Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday

March 28, 2010
See Also: 

Lenten Candle Liturgy
John Cobb on redemption
Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus (Cobb)

Preaching Lent/Easter I
Preaching Lent/Easter II
Preaching Lent/Easter III

Reading 2: 
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Reading 4: 
Luke 19:28-40
By Russell Pregeant

Palm Sunday gets its name from the Gospel of John’s version of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (John 12:13), which is the only account that mentions palm branches. In Matthew (21:8) and Mark (11:8), the people in the crowds spread branches on the road before him, but they are not specified as palm. What is distinctive about Luke in this regard is that no branches are mentioned at all. Luke preserves Mark’s notation about people spreading their cloaks and even repeats it, but the reference to branches is missing altogether. How do we account for this? When Judas Maccabaeus entered Jerusalem to restore the Temple in 164 B.C.E., those in his procession waved palm branches. Thus, Ronald J. Allen concludes that “[t]he author of Luke thereby communicates that Jesus is not a military revolutionary.” And he connects this point to Luke’s well-known emphasis upon Jesus’ innocence, evident not only in the words of the thief in 23:41 and the centurion in 23:47 but also in the speeches of the apostles in Acts: “As the story unfolds, we realize that Jesus is altogether innocent of the charges that are leveled against him.” (Preaching Luke-Acts, 48)

Some scholars have taken Luke’s omission as evidence that the author wrote Luke-Acts in part as a political apologetic, to convince the Roman authorities that the Christian movement was politically innocuous. And another of Luke’s omissions from Mark might seem to strengthen this case: missing also is Mark’s report of the shouting of “Hosanna” and the reference to “the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” However, Luke also changes Mark’s “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” to “Blessed is the king…,” which actually seems more provocative from a political perspective. It would thus appear that although Luke wants to emphasize that Jesus’ kingship is of a different sort from that of a political ruler, he also wants to make clear that Jesus’ role has implications for all of life, including the political realm. Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock thus make this important point:

While it is profoundly true that Jesus was not the kind of king that the Jewish leaders, Pilate, or even his disciples understood him to claim to be, Christians should not rush to say that the claim has no political implications. While Jesus was indeed claiming a different kind of rulership from that exercised by worldly sovereigns (see 22:24-30), the reversal of conventional values manifest in the kingdom of God does indeed have political implications (4:16-21). (The People’s New Testament Commentary, 256)

Along similar lines, Richard J. Cassidy argues that Luke’s presentation of Jesus’ teachings on social existence presented a real threat to Roman authority: “Jesus pointed the way to a social order in which neither the Roman nor any other oppressing group would be able to hold sway.” (Jesus, Politics, and Society: A Study of Luke’s Gospel, 79)
We should add that the stress on Jesus’ innocence has a double edge. Understood from one perspective, we can read it as an attempt to prove to Roman that Jesus was no political threat. However, it was after all the Romans who carried out the crucifixion, and to emphasize his innocence is to accuse the empire of injustice. Thus, Ronald Allen comments that as we read through the story of Jesus trial and crucifixion, “[o]ur sense of injustice at the death of Jesus intensifies.”

The provocative character of Jesus’ dramatic entry is underscored by vv. 39-40. When the Pharisees object to the accolades of his disciples, Jesus replies: “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” It is thus clear that Jesus intends it as a prophetic sign-action in the mode of the great Hebrew prophets. And the story about the procuring of the colt upon which he rides emphasizes Jesus’ command of the situation. His foreknowledge of the existence of the colt, as well as the reaction of its owners, and the sovereign tone of the reply with which he prepares them (“The Lord needs it.”) are signs that he is playing out the script assigned to him by God. The crucial importance of what he is doing, moreover, is signified by the stipulation that no one has ever ridden the colt. As Alfred Plummer comments,

This intimates to the disciples that that it is no ordinary journey which He contemplates, but a royal progress; comp. Deut. xxi. 3; Num. xix. 2; I Sam. vi. 7. The birth of a virgin and the burial in a new tomb [Lk. 23:5] are facts of the same kind. (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to S. Luke. International Critical Commentary), 446.

The Greek term for “colt”(polos) can be used of a young horse as well as a young donkey, and it is only Matthew that specifies that a donkey is meant. Also, only Matthew (21:5) has the composite quotation from Isaiah and Zechariah that portrays the king as “humble, and mounted on a donkey.” Therefore, the theme of the humility of the one who now enters Jerusalem as king is not as evident in Luke as it is in Matthew. Most scholars think that both Mark and Luke intend “donkey,” however, and the fact that Jesus comes into Jerusalem in full knowledge of his fate there shows that Luke, too, understands the scene as paradoxical and ironic. The fully sovereign one who has accomplished marvelous “deeds of power” (19:37) enters the city as the true king but nevertheless as the one who will be wrongly convicted and put to death. God will raise him up, of course, and this will confirm not only his true status but the truth of the values he proclaimed—values that stood in marked opposition to those who exercised worldly power and used it to send him to his death.

The psalm connects with the gospel lesson not only in that it is the source of the quotation, “Blessed is the one [Lk: “king”]…,” but also by virtue of the paradoxical theme of 118:22: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the head of the cornerstone.” A sermon stressing the paradoxical character of Jesus’ kingship could make good use of this connection. And in my estimation such a sermon should also make extensive use of the thematic connections between the gospel reading and other portions of Luke-Acts mentioned above. By itself, the triumphal entry might seem indeed to smack too much of triumphalism; but in the context of Luke’s total narrative, it is anything but that. To be sure, there is a note of triumph in Luke-Acts; the gospel message makes its way into the world. But that message is inextricably tied to the death of the innocent, nonviolent Jesus. And it is just this theme—victory through nonviolence—that provides an entry-point for the use of process categories.

Russell Pregeant is Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Chaplain, Emeritus, at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts and Visiting Professor in New Testament at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts. He resides in Contoocook, New Hampshire with his wife, Sammie Maxwell, who is pastor of the Contoocook United Methodist Church. As an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, he has served as Associate Pastor at Rayne Memorial U.M.C. in New Orleans and as interim pastor in Carter Memorial U.M.C. in Needham, Massachusetts. He is the author of several books, including Knowing Truth, doing Good: Engaging New Testament Ethics, Christology Beyond Dogma: Matthew's Christ and Process Hermeneutic, and Mystery without Magic, which is a basic introduction to process thought. He is a graduate of Vanderbilt University Ph.D., 1971), Yale Divinity School, (S.T.M., 1963), Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University (B.D., 1962), and Southeastern Louisiana University (B.A., 1960).