First Thoughts on Year B Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Palm Sunday

William Loader

Palm  Sunday: 5 April John 12:12-16

At one level it makes little difference whether one chooses the account in John or the alternative reading, Mark 11:1-11. This is a Sunday of celebration: Palm Sunday. The alternative is to take the passion narrative readings and celebrate the Sunday as Passion Sunday. The danger in doing the former is that Good Friday is upon us before we have had time to reflect on the story. In my comments I want to bear all of this in mind, because there is a sense in which both the Markan and Johannine account of the entry into Jerusalem point forward to the themes of the passion.

The dimensions of the event have a way of getting out of hand. If we imagine that the city stopped and everyone crowded to see the spectacle of Jesus on ass-back, then we have to explain why there was not immediate intervention on the part of authorities. Unless we want to believe that the story was created without an historical basis, then behind the accounts what we have is some memory of Jesus’ entry. John senses the historical problem. He indicates that the disciples only came to interpret the event symbolically after Jesus’ glorification (12:16). After Easter they were able to recall what happened and find biblical echoes in it, coming from Zechariah 9:9. Indeed, most of the narrative of Jesus’ last days will have come about like this. Psalm 22 was a major source. It provides Jesus’ cry, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me'; the detail about mockery and also about dividing and casting lots for Jesus’ garments.

There is debate about just how much the Old Testament passages were seen to echo what happened or actually provided the detail. The answer is probably that both alternatives are true. ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’ is a familiar call to pilgrims drawn from the psalms of ascent (118:25-26). In Mark the same psalm provides the image of Jesus as the rejected stone who becomes the cornerstone of a new temple (Mark 12:10-12). Used here, the pilgrim greeting becomes a greeting directed to Jesus, the messiah, ‘the king of Israel’. It becomes a key element of the thanksgiving prayer in the eucharist as we await his coming in the sacrament.

Hailing Jesus as Messiah was dangerous and open to misunderstanding. The passion is about one who was executed as ‘king of the Jews’, made to wear a crown of thorns, mocked as a king, set between other revolutionaries and made subject of barter with Barabbas. Irony is at work. John is fond of having people state the truth without knowing it. Here they hail Jesus as Messiah, probably for all the wrong reasons, just as the crowds did whom Jesus fed in the desert in 6:14-15. The ears of faith know however that in a different sense what they say is true.

It is all part of the greatest irony of all: the true king, the true Messiah, the great human being and Son of God, is a collapsed figure on a cross. Compassion and lowliness confront human images of power and success. The ‘failure’ of Jesus is his success. His truth is faithfulness to love and compassion without bowing to compromise which would betray himself and others. Even though asses were not necessarily bottom of the range in public transport, the image of Jesus on the foal of an ass does depict lowliness.

It is little wonder then that the disciples took time to grasp what was happening. When they told of Jesus' final days they imagined with the images of scripture. For here was sacred story. Their traditional messianic hopes merged with memories and poetry of suffering in such a way that the latter two are probably never to be untangled. Jesus suffered like the righteous of the psalms. He is their hope, but only in a sense that turns their expectations upside down. The one whom God will raise from the dead is not the splendid hero, the valiant warrior, but the lowly one who seems least suitable as the focus of human hope and expectation. This is profoundly subversive of dominant values.

John has left the story largely untouched, except for his ‘footnote’ in 12:16. Perhaps at one stage the account of the entry was the beginning of the passion narrative, before Mark included all those controversies and last words of Jesus in chapters 11-13 and before John made the last words a major focus in 13-17. Both Mark and John teach us to be cynical about the popular show of support. Yet both also want us to see the profoundly symbolic meaning of the event. In a sense the ambiguity of the event is present wherever Jesus is hailed in adulation, as the history of worshipping communities teaches us. Our task as interpreters is to help people sense what is going on in the story which this event introduces and to find themselves in it.

Neither Mark nor John is setting the incident under the banner of a Jesus who is going up to Jerusalem to perform a sacrifice for sins through offering his own body for execution, even though they know such traditions and they often take over the story when we retell it. Such traditions are largely absent in the passion narratives and appear mainly in the tradition of the last meal. Instead, the narrative plays with competing expectations of messiahship, hope and humanness, and ultimately, of God. That play begins dramatically at the entry. We need to help people make their entry, too.

People can usually imagine themselves into the different responses and expectations very easily. Many an effective yarn has been spun about how onlookers might have felt, especially those who had already encountered Jesus. The key is to take the people right into the story to the point where they can find themselves and make their decisions about whether such a story really has anything salvific about it.

Passion Sunday: 5 April Mark 15:1-39 (40-47) (or 14:1 - 15:47)
Epistle: Passion and Palm Sunday:  5 April  Philippians 2:5-11

Return to Home Page