A reflection on Luke 19:28-40.
It’s party time this week: palm branches, adoring crowds, joyful hymns and excited songs. Maybe there were vendors in that Mount of Olives crowd too, making the most of an opportunity that dropped into their laps to make a quick buck out of the excitement. What’s not to like about a bit of happy chaos?
Well… if you’re charged with keeping the peace at a rebellious time of year, there’s a lot not to like.
Up to 300,000 people packed into Jerusalem for this annual festival of freedom. Jews from all over the Empire came to celebrate how God had rescued their ancestors from the oppression of Egypt’s Pharaoh, and helped them become an independent nation. The chaos from so many visitors wasn’t always that happy! Romans and Jews alike could make the obvious comparison between the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh and their contemporary Roman overlords, and tempers got heated as the religious fervor increased.
Everybody knew that the soldiers were particularly vigilant as the crowds swelled. It was never safe to challenge the authority of the Roman rulers, but doing it this time of year was even more perilous than usual.
What could have possessed Jesus to make such a public fuss at exactly the point in the year when it would be most unwelcome? Why choose danger now, when he’d spent three years sliding under the radar of the authorities?
It must have been pretty dangerous for Moses and the slaves to stand up to Pharaoh too, way back at the Exodus. Unlike Jesus, they escaped with their lives, but their road to freedom was hardly easy street – it included the flight across the Red Sea, and a couple of generations of wandering through wilderness worrying about food, water, and snakes. I wonder if Jesus chose this most dangerous time to come to Jerusalem precisely because he wanted to remind his people that salvation is something God has been working at for centuries, and that each generation needs to catch this ancient vision afresh.
Some of us will make crosses out of our palm branches this Sunday. That’s more than just a pretty craft; it’s a reminder of the connection between this week’s party and next Friday’s catastrophe. Some of those palm branches will be saved and burned next March to make ashes for the Ash Wednesday service – a reminder that sometimes, in spite of everything, our best hopes turn to dust, and that still we don’t have to give up on them.
This celebration is complicated. Changing the world is fraught with danger. We follow a leader who raised hopes to a fever pitch, and got executed for his troubles. If we walk the way of Christ, there will be costs for us too. And yet the hopes are worth celebrating. The freedom is worth working for. The world Jesus dreamed of is a world we really do want to live in. And even when celebration turns to ashes, the story isn’t over. God is with us even then finding new ways to draw us toward new life.
— Stephen Fetter is the minister at Forest Hill United Church, an intercultural congregation in Toronto. He’s also the coordinator of United-in-Learning, the General Council’s online continuing education program.