Today is Palm Sunday. It has become a Sunday that I anticipate more and more each year, because it holds within it such a story. It is perhaps serendipitous that Sidey chose “Unexpected” as this weekend’s theme, because there are not many words more descriptive of that first “Palm Sunday” more than 2,000 years ago, and of all the events of the week that followed the triumphal entry.
Jesus and his friends and followers were coming to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. It is a sacred celebration and remembrance of a time in Jewish history when the Jews were saved from the angel of death (it “passed over” the homes of the faithful), and were at last freed by the Pharoah, who gave up and “let (God’s/Moses’) people go.” It became the custom, barring mitigating circumstances, that all Jews were obligated to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem, and offer the required sacrifices at the Temple; therefore the city with a permanent population of about 80,000 would swell each year with as many as 250,000 visitors.
The man Jesus, called by many a prophet, or healer or miracle-worker, and by others the long-awaited Messiah, was making what he knew would be his last journey to Jerusalem, something which his followers either did not know or refused to understand. From a political standpoint – and probably from many others – the Scribes and Pharisees (the religious law-makers and judges at that time) – saw Jesus as a rather dangerous “hot potato,” and some of them were actively seeking ways to discredit him and sought ways to “trip him up,” or to present him in a very negative light.
Surely the procession of this Galilean – just a “country-boy” – and his followers and their friends and families could not have been very large. Had the law-makers of the time not drawn attention to it in the manner in which they did, it could easily have gone unnoticed by most of the people crowding into the city that day. Jesus, riding on a donkey (as Zechariah had prophesied) was being heralded by those around him. The people had cut branches from the trees (palm trees most likely among them) in the general area, and were waving the branches in the air, or laying them in the road ahead of the procession, all the while shouting “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” Word had gotten around about this man Jesus; great things were “expected.” A literal translation of the word “hosanna” is “Save now!” The Jewish people had longed for their Messiah to come and deliver them from their oppressors, and if Jesus was the one, they wanted it now. They expected it now. The Pharisees would have none of it. Not only did they not see Jesus as their Messiah – after all, he had behaved in none of the “expected” ways, but just at a time when they had been brokering some sort of acceptable “peace” with the Roman rulers and establishment, here comes this guy who was stirring lots of people up. Jesus was a problem, and they were doing their best to solve it.
Keeping a close eye on Jesus and his followers’ activities, some of the Pharisees and High Priests were witnesses to Jesus’ entry into the city. With such a crush of people in town for the holidays, it is easily imaginable how noisy it must have been. Add to that the shouting of Jesus’ followers and the children and others waving branches in the air, well, those leaders were anxious to shut them up. St. Luke writes in the 19th chapter (vs. 39-40) of his Gospel:
“Some of the Pharisees from the multitude said to him, ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples!’
He answered them, ‘I tell you that if these were silent, the stones would cry out.'”
Not many answers are more unexpected than that one. But everything that Jesus said and did was unexpected. He did not fit into the package that many, if not most, of the Jewish leaders had expected the Messiah to come in. That sages would seek his place of birth was unexpected, and that his way of living is still sought out would have been unexpected by those who executed him. Perhaps most unexpected of all was the empty tomb on that first Easter morning. But that’s the way God is – offering hope and love to all – even those who might not expect it: the last, the least, and the lost.
God is always surprising me. It makes my life so exciting, knowing that I can always expect the unexpected. It’s always enough. . .