by Isaac S. Villegas
April 1, 2012
After 40 days of Lent, days of contemplation, of wandering into our interior life, we find ourselves here, on Palm Sunday, standing at the edge of Lent, leaning toward Easter. Lent has been a time of wandering, a circling deeper and deeper into our selves, time set aside for us to pay attention to our motivations, our desires. Lent is a season of being stuck, stuck with who we are, always returning to the same old person.
But on Palm Sunday, we get swept into the movement of Holy Week, of joining Jesus as he enters Jerusalem, the city of his death. Jesus rides into town, and the crowds line the streets. The air is electric with excitement, especially when they see Jesus on a donkey, because the people know their Scriptures; they know what this means. The prophet Zechariah told of a time when Israel would be set free from foreign dominion. They would be set free by a king, a king in the line of David, who would ride in, not on a warhorse, but on a donkey, with humility, as a servant. After years and years of Roman rule, you can bet that the people of Israel had memorized the passage from Zechariah, where it says, “Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! [For] your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious, humble and riding on a donkey.” This would be the day of their redemption, of their liberation, of their freedom. As Jesus passes by, the people shout, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David” (Mk 11:10).
Their hope builds as Jesus rides through the middle of the city, gathering more and more people. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” they proclaim (v. 9). With the masses behind him, Jesus heads for the Temple, the center of Israel’s claim to sovereignty, because that’s the place where God’s dominion flows into the world. From the Temple all the nations will be judged by God. At the Temple the God of Israel will choose another man to administer the kingdom of God throughout the land. The people know exactly what is supposed to happen, so they continue to shout: “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David” (v. 10). As they get closer to the Temple, marching behind Jesus, with every step they can feel the coming kingdom getting closer and closer.
Finally, Jesus arrives; and we hear the narrator report one of the more anticlimactic moments of the Bible: “Then he entered Jerusalem,” it says in verse 11, “and went to the Temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve” (v. 11). End of story. That’s it. It’s a strange scene. Jesus has the masses on his side, all around him. The people are shouting slogans of revolution. The people in the crowd can feel the presence of King David, overflowing from this man Jesus; this is the beginning of the resurrection of David’s kingdom, Israel restored. Jesus enters the Temple courts, and he just looks around. That’s it. The people are shouting, ready for the kingdom, and Jesus, what does he do? He looks at his watch, notices that it’s getting late and he’s tired; so he yawns and heads out of town with his disciples and tries to find a nice camping spot. The people who had marched with Jesus were probably confused and disappointed, some, perhaps, were a little angry. All that excitement, all that marching for nothing. They got their hopes up for no reason.
But Jesus knew what he was doing; he knew it from the moment he decided to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey. Jesus knew the same prophecies about the coming kingdom of David; he knew the popular imagination of his fellow Jews. So he plays the role, the role of a new king, in the line of David, the one who was to resurrect the sovereign kingdom of Israel; but Jesus does all this in order to run it into the ground, to show his people that a different way is possible, that they don’t need a king like David, that they don’t need a kingdom like the days of old, that they don’t need a sense of sovereignty that would free them from their Roman sovereigns. Jesus comes with a different vision of hope: a hope that doesn’t satisfy all the dreams and expectations of the people, but hope nonetheless.
What Jesus offers on Palm Sunday is an invitation, to all of us: an invitation to walk with him, and as we walk to let Jesus purge us of all the promises that tempt us with power and control, to let Jesus purge us of all the offers from the world that lead to positions of power. Jesus takes hold of those hopes and yawns, because he wants to show the crowds, he wants to show us, that we still do not know what to hope for, that we still don’t know how to hope, how to live a life of hope. To walk with Jesus is to be educated in hope; to follow him is to let go of what we thought the perfect life was supposed to be like; to walk by his side is to be able to go on after your hope has been disappointed.
On Palm Sunday, the crowds didn’t get what they wanted. Instead, they saw the hope of Israel, the new king, the messiah, they saw Jesus on a donkey, riding past the thrones of worldly power and success, they saw him on a cross, naked and weak, humiliated. This was not the king they had hoped for. This was not the God they expected. This was not what hope was supposed to look like. With Jesus, hope is crucified.
As Jesus empties out one form of hope, he invites us into another. In the story, as Jesus gets closer and closer to his death, the failure of the disciples show us what hope is supposed to look like. Hope is revealed to us as judgment, the way of life that no one chose. If you know how the story goes, you will remember that the disciples don’t stay with Jesus in his darkness hour. They fall asleep in the garden of Gethsemane, even after Jesus begs them three times to stay with him, to stay awake with him: “I am deeply grieved, even to death,” he tells his friends, “please keep awake” (14:34). But they don’t, they leave Jesus alone, without friendship in his time of desperation. In the morning, after Jesus had been captured, the disciples scatter in fear. They try to make themselves anonymous, to disappear into the crowds; they watch Jesus’ trial and crucifixion from a safe distance.
The disciples chose the opposite of hope; they chose separation, distance, freedom from the dangers that come with friendship, autonomy, liberation from the risks that come with companionship, with solidarity. Hope is found in the invitation Jesus offers to his friends, when he says: Will you stay with me, will you share in my rejection, in my shame, in my humiliation?
That’s the question that leads to hope, the struggle that is the possibility of hope in our world. Will we be drawn into relationships of solidarity, with people who are in their darkest hour, with people who are alone, desolate?
A few years ago I was talking with a woman from Nicaragua; we were at a Mennonite Central Committee meeting. She was telling me about why she joined the Mennonite church in her country. She told me about growing up with violence all around her. Her people were in the middle of a revolution, a civil war. She said that Mennonite Central Committee had sent people to Nicaragua in the early 1970s, to help out after a earthquake, and they stayed, even in the midst of violence. They were there, with her and her family and her village. She became a Mennonite, she said, because she saw that for Mennonites, the gospel is about acompañamiento, accompaniment. They didn’t come with answers, she said; they came to be with us, to struggle by our side.
Accompaniment, solidarity: that’s what hope looks like, that’s what the gospel is all about, that’s what Jesus invites us into at the end of Lent, during Holy Week, as we walk with Jesus, by his side.
Jesus offers us the question that leads to hope, an invitation that is the possibility of hope in our world: Will you stay with me, will you share in my rejection, in my shame, in my humiliation?