Mark 11:1-11; 14:3-9
Palm Sunday is a great day in church.
Kids march in waving palm branches while we sing “All Glory, Laud, and Honor.”
More palms wait in vases up front, and we’re all ready to shout a joyful “Hosanna.”
We sing, and we shout, and we have a wonderful morning as we begin Holy Week.
But today we’re not in church.
We’re at home, practicing social distancing.
What does Palm Sunday mean if we’re not together in the sanctuary, waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna”?
Each of the four Gospels includes the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.
We like to call it the “Triumphal Entry,” Jesus going into the city as the conquering heroes of the Roman world would go into a city to celebrate a great victory.
But is it really?
Each Gospel tells the story in its own way.
In Matthew, Jesus is hilariously riding not just on a single donkey, but on both the mama and the baby donkey at the same time.
In Luke Jesus weeps as he enters the city, and the Jewish officials, frightened of what the Roman authorities might do if they hear about Jesus’ followers proclaiming him a king of some sort, tell them to pipe down; whereupon Jesus says, “If these are silent, the stones will cry out.”
Only John says anything about palms.
In Matthew and Luke, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is followed by the cleansing of the temple; John puts that event at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
And then we have Mark, which most scholars think is the oldest of the four Gospels and one of the sources for the material in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels.
Mark describes a scene that is neither triumphal, nor in the strictest sense an entry.
There may well have been another parade happening at the same time, a Roman show of force to discourage any revolutionary sentiment during the Passover, which celebrated the Jewish people’s liberation from oppression and slavery in Egypt.
It would have gone right down the main street, in through the gate, lots of soldiers marching, perhaps behind some military leader riding a powerful stallion, just to remind the residents of Jerusalem who was really in charge.
So then, while that was happening, Jesus and his band of followers approached the city on a side street.
He sent a couple of the disciples ahead to fetch him a donkey—none of them was unaware of the prophecy in Zechariah about the king coming to the people riding on a donkey.
It’s not clear whether Jesus had arranged this ahead of time with the colt’s owner, or if we’re meant to understand Jesus knowing about the colt through supernatural means.
There’s no crowd from Jerusalem coming out to meet the triumphant king; it was only the Twelve, Bartimaeus, and whoever else may have walked up to Jerusalem with him who spread branches and garments in the road and shouted their “Hosannas.”
Nobody called out piously, as in Franco Zeffirelli’s version of the story, “Welcome to our city!”
It’s likely that not very many people even noticed this little spectacle on a back road outside the city gates.
This isn’t a triumphal entry; it’s a parody of the whole idea of a triumphant ruler’s march into a conquered people’s capital.
It would have been hilarious, I think, to see this supposed king riding on a young animal that had never been ridden before and was no doubt way too small for him.
This wasn’t Jesus the conquering hero entering his capital city to shouts and accolades from the residents; this was Jesus the King of Fools putting on a little act of defiance on the outskirts of town.
He is acting out what he’s been teaching since the beginning of his ministry: The Reign of God is at hand, and it’s not the same kind of kingdom as the kingdoms of this world.
In this kingdom, everything is upside down and backwards.
In this kingdom, the fool, the jester, is the one who will sit on the heavenly throne while the greatest of earthly thrones are toppled.
Then, only two days before his arrest, Jesus sits at table at the home of a leper named Simon.
And there, at the leper’s house—a place where, by Jewish tradition, Jesus should never have been, because if Simon still had his skin condition his entire house was considered unclean—something astonishing happens.
A woman comes in, presumably not one known to Jesus or the disciples, and pours a jar of expensive perfumed oil over Jesus’ head.
As the fragrance filled the room, those sitting around the table would immediately have remembered stories from their people’s history, like the one in which the prophet Samuel, disillusioned by King Saul’s many missteps, is sent by God to Bethlehem to seek out a new king, a man “after God’s own heart.”
When Samuel finally finds David, the youngest of eight sons of Jesse son of Obed son of Boaz and Ruth, he takes the oil he has brought with him and pours it over David’s head as a public sign that God has chosen him to be Israel’s king in place of Saul.
There weren’t very many female prophets, but there were a few, like Moses’ sister Miriam, for whom Jesus’ own mother was named; and this woman in Mark 14 was acting in that role as she anointed Jesus’ head with oil.
But what could be less public than an anointing by a woman at a private gathering in the home of a leper?
Some of the people who were there when this happened missed the point entirely.
“That was a year’s wages you just poured on his head!
It could have been sold and the proceeds used to help the poor, but instead you wasted it!”
But Jesus interrupted their scolding and commended the woman.
In doing so, he showed them that her action had still another layer of meaning.
“She has prepared me for burial,” he said.
What she did was both anoint him as king and prepare him for his imminent burial—after the Romans crucified him, a brutal method of execution meant to make an example of traitors.
And in this is acted out what Jesus has been saying since before the Transfiguration: the road to his glory, his reign as King and Messiah, went through, not around, rejection, abandonment, and death.
It may seem backwards, but in the Kingdom of God, everything is backwards and upside down.
Right now we know a little about the world being turned upside down, don’t we?
It’s Palm Sunday, but we’re not in church.
We’re not waving palms.
Things are weird.
The world has turned upside down, and we’re not sure when it’ll be back like it was—if it ever is.
By Jesus’ time, “Hosanna” had become just a generic shout of praise.
But the people who first shouted it as Jesus rode that colt to the Jerusalem city limits knew that it had another meaning.
It’s a cry for help.
“O, save us!”
And at the end of the week between Palm Sunday and Easter, that is exactly what he’s going to do.
There will still be a pandemic outside, and we’ll still be staying safe at home…but not even a scary new virus can ultimately destroy us, because Jesus will—Jesus has—saved us.