Today is Palm Sunday, which is easily one of the most schizophrenic days of the church year. The day begins with exuberant hymns and shouts of “Hosanna” and concludes with silence and somber reflection. It is a day of contrasts, a day of ambiguity, a day that prepares us for the emotional roller coaster of Holy Week. I think, however, it’s important for us not to see Palm Sunday exclusively as an opportunity to get ready for Holy Week, but as a day that possesses its own significance.
Our reading during the Liturgy of the Palms today came from Luke’s account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. As our deacon read the familiar story, I was struck by some unfamiliar and surprising details. Unlike the other gospel accounts, the crowds do not shout “Hosanna” as they greet Jesus. Furthermore, Luke identifies the members of the crowd as disciples of Jesus, which is a detail that is not present in any of the other gospel accounts. Perhaps most troubling is the fact that Luke tells us that the crowd spread their cloaks before the Jesus, but makes no reference to branches. Though John is the only evangelist who mentions palms (John is making specific reference to Sukkoth, the Jewish feast that involves waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna”), Matthew and Mark tell us that some kind of trees were involved in Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. I’ll admit that it was a little unsettling to distribute palm branches to our congregation as we listened to a gospel lesson that makes no reference to branches of any kind.
These disparities lead us to ask what specific message Luke wants us to derive from his account. What is Luke trying to say about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and how it impacts us?
Luke’s most obvious omission is the fact that the crowds do not shout “Hosanna” as Jesus enters the city. “Hosanna” is a transliteration of a Hebrew word frequently addressed to God that means “Save us.” As I mentioned above, it is shouted during Sukkoth, when the people of Israel remember the time that their ancestors resided in temporary dwelling places after the Exodus. It is a word that points to God’s saving action in history. And one of the frequently occurring themes in Luke’s gospel is the fact that Jesus represents God’s salvation. It is in Luke’s gospel that Mary refers to God as “Savior” in the Magnificat and it is in Luke’s gospel that Jesus proclaims that “salvation has come.” For Luke, Jesus is the embodiment of God’s salvation. In other words, it would have been redundant for the crowds to shout “Save us,” because God was already saving them through the person standing before them.
This brings us to the fact that Luke identifies the welcoming crowds as Jesus’ disciples. In the other gospel accounts, one can make the claim that the crowds who shouted “Hosanna” when Jesus enters Jerusalem are the same crowds who shouted “Crucify him” during the Passion. But for Luke, this is not necessarily the case. Luke identifies the crowds that greeted Jesus as disciples, and also includes the detail of the Pharisees grumbling about all the hoopla. It seems that Luke is making a very clear contrast between the disciples who greet Jesus with joy and the Pharisees to try to shut them up.
Perhaps the reason Luke presents Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem in this way is to indicate that we have a choice. We can joyously greet the salvation that has come in the person of Jesus Christ, or we can try to smother it. We can cheer the world-changing power of the gospel, or we can try to stifle its message of transformation. We can selflessly remove our cloaks and give of our possessions to make way for the gospel, or we can remain insular and self-absorbed. Luke’s unique message is that we have a choice. What will you choose?