Palm Sunday, Parade or Protest?

Apr 2, 2023 by: Sam Hestorff
Scripture: Mark 11:1–11

One of the unique characteristics of Christian faith is our constant invitation to become part of a story, the story of God’s ongoing love for the whole world. 

Today’s story is not any different.  It takes us to the eastern gate of Jerusalem where thousands of people had gathered in the streets, chanting and waving, singing, and cheering.  We call it the triumphal entry.

We know, of course, that this was wasn’t just a parade. It was more of a protest.

People had lined the streets because they wanted change and to make a statement with their presence.  They were hoping that Jesus would be the one to finally release them from the oppression of Rome, from the crippling societal conditions under which they were living. 

And so, they gathered, and they shouted, “Hosanna! Save us!” as Jesus rode in on a donkey.  But I think this translation better captions the sentiment of the people that day.

That was the scene more than 2000 years ago in the streets of Jerusalem.

The text we read from today was found in the gospel of Mark (11:1-11).

Mark’s gospel is considered by many scholars to be the earliest gospel written and it’s typically, very spare on the details. The writer did not sit down with the intent of meandering through his memories of his time with Jesus and try to bring them to life for his readers.

Instead, he pieced together various accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry in a book that was intended to depict the urgency and the radically uncomfortable nature of Jesus’ message. And so, Mark focuses more on the actions of Jesus rather than the words of Jesus.

Mark gospel is perhaps the roughest in terms of style and literary quality; his sentences are short and he uses the word “immediately” over and over again.  It is used 35 times which is close to half the occurrences of this word in the entire New Testament.

Through the eyes of Mark, readers get a quick-paced, action-packed view of Jesus.

In fact, Mark leaves out so many details that typically when people preach from Mark’s gospel, they sprinkle in bits from other gospel writers in order to fill in the details of the story.

Today, however, Mark’s account of events is completely out of character.  It’s the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the big parade we celebrate every year at the beginning of Holy Week. 

But today’s passage—eleven verses from Mark chapter eleven—only tells about Jesus’ actual entry in the very last verse of the passage.  The other verses are all devoted . . . to the details.

The passage begins with Jesus and his disciples approaching Jerusalem from the eastern side of the city.  Recall that the city was full of people getting ready for Passover, so Jesus and his disciples would have been among many on their way into the city. 

As they approached the Mount of Olives, Mark begins to tell us in detail the instructions that Jesus gives his disciples: go into the village ahead of us.  You will find the colt of a donkey tied there.  Untie it and bring it to me.  If anyone asks you why you are untying it, tell them the Lord needs it and we will bring it back to you immediately.

After Jesus gives these detailed instructions to his disciples, Mark tells us what happens—exactly as Jesus said it would—repeating all the details again: disciples go into the village; colt of a donkey tied to near a door; disciples untie it; people ask what they’re doing; they say Jesus needs it and they’ll bring it back shortly; they get the donkey. 

Mark then goes into several more verses of detail, telling us how the disciples prepared for Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, laying their cloaks on the donkey, lining the streets with their cloaks, too, along with leafy branches cut from the fields, and leading the crowds in chants of “Hosanna!” “Save us!” as Jesus rode into the city. 

And after his very short description of the actual gathering in the street that day, Mark tells us that Jesus and his disciples pack everything up and head back out of Jerusalem.

That’s a lot of detail for Mark, and it’s curious that he chooses to tell the story this way

I have to wonder if maybe that’s the point.  Maybe Mark wanted us to sit up and take notice, to realize as we stand on the edge of this week filled with dramatic events, that there are many things that have to happen behind the scenes for a protest to become substantive change, for a moment to become a movement.

Living in the way of Jesus is more than just showing up every once in a while; true transformation takes hard work, attending to the details, showing up not just once but again and again and again until change, within and without, begins to take hold.

I wonder if Mark took painstaking detail to tell the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem for the purpose of reminding us that there is so much more than a protest in the streets that has to happen for a movement to gain traction, for true change to really take hold. 

Change will come—and not because of one beautiful day of protesting in the streets.  Change will come through the day in, day out work we do, work that is difficult and tedious, uncomfortable and hard.

It takes preparation and commitment, follow through and tenacity, the dedication of our whole lives to the work of living the gospel.

We’re standing now on the edge of Holy Week, gathered with Jesus and the disciples and many people in Jerusalem at a parade, a protest, really.  People are singing and waving their palms, we feel a sense of possibility for all that we can be and do together. 

But for Jesus and his disciples, getting here has been difficult—years of preaching and teaching, sacrifice, hard work, planning, organization.  For all of them, and for us, moving past today into the week ahead is going to be even harder, requiring tenacity and commitment many of them could not summon.

For us, following Jesus from this moment full of optimism and possibility, all the way to the cross…well, that is going to require making change that causes us discomfort. 

We will have to go to places that hurt, confront realities that make us uneasy, look at ourselves with attention to the ways in which we fail.  I wonder if we will have the courage that it takes to walk with Jesus through this whole week, to see the change through to the end—past the enthusiasm of the crowd and the excitement of an idea whose time has come?

Jesus ended up on a cross alone, all of the friends who joined him in the streets only one week before having left, deserting him. 

They did not learn the lesson Jesus had been trying to teach them—that real change—in our lives and in our world—takes painstaking attention to the details, to the work that happens behind the scenes and even after a moment like the one they had in the streets of Jerusalem that day. 

It’s the hard work of making a movement, of preparing to live into what we cannot see, hearts filled with faith that God will be with us no matter what we face ahead of us.

As we begin the journey into Holy Week today, we’re being invited to join the parade, the protest calling for our world to change.

But we can’t pack up our protest signs and stop there.  Jesus invites us to join him in living a gospel that will take our whole lives, every moment, every day, dedicated to ushering in a new reality, to making a movement.  May we find the courage we need to keep showing up.

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