of Palm Sunday.