Palm Sunday: What You See Depends On Where You Stand


Palm Sunday marks the procession of Jesus, on the back of a donkey, living out loud a different kind of "royal" procession pointing to a different kind of kindom - a Divine place of hope, peace, love and justice.

The kingdoms of this world are hellbent on division, Imperial subjugation and violence. The world that Jesus points to - with its kinfolk of ordinary and oppressed people, is a call to a more just and generous and equitable way to live and be.

What you see depends on where you stand.

If only you knew on this of all days the things that lead to peace. But now they are hidden from your eyes.
— Jesus in Luke 19:42 (CEB)

Did you know that there were likely two "Palm Sunday" parades that first day when Jesus rode in on a donkey? There was another where Pilate rode in with all the pomp and circumstance and military might of the Roman Empire.

John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg write about this in their book "The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus's Final Days in Jerusalem."

“Two processions entered Jerusalem on a spring day in the year 30 … One was a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession. From the east, Jesus rode a donkey down the Mount of Olives, cheered by his followers. Jesus was from the peasant village of Nazareth, his message was about the kingdom of God, and his followers came from the peasant class …On the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Idumea, Judea and Samaria, entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers. Jesus’s procession proclaimed the kingdom of God; Pilate’s proclaimed the power of empire. The two processions embody the central conflict of the week that led to Jesus’s crucifixion. Pilate’s military procession was a demonstration of both Roman imperial power and Roman imperial theology … it was the standard practice of the Roman governors of Judea to be in Jerusalem for the Jewish festivals … to be in the city in case there was trouble … The mission of the troops with Pilate was to reinforce the Roman garrison permanently stationed in the Fortress Antonia, overlooking the Jewish Temple and its courts … Imagine the imperial procession’s arrival in the city. A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful. Pilate’s procession displayed not only imperial power, but also Roman imperial theology. According to this theology, the emperor was not simply the ruler of Rome, but the Son of God … For Rome’s Jewish subjects, Pilate’s procession embodied not only a rival social order, but also a rival theology. We return to the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem … As Mark tells the story in 11:1-11, it is a prearranged ‘counterprocession’ … The meaning of the demonstration is clear, for it uses symbolism from the prophet Zechariah in the Jewish Bible. According to Zechariah, a king would be coming to Jerusalem (Zion), ‘humble, and riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey’ (9:9). In Mark, the reference to Zechariah is implicit. Matthew, when he treats Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, makes the connection explicit by quoting the passage: ‘Tell the daughter of Zion: look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey’ (Matt. 21:5, quoting Zech. 9:9). The rest of the Zechariah passage details what kind of king he will be: ‘He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations’ (9:10). The king, riding on a donkey, will banish war from the land—no more chariots, war-horses or bows. Commanding peace to the nations, he will be a king of peace. Jesus’s procession deliberately countered what was happening on the other side of the city. Pilate’s procession embodied the power, glory and violence of the empire that ruled the world. Jesus’s procession embodied an alternative vision, the kingdom of God. This contrast—between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Cæsar—is central not only to the gospel of Mark, but to the story of Jesus and early Christianity. The confrontation between these two kingdoms continues through the last week of Jesus’s life … Holy Week is the story of this confrontation.” 

It's perhaps fitting that Palm Sunday this year takes place around the 53rd anniversary of the Selma march for Voting Rights - a landmark and heroic movement for social justice by African Americans and other allies. That day young leaders like John Lewis led a processional more akin to the values of Jesus' Palm Sunday parade than Pilate's. You could maybe even say that Governor George Wallace and the Alabama police authorities played the part of Pilate and Roman Empire that day.

Get into good trouble! Necessary trouble.
— John Lewis
Alabama Highway Patrolmen about to beat down and terrorize young Civil Rights marchers, including John Lewis (in brown raincoat) on Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama 1953.

Alabama Highway Patrolmen about to beat down and terrorize young Civil Rights marchers, including John Lewis (in brown raincoat) on Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama 1953.

A lot of people suffered on Bloody Sunday - including now Congressman John Lewis who suffered a fractured skull that day and nearly died. But their suffering and nonviolent resistance led to a resilient march for massive social change, peace and justice. John Lewis always encourages fellow neighbors and people of faith to get into "good trouble, necessary trouble" doing what's right. The Pilate's of this world might not understand, but this kind of trouble is really marks of faithful Christian discipleship. We're literally just following in the footsteps of Jesus.

Rep. John Lewis marching with student activists in March For Our Lives in Atlanta.

Rep. John Lewis marching with student activists in March For Our Lives in Atlanta.

Perhaps, even further so, there remains no irony in the moment in time through which we find ourselves - when on our 2018 Palm Sunday weekend, millions march for sensible gun control legislation - with young people and students leading the way. So many students walked out, getting in good trouble, and walked in the streets calling us to necessary change.

What you see depends on where you stand. Are you with Pilate or with Jesus?