The Problem of Palm Sunday

It was the palm branches that made this day unique, and then again, it wasn’t.

For centuries, the church has memorialized today, the first day of Holy Week, as Palm Sunday because of the palm branches and cloaks that the people spread out before Jesus as he entered Jerusalem.

The Gospel writers tell us a crowd gathered, gushing with excitement, and lined the road in front of Jesus as he slowly rode into the city. As he made his way, one step at a time by the beast of burden on which he sat, a sort of carpet was being sewn together ahead of him. Fresh, green palm branches, presumably picked from nearby trees, and thick, worn clothing, likely from the backs of the crowd, formed a tapestry of endearment toward Israel’s long-awaited Messiah.

And according to the Pharisees, this was a problem.

What the People Said

But actually, it wasn’t the palm branches that were the problem so much as what the people were saying.

Luke tells us that as Jesus entered Jerusalem the people began rejoicing and praising God, shouting,

Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! (Luke 19:38)

Some Pharisees try to get Jesus to make the crowd stop. They ask him to rebuke the people for what they’re saying — the whole “Blessed is the King” bit.

The Pharisees get it, you see. This isn’t just any phrase. This is the kind of welcome reserved for Israel’s Savior.

It’s a phrase found in the Hebrew Scriptures, going back to Psalm 118, a psalm that rejoices in the Lord’s triumph. By verse 22 of this psalm, the rejected stone has become the “cornerstone” (Psalm 118:22). This is a marvelous work — by God’s doing — which then launches the day of salvation (Psalm 118:23–24). This day of salvation is the long-anticipated deliverance that Israel thought might never come. But it will, it does, and Psalm 118:25 captures the hope: “Save us, we pray, O LORD! O LORD, we pray, give us success!”

Now this salvation and success is nothing generic. It will come through a person — the Messiah of God — the one sent to rescue his people. So goes the shout, in the psalm,

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD! (Psalm 118:26)

Without doubt, this rambling crowd in Jerusalem, taking its cues from Psalm 118, is declaring Jesus to be the Messiah. That’s why the Pharisees tell Jesus to stop the madness. Do you hear what they are saying? They think you’re the Messiah come to save us. Tell them to shut up.

Jesus doesn’t stop them, though. He says, instead, that if the people weren’t saying it then the rocks themselves would cry out. Of course, Jesus is the Messiah. He has come to Jerusalem to save his people.

And according to the crowd, this was a problem.

What the People Saw

But actually, it wasn’t the salvation part that was the problem so much as the way Jesus would bring salvation.

The people wanted salvation and success, remember. Which means, they wanted the Messiah to march into the city and do hard business with Rome. They wanted to be free from Gentile oppression, even if by force, even if by threats and plagues and a split sea, as they recounted so well in their history. They wanted another exodus, one that expelled the Romans.

Instead, what they got by Friday morning was a bloodied has-been, a man in Roman custody, rejected by their own leaders, standing next to an infamous criminal called Barabbas. They wanted an incomparable king, but they would see a beaten blasphemer. Or so they thought.

The sounds of the crowd this Sunday — this Palm Sunday — would later be betrayed by the sounds of their stony hearts. “Blessed is he!” would soon become “crucify him!” For this reason, there is something nauseating about today. We read of the response to Jesus, but because we know the story, we know it’s not real. It’s not right.

And as we feel the deep tragedy of their words, of their blindness, we shouldn’t expect that we’d have been any different. The Pharisees and the people had their problems, and so do we. If we know our hearts apart from grace, if we could listen in on this crowd, we’d hear our shouts along with theirs. We’d hear our praise, hollow as it were, and then, by Friday, “ashamed we’d hear our mocking voice call out among the scoffers.”

It is not the righteous, after all, who Jesus came to save, but sinners. Sinners like us.