Palm/Passion Sunday reminds us that looks can be deceiving. If preachers have been faithful to Luke throughout Lent, their congregations will most likely be wondering what way Jesus’s “triumphal entry” should be defined as “triumphant.” Jesus laments over Jerusalem on Lent 2C as he slowly makes his way into the city because he anticipates that the city will treat him as Israel has treated all other prophets in her past, with rejection and death. He desires to bring them into the refuge and freedom of God, but they seek their own category of freedom.
As Jesus entered Jerusalem, I’m sure many in the crowed recalled a similar procession that would have taken place around 166 BC. The Maccabeean army had been achieving great success through violent gorilla tactics in the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid Empire. This would culminate in a triumphal entry into Jerusalem to ritually cleanse the temple from syncretistic Greek pagan rituals. This entry would have most likely been led by Judas Maccabee seated on a war horse followed by his soldiers fresh from the fight. They were most likely greeted with customary waving of palm fronds and exuberant praise from the people as they entered. Was this the sort of “triumph” the crowd was anticipating from Jesus? Was Jesus to be their “Judas Maccabee” to their Roman oppressors? What was running through their mind when they saw Jesus riding on a donkey followed by a group of crusty fisherman and other non- soldier-types?
All through Lent, Luke’s gospel has portrayed that people simply do not see or understand who Jesus is and what he has come to establish. The triumphal entry is no different. If people in the crowd began to think that something was amiss, Jesus had already been thinking that long before them. The crowd’s definition of “triumph” was not the same as Jesus and they will soon kill him because of that difference. Today’s reading from Luke sets the stage for the betrayal that would lead to that death. Those who came to arrest Jesus were led by Judas who some have proposed may have been trying to force Jesus’s hand in beginning a rebellion. “Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple guard, and the elders, who had come for him, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs? Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me. But this is your hour—when darkness reigns.” (Luke 22:52-53 NIV) Jesus will soon show that God’s definition of triumph is one of light, not darkness. Those who betray Jesus show a definition of triumph and freedom that is as different as night and day with God.
These few verses from the Psalmist portray what Jesus’s internal prayer to his Father must have been during the time of his entry and betrayal in Jerusalem. Psalm 31 finds itself among those psalms that raise lament and petition to God in the midst of crisis. Although this psalm is colored with trust and confidence in God, it is clear that the Psalmist is writing from a place of sickness, grief, depression, and persecution. Walter Brueggemann writes that the “petitioner faces malicious gossip, false word that would carry considerable force, and would lead to shame. The crisis is not one to be solved by standard institutional procedures in society, so the speaker comes to the divine judge to seek help…”1 This is a fitting prayer for Jesus during the time of his betrayal, arrest, and standing before Pilate. In the face of enemy, disciples, and institutional procedures, Jesus can only rely on God in his time of crisis.
Verses 9-20 is a renewed call for help that is initially seen in verses 1-8. The body of the psalm petitions a laments that is impacting all of one’s self. The petitioner’s crisis is impacting eye, body, strength, and bones. There is no area of life of which the fingers of sorrow and chaos have not grabbed hold. The petitioner’s crisis is one of isolation from both enemy and friend, no one on any side will hear the deep grief that must be heard. All the petitioner really knows is the reality of death by being so cut off and shunned by those around them. We hear echoes of Jeremiah the prophet in verse 13 from the persecution and seclusion he also received from broth enemy and kin. Our petitioner shares in that same scene as those with only malicious words and plots of destruction constantly encircle them.
Upon reaching verse 14 and beyond, we see that God is still worthy of being trusted. “I say, You are my God” is a profound and subversive claim within crisis. Not only does it communicate that crisis will not have the last word but God will, it also claims with the rest of the psalm that even if crisis breaks the one who prays, God is still God and will somehow bring restoration and liberation to them within a helpless and broken situation. The preacher could mention that verse 5 of Psalm 31 is mentioned by Jesus from the cross. A profound proclamation of trust in Jesus’s most devastating of situations. Psalm 32 helps us to see that from lamenting over Jerusalem, to triumphantly entering her gates, to being rejected and killed by the city on a cross, Jesus remains faithful in trusting the righteousness of God. We then witness resurrection power entering Jesus’s crisis to bring redemption to all brokenness and sorrow.
Perhaps this is part of the reason why the church burns the palm fronds it waves in praise on Palm Sunday to use as the ash placed on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday. Maybe we are to wear the the ash of our false definitions of “triumph” to better understand that we are utterly dependent on God’s faithfulness and that it is our trust in God that should shape our praise rather than our false categories of freedom. As lent moves into Good Friday, it is always a fitting reminder that there is never a crisis so destructive and so isolating that God’s faithfulness cannot circumvent, redeem, and restore. It is to that sort of restoration power in which we as God’s people are called to trust. It is that sort of trust our triumphant King Jesus perfectly exemplified for us. May our definition of triumph be shaped by Christ alone.