Lectionary for March 24, 2024
Sunday of the Passion/Palm Sunday
Procession with palms: Mark 11:1-11

Other readings for the day:
Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16;
Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 14:1—15:47

Palm Sunday always seems surprising to me. After the somber period of preparation in Lent, Psalm Sunday bursts out as this joyous celebration. The kids wave palm branches as we proclaim, “Hosanna!” (which is not quite “alleluia” but close, see below). But we dare not feel too happy, right? Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday are just around the corner. Palm Sunday feels a little like a bit of the Resurrection—but too soon. There’s something about the whole experience that feels out of time, a little too early or too late. Indeed, time-consciousness pervades the reading appointed for this week.

It will come as no surprise to folks who have been working through Mark that the reading contains a few “immediatelys.” When Jesus gave instructions to his disciples to go and grab a certain young animal (Mark doesn’t specify donkey but just mentions a colt), the disciples were to find the animal immediately and bring it back to the owner immediately. So far so good, we are speeding through the day! But there was something specific about this—no had ever ridden it!

Jesus rides on a ridiculous little donkey because he is neither going to fight the Romans nor flee from them.

I’ve put my time in on donkeys over the years. They aren’t as obstinate as they were depicted in the cartoons I watched growing up. But they’re close. This is an unbroken young donkey that has never had a human sit on its back, especially while other humans sing and parade around it while placing strange objects on the road beneath its hooves. This donkey is confused, disoriented and probably frightened. Of course, by the time Jesus arrived in Jerusalem and surveyed the temple it was already late. This ride was almost certainly plagued by fits and starts. Picture Jesus trying to ride a tiny bucking bronco the 2 miles from Bethany to Jerusalem. It’s ridiculous, right? That’s exactly the point.

Mark doesn’t make the claim explicit, but Matthew (21:5) and John (12:15) both reference Zechariah 9:9 (and potentially Isaiah 62:11) to point to just what kind of messiah Jesus is. Kings ride strong mules during times of conflicts (2 Samuel 13:29 and 18:9; 1 Kings 1:33) and have horses for speed and wealth (2 Samuel 8:4 and 15:1; 1 Kings 4:26). Zechariah paints a picture of a messianic era where these animals would be unnecessary. The Messiah can arrive on a donkey because God will eliminate the horse, chariot and war bow and bring peace to the nations. Jesus rides on a ridiculous little donkey because he is neither going to fight the Romans nor flee from them.

Jesus made slow progress toward Jerusalem and was late when he arrived, but he was right on time for the festivities on the journey. The Jewish pilgrims from all over the world sang the traditional psalms for a Passover pilgrimage, including Psalm 118, which Mark cites: “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord ….” This is the last of the group of Psalms (113-118) known as the Hallel (“Praise!” from which we derive “alleluia”).

From elsewhere we know that the singing of the Hallel was joined by waving palm branches (BT Pesachim 95b). The Septuagint (Greek translation/paraphrase of the Hebrew Bible) amends Psalm 118:27’s discussion of tying up sacrifices with cords to advise that “with boughs in hand” people should join the festive procession up to the horns of the altar (a reading the New International Version preserves, and the New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition alludes to it). The added element that was special for Jesus was the casting of cloaks on the young donkey and on the road, echoing royal treatment for a newly proclaimed king (2 Kings 9:13). Jesus arrived late for whatever he wanted to do in the temple. But while he made slow progress, he was in the midst of a festive pilgrimage celebration that certainly did not “bury the alleluia.”

That first Palm Sunday was a demonstration of the kingdom that is “already and not yet.”

Going beyond the lectionary briefly, the next morning Jesus returned to Jerusalem without all the fanfare. He saw a fig tree and was hungry. But seeing that it had no fruit, he cursed it, saying, “May no one ever eat of you again!” His disciples later found the tree withered from the roots up. Mark notes that it was not the season for figs. Was Jesus unfairly “hangry” at a tree whose time had not yet come? I don’t think so.

The identity of the tree is important. According to old legend, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil from the garden was a fig tree (BT Berakhot 40a). After Eve and Adam ate of the forbidden fruit, all of creation, including the other trees of the garden, recoiled in horror at the first sin. Adam and Eve were desperate to cover their nakedness, but each tree refused their leaves to the disobedient humans. Only the fig tree allowed the humans to touch it, reasoning, “They have taken my fruit, they may take my leaves as well.” Therefore, the humans clothed themselves with fig leaves (Genesis 3:7).

On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus was hungry to be sure, but he wasn’t lashing out at a random tree. Instead, as the time drew close for Jesus to be rejected, tortured and murdered to free humans from sin and death, Jesus cursed the tree that brought sin and death into the world in the first place. “May no one ever eat of you again” is the cry of the heart of one who is about to suffer because of the fruit of disobedience.

Whether arriving late to the temple, celebrating the Hallel right on time or searching much too early for figs, that first Palm Sunday was a demonstration of the kingdom that is “already and not yet.” Jesus had already been welcomed by the pilgrims as the peaceful king who would rid the holy city of warfare. But he didn’t arrive in time to teach in the temple as he would the following days. When this Sunday comes to us as a shock between Lent and before the Three Days, we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, Jesus wasn’t quite ready for Palm Sunday either.

Cory Driver
Cory Driver is the director of L.I.F.E. (Leading the Integration of Faith and Entrepreneurship) at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. His book on wilderness spirituality, Life Unsettled, is available from Fortress Press.

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