Environmental Stewardship Commission (MEESC)

Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota

Lectionary Reflection Year B, Liturgy of the Palms, First Reading

Mark 11:1-11a As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, saying to them, "Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, 'Why are you doing this?' tell him, 'The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.' " They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it,some people standing there asked, "What are you doing, untying that colt?" They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. 7When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. 8Many people spread their cloaks on the road,while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. 9Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted, "Hosanna!" "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" "Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!" "Hosanna in the highest!" Jesus entered Jerusalem and went to the temple. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.

Reflection on Mark 11:1-11a by John Gibbs, PhD

When I was growing up in a small North Carolina town, there was a lady there who seemed on the surface to be nave. Though she contemplated running for the school board once, and though she was a Girl Scout leader for decades, she was not a participant in power politics anywhere. Though she came from a Georgia family of high culture, and took some courses at Juilliard, her life was dedicated to teaching piano (and other musical instruments) to young people who had never heard of Beethoven. They would carry what she taught them into Sunday Schools and local service groups. Though she bought tuxedos for her college-going sons, she herself dressed simply while taking care to 'match colors."

As it turned out, however, she was not nave. Her commitments were profound, as her five children know from experience still today. She was at home in the mountains where she hiked and camped nearby, and as well on the sands of Myrtle Beach. All nature was her true home. The bankers and business people (among whom were founders of Lowe's hardware stores) were no more and no less her friends than the folks she came upon in the remotest Depression-era mountain cabin. In her eyes they were equally God's children, worthy of our respect and understanding compassion.

My mother's influence was subtle rather than spectacular, close and personal rather than an exercise of strategic power over others. I mention her in the expectation that you also will recall someone you know whose personal presence of compassionate integrity was (or is) wise and effective in its straightforward simplicity.

Where do such qualities of character come from? There is, as it seems to me, a kind of egalitarian apostolic succession. Jesus' self-authenticating presence that captured the apostles has been communicated no less and for centuries to ordinary people. These are the folks who make history without being written up in the history books. These are the people who might best be able to get a glimpse of what Jesus was up to on Palm Sunday.

Jesus' entry into his capital city is an enacted parable. It stands in sharpest contrast to the pomp and circumstance of presidential inaugurations. He came with a different agenda, and therefore chose to enter not on a royal chariot but on a borrowed donkey that had no saddle. He came not to elevate himself above ordinary people, but to identify with them (whose clothes draped on the donkey substituted for the expected saddle) and to elevate their needs before God. [John Calvin's comments on one page are extraordinarily perceptive: A Harmony of the Gospels (Tr. T. H. L. Parker), vol. 2, p. 291; Eerdmans, 1972.]

His entry might seem triumphal in Resurrection retrospect, but at the time Jesus purposely chose actions that would emphasize humility. There is, his actions said, a power in unpretentious genuineness that stands in dramatic contrast to capital splendor. Humility so understood is not self-denigration, not poor self-image, not servility, for it gives no quarter to tyranny. Humility is the opposite of hot air, and has no need for bombast. The power of humility, as Jesus lived it, comes from within its undeniable integrity that brought amazing grace into others' lives.

The first Palm Sunday was an enacted parable that played out variations on a theme of Zechariah (9:9): "Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey." Unlike Alexander the Great's conquests after 333 BCE, the Prince of Peace "comes as a humble and peaceful monarch" (note on 9:1-8 in Oxford Annotated NRSV). This One rules by serving, as Paul's Christological hymn insists (Phil. 2:5-11).

So what about the palm branches? Luke does not mention them. Matthew has "branches from the trees" (21:8). Mark has "leafy branches that they had cut in the fields" (11:8). Only John specifies "branches of palm trees" in his account of Palm Sunday (12:13), and John is the gospel of unexpected reversals. God raised up what the powers had condemned to death (3:14, etc.). Only through descent does ascension come (3:13, etc.). Palm branches that symbolized triumph and victory (see Rev. 7:9) are used by John to introduce Passion Week and point not to celebration but to crucifixion.

The appearance of celebratory palm branches belies the reality of imminent defeat. In all four gospels a week that began with uncomprehending popular acclaim ended in abject loneliness before a crowd of onlookers and Roman soldiers, and even the feeling of being abandoned by God.

Yet, on the other hand, only those who do not hunger and thirst for power can be trusted with it. Heaven help the cosmos if it is not ruled by the character of One who chose a donkey over a chariot, and who enacted the kind of genuine humility that evokes humanity's Hosannas. (Hebrew hoshianna means "save us.")

Heaven help all earth's creatures if the character of the crucified Risen One is not extended, as in an egalitarian apostolic succession, through all God's People into the capitals of political and economic power, where decisions can be made and enacted to protect the poor and the defenseless, and safeguard fragile spaceship earth for generations yet to come.

To Reflections on other Readings for the Liturgy of the Palms:
Palm Sunday Readings
Psalm 118:19-29
Gospel Matthew 11:1-11a
this page

John Gibbs, PhD, a retired theologan, attends Trinity Episcopal Church, Park Rapids, MN. He originally wrote this reflection in 2002. He and we welcome your comments. Please address your comments or additional reflections to John Gibbs or any MEESC member, or mail them to:
MEESC Holy Trinity Church Box 65 Elk River, MN 55330-0065 USA

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