Hosanna! Save us how?
Hespeler, 25 March, 2018 © Scott McAndless
John 12:12-19, 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, Psalm 118:1,2 19-29
ave you heard the word? They say that that man from Nazareth has come to town. He’s here for the festival. You’ve heard about the stir that he has been causing up in Galilee. He’s a storyteller, they say, loves to tell these stories about farming and seeds. Obviously he’s coming down here to support the lo
cal farmers and it is about time! Farmers don’t get the respect that they deserve. They feed us all! So what do you say, shall we grab a few of these palm branches, symbols of the fruitful earth, and be part of it? Hosanna! Jesus comes in the name of the Lord to save us from disrespecting farmers!
Hey, what are you sitting around wasting your time here for? Haven’t you heard that Jesus has come to town? He is the one who has made his name up north for being such a good exorcist. He’s been casting demons out right and left. And you know that those Galileans up there are all yokels – not sophisticated like us Jerusalemites. They are likely to blame all sorts of things on evil demons including mental health issues like depression or bipolar disorder. So you know what that means, don’t you? It means that he will be leading a campaign against mental illness. Grab a palm branch, we need to be part of this.
Jesus is coming to town – you know, Jesus – the one who when he was asking his disciples who people were saying he was and one of them said he was the Christ, the Son of the living God, he didn’t deny it – that Jesus! Well, if he is the Christ, that surely means that he has come to gather the people, form and army and drive the Romans out of this country for good. That is a campaign that I can support. Who is with me? Arm yourselves with palm branches and let’s go kick out the bloody Romans!
Jesus? Jesus? Oh yeah, I’ve heard of him. Isn’t he the one who said, “The poor will always be with you”? In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s the only thing I’ve ever heard about him. Hey do you suppose that means that he’s all about helping rich folks get richer? Maybe he’s got some good stock tips or investment advice and I’m all in on that kind of thing. See this palm branch? It is green, a symbol for money! Wave it around and lets all get rich!
And so it went. I like the way that the Gospel of John tells the story of Palm Sunday – it’s just a little bit different from what you find in the other Gospels. John puts it like this, “The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him.” The way John tells it, it seems like more of a spontaneous thing with people turning out for their own reasons and Jesus and others, like the Pharisees, responding to what was happening. I like that. I think it must have happened pretty much like that. But it also puts particular emphasis on the problem that people have always had with this story.
People have always wondered how it could have happened like that – how there could have been this huge crowd of people welcoming and shouting the praises of Jesus one day and then, just a little bit later (less than a week) the same crowd was screaming for his death. And the traditional answer to that question – the answer that I heard from the pulpit as I was growing up – was that it was all a big misunderstanding.
You see, I was taught that the people of Jerusalem were welcoming Jesus because they had some very specific expectations of what kind of messiah he was going to be. They thought that Jesus was coming, as the messiah was often pictured in certain passages of the Old Testament, to lead some kind of armed revolt against the Romans and set the land free from the people who occupied it. They got all excited about that, but when Jesus didn’t turn out to be exactly what they were expecting (they were mad when Jesus didn’t take on the entire Roman Empire at once) they turned against him and, kind of ironically, delivered him up to the representative of the Roman Empire to be killed.
Now, I am not saying that that is entirely wrong, but I will tell you one key thing that I learned in my New Testament studies courses at seminary that causes a problem with that interpretation. This is actually a pretty well-kept secret and I was kind of shocked when I learned it so I am a little worried that I might just blow your minds here but this is what I learned: we actually don’t know what Jews were thinking in the time of Jesus. Shocking, I know! But this is a very important point.
And this is not just a matter of not being able to read the minds of people who lived 2000 years ago. The fact of the matter is that we actually do not know very much about the state of Judaism in the time of Jesus because Judaism, as we know it, actually didn’t exist back then. Judaism, what we know as the various sects of Rabbinic Judaism that are followed in the world today, only started to come into being a few years after the time of Jesus. In Jesus’ time, the Jews still had the temple, the sacrificial system and the priesthood; things that together defined their religion. But that was all taken away from them at once, about forty years after the crucifixion of Jesus when the Romans destroyed the temple. In 70 AD, the Jews lost everything that had once told them what it meant to be a Jew and so they basically had to reinvent their entire faith from scratch.
Most of the things that we associate with Judaism, including their devotion to the scriptures, many of their worship and their rituals really only came into being after the time of Jesus. And I tell you that mostly so that you will understand that nobody has a really clear idea what anybody was thinking when they went out to greet Jesus waving their palm branches. Their thoughts are almost completely alien to us.
Where they expecting something from Jesus? That seems clear. They were shouting “Hosanna!” and hosanna means “save” or “help.” They clearly wanted Jesus to do something for them and were hailing him as someone who had come “in the name of the Lord” to save them. But saving and helping can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Save me from what? Help me how?
At least some of them also seem to have been greeting him as messiah, but, again, what did that mean? We don’t know what Jews in Jesus’ time were looking for in a messiah. In fact, the only indications that we have are that there was a great variety of expectations. Sure some may have been looking for a leader of an armed revolt, but there are also indications that some were looking for someone who would lead a religious reform or for someone who would lead the people to submit to Rome. The fact of the matter is that there were probably as many different expectations of what Jesus would do for them as there were people in the crowd. In fact, isn’t that exactly how things often go?
I don’t know if you have noticed this, but we seem to be living in a golden age of populist leadership. It is a time when the people who seem to have the greatest success as leaders are not necessarily those who are able to communicate the best policies but rather those who are best at presenting an image that people can connect to. People seem to vote for or follow such leaders not for what they specifically plan to do but because of how people feel about them. The best of such populist leaders don’t get very specific at all about what they are going to do, they somehow present themselves in such a way that people just believe that they are going to be for whatever they want them to be for.
Donald Trump is an excellent example. He seems to be a master at getting a lot of people to project the things that they hope for or the fears that they want to be protected from onto him. For example, it seems that a whole lot of white Evangelical Christians came to believe that he was one of them and would save them, despite a large amount of evidence to the contrary. It is all about image, getting lots of attention and allowing people to project their desires onto you. And Trump is hardly the only example we could look at. It seems to me that Justin Trudeau employed a populist approach in his own way – at least to the extent that his success was more based on his personal image than it was on his policies. His popular image certainly allowed some people to project their hopes onto him. Now that it seems that that image is tarnishing somewhat, we may see if he is able to adapt to a new kind of leadership. The early indications of the new PC leader, Doug Ford, also seem to be that he is taking a very populist approach to the upcoming provincial election campaign.
What am I saying, that these leaders are all the same? No. Nor am I saying that there is no place for populism in leadership. Populist leaders can do a lot of good (though there is no question that they can also do a lot of evil – there are historical examples). No, I think that the real danger is not the leaders as much as how all of us deal with the image of the leaders. There is a problem when we are more interested in image than we are in substance. There is a problem when we turn off our critical thinking and just react to image. Lots of people have gotten in trouble by doing exactly that.
I do not believe that Jesus set out to make a populist entry into Jerusalem. He did apparently set out to project a particular image on that day. It says that “Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: ‘Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!’” But the image he was projecting was one that, at the very least, should have made people stop and think critically about the expectations that they were projecting into him.
Jesus was a good leader – we would even say a perfect leader – who had truly come “in the name of the Lord.” He did his best to communicate what he had really come to do both in word (as in, for example, his many parables of the kingdom of God) and in public relations actions (like, say, riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey). But none of this prevented people from projecting their own expectations, prejudices and fears onto him.
It is easy for us to do that with Jesus too – to make Jesus stand for and represent what we want him to represent. It didn’t just happen on Palm Sunday, it has happened throughout Christian history. Jesus has been used to promote slavery and to lead the charge against it. Jesus has been used to keep women in their traditional subservient place and to break them out of it. Racists and white supremacists had only been too happy to claim to have Jesus on their side but so have civil rights leaders and campaigners for equality.
Here’s what I would challenge all those people with – the truth that Jesus didn’t come to be on your side or on anybody’s side. Yes, people went out to him waving their palm branches and putting their expectations on him, but Jesus met them on the back of a donkey. He wasn’t coming to promote your idea or your way of fixing what you see as wrong in the world. He was coming to call you to change, to repentance and to be part of a new world. If there is one lesson that you can take away from Palm Sunday, it is to lay down your own ideologies and ideas about how to fix the world and just be open to allowing Jesus to change your mind and your heart.
So, by all means, let us join the throngs and wave our palms; let us shout “Hosanna,” which means save. But let us not assume that we can do it without allowing Jesus to challenge all of the ways in which we live in this world. He will challenge us on how we treat others. He will challenge on us on questions of fairness and justice. Palm Sunday isn’t just a party; it has to be the beginning of a redeemed world.