+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
At first glance, the two texts before us on this Palm Sunday [weekend] couldn’t be more different from one another. One recounts a jubilant, public scene, the so-called triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, an event that put in motion the plans which would lead to his betrayal, arrest, and conviction, and crucifixion by the Roman authorities. The other is an intimate, private scene that borders on the scandalous, an event that leads to an angry outburst from some of Jesus’ fellow guests. One is a scene of broad acclaim for Jesus, the other a scene of singular devotion to him. One is a scene whose meaning is difficult to miss, the other a scene that is tough to interpret. The stories told in these two texts take place days apart, and seem to occupy totally different worlds, and yet they both point to a reality that will be explored throughout Holy Week, which begins today and culminates in the celebration of Christ’s resurrection next Sunday. Let’s take them in turn and see what they have to teach about Jesus, whose journey toward the cross forms the center of this coming week’s reflection.
First, the so-called “Triumphal Entry”, which appears in all four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and is said to have occurred on the Sunday before Jesus’ death – though Mark doesn’t include that detail. Jesus’ entrance into the Holy City was clearly intended to mimic – or perhaps more accurately to parody – the kind of triumphant procession that would have been all too familiar to those who lived under military occupation. Victorious generals often rode into town on massive warhorses on their way back from important campaigns to bring news of their exploits to the people, and would often have been greeted by adoring throngs. In some cases, those gathered to welcome the general or other official back would have waved palm branches, a common symbol of victory in the Roman world. The similarities between those victory parades and the procession of Jesus and his followers are obvious and striking, and those who witnessed this scene would have clearly gotten the message, although they may also have been puzzled by the ways that Jesus subverts this image. The choice of a donkey as his mount signaled a humility unbecoming a conquering hero or king, and the masses attending him included people of low social status who may have reflected poorly on their champion. In short, the first scene in today’s service presents us with a picture of Jesus as king – a different kind of king, to be sure, but a king nonetheless.
Turning to the second text – the story of Jesus’ attendance at a dinner in the town of Bethany, on the outskirts of Jerusalem – the mood has shifted significantly. As he sits at the table, presumably as part of a rather small and intimate gathering, Jesus is approached by a woman who breaks open a jar of costly perfumed oil and pours the entire jar on his head. This, too, is a royal scene, albeit a quieter one. Kings and priests in Israel were confirmed in their offices by a ritual that included anointing with scented oil, a practice that is well-attested in Scripture. This was not the only time anointing happened, of course. Anointing with oil was often a matter of basic hospitality, a service provided to guests with surprising regularity by those who could afford to do so. Yet for those who have been following the story of Jesus since its beginning, there is no doubt that this is an extraordinary scene, intended to reveal his royal identity once more.
There are other aspects of this story that are remarkable in their own right, of course. The costly devotion of the unnamed woman who anointed Jesus is cause for both consternation and awe. Jesus’ presence at a dinner hosted by Simon “the leper” is perhaps further evidence of how his ministry broke down barriers to proclaim the good news of God’s Reign. But the most important thing for us to take away from this story is what it teaches us about Jesus’ identity, and how his identity is colored by the journey his life would take over its final days. That journey reveals that Jesus is a king who refuses to use his authority for his own advantage. He is a king who associates with the lowly because he desires that they share in his honor. He is a king who submits himself to the will of another for the sake of his subjects. He is a king who does not conform to our expectations of royalty, because he is more interested in transforming our view of how royal and common people alike are called to live in relationship with one another and with God.
As we approach this Holy Week, we do well to keep the reality of Jesus’ radical royalty before us, because it is critical to understanding the significance of his suffering, death, and vindication by God. Jesus is crucified by the will of sinful humanity, but he is no mere victim; he also goes to the cross because of the will of the Father. Jesus dies a shameful death, but he does not bear that reproach forever; his death also reveals the glory and honor that he is due because of his obedience. Jesus is tempted on two fronts, but he does not yield to either; he remains faithful in the face of that temptation so that he might show forth both his strength and God’s grace. These are the stories that we will explore over the course of this week. On Thursday, we will reflect on the pain, betrayal, and prayer of Jesus’ final night. On Friday, we will ponder the last hours of Jesus’ life and how his death shows us the depth of God’s love for a broken world. Finally, next Sunday we will celebrate the victory of Christ over sin and death, and the effect that that victory has on us and the whole creation. On this Palm Sunday [weekend], may we be reminded of Jesus’ royal reign and how that reign is made manifest in our life together. May we be inspired by Jesus’ example of costly service and by his fellow dinner guests’ example of costly devotion. Most of all, may we be prepared to enter this Holy Week with our eyes fixed on Jesus, our humble king and loving Lord, that we might continue following him on the way through death into abundant life. Amen.
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