Carlos Wilton, April 1, 2012, Palm Sunday, Year B; Mark 11:1-11
“Hosanna! Blessed is the one
who comes in the name of the Lord!”
Happy Palm Sunday, everyone! And happy April Fool’s Day!
By a curious accident of the calendar, today’s one of those “when worlds collide” occasions. Palm Sunday – that great prelude to Easter, the start of Holy Week, a day of piety and processions – and April Fool’s Day, that occasion for white lies, practical jokes, and taking the pompous and prideful down a few pegs.
What could the two occasions possibly have in common?
Not much, according to some officials of the Roman Catholic Church. I read this week about a bishop who’s concerned that some of the lowbrow levity of the Feast of Fools could leech into the high holy solemnity of Palm Sunday. So, he’s advising his faithful parishioners – out of respect – to hold off on the practical jokes. He wants them to think twice about sending their co-workers out on a wild goose chase for a non-existent piece of equipment (which is, after all, based on telling a lie). You can come back to that stuff next year, he’s saying. But this year – 2012 – the story of Jesus riding through the gates of Jerusalem, commencing the holiest week of the Christian year, has simply got to take priority.
I’m not so sure, though, this is so big a clash of priorities as the bishop makes out. There’s not so much distance between these two holidays as some may think. It all comes down to what was in the mind of Jesus as he put together the plans for his grand entrance into the city.
There’s no doubt that it was planned. The sort of scene the Gospel-writers describe for us is not the sort of thing that happens spontaneously. Sure, there were some Jerusalemites who simply heard the commotion, went down to check it out, and ended up waving palm branches and shouting hosannas with the rest of them. Yet, that response was only possible because a hard core of Jesus’ followers had laid out every detail in advance, from cutting down and handing out the palm branches to designing the parade route.
The symbolism of the palms would have been very clear to anyone in that place and time. Palms had been the symbol, the logo if you will, of the Maccabean reform movement of a century or so before. Judah Maccabeus – whose assumed name literally means “hammer” – had been the leader of that rebellion, assisted by his four brothers. The blow they struck was a mighty one indeed, and fully deserving of that name, “Hammer.” Judah Maccabeus – “Judah the Hammer” – actually succeeded in throwing the Seleucid Greek overlords out of Jerusalem for a time. During the brief flowering of their rebellion, before it was suppressed by superior force, the Maccabees had struck coins that displayed no idolatrous image of a king or general in the Greek fashion, but the simple image of palm branches.
For a politically-savvy Jerusalem crowd to turn out, waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna! Save us!” was to suggest that this man Jesus was the Judah Maccabeus of their generation. A thrilling and dangerous thought!
That story starts to fall apart, I think, because of one crucial detail: the donkey. Yes, I’ve heard the interpretations that say a donkey was the preferred mount of King David of old, who had appreciated the animal’s surefooted ability to negotiate rugged mountain trails. Yet, the people of Jerusalem were also very familiar with the triumphal processions of their Roman overlords. Those usually featured a mighty war-house out front, with a victorious general riding it. The Romans had no need of palm branches, nor the memory of the mighty achievements of generations past, because they possessed something far more significant than these symbols. The Romans had overwhelming military force.
No, I think Jesus knew this, but he had something rather different in mind for his triumphal entry. Whatever the ultimate goal of some of his more zealous followers may have been, Jesus staged the palm procession as a teaching opportunity, a sort of enacted parable. Some have called it “revolutionary street theater,” and they’re not far from the truth.
The palms his followers waved were in deliberate contrast to the swords and spears the Roman soldiers carried. The humble donkey he rode was likewise in contrast to the war-horses of the Roman generals. What Jesus planned, that day, was not so much a demonstration of his political power as an anti-demonstration. It called all such power structures into question, seeking to replace them with something far greater.
Back in the Vietnam War era, there was the horrific shooting of four college students at Ohio’s Kent State University. The National Guardsmen had been sent in for security, but they were just kids fulfilling their two-weeks-a-year obligation. Someone evidently felt threatened by the demonstrators, and had an anxious trigger finger. The shooting was over in an instant, but the shock waves inspired even more demonstrations all around the country.
At one of those protests, some of the peace demonstrators walked boldly up to the soldiers that had been sent in, and put flowers in the barrels of their rifles. The visual image of a rifle with a daisy emerging from its barrel became a symbol of everything the anti-war protestors of the Vietnam era were all about.
It just may be that the donkey Jesus chooses to ride, and the hosannas his disciples coax out of the crowds, are roughly along the same lines as the daisy in the rifle barrel. Jesus knows he can’t overcome the overwhelming force of the Roman armies. For him to take sword in hand and rally the citizenry to rise up in patriotic rebellion was not only politically and militarily impossible, but also went against everything he stood for.
There was one weapon he could deploy, however, and that was something very close to what we’d describe today as “satire.” He could put together a parade that imitated the victory processions of the Romans, showing how ridiculous they really were – and, likewise, how irrelevant to any plans God might yet have for the chosen people, Israel.
This is not to say there weren’t some political revolutionaries among the crowds. Their hosannas blended in with all the rest. It may have been the presence of those known revolutionaries among Jesus’ well-wishers that set the alarm bells ringing, both in the Jewish Sanhedrin and in the palaces of Governor Pilate and King Herod.
Jesus didn’t ride into Jerusalem seeking a crown. It seems, however, he had an all-too-troubling awareness that what he was heading for, step by agonizing step, was the cross.
Jesus had bigger plans, you see, than mounting a political and military challenge to Pilate and Herod. He wanted to bear witness to a different sort of power: a gentler power that is, at the same time, every bit as significant as the alternative – even more so. It’s the power of self-sacrificing love.
What Jesus was doing, there on the Jerusalem streets, was being a Holy Fool. I mean no disrespect when I use that term. What I mean to say is that he’s deliberately playing the role of a fool in order to make a point.
I use the word “fool” not to question his good sense or intelligence, but rather to place him in the lineage of other great fools throughout history. In the courts of medieval Europe, for example, there was often a character known as the fool, or jester. On one level, the fool was there to keep the noble lord and his guests entertained at their banquets. Yet, on another level, the fool possessed a type of power that could be claimed by no one else in the room. The fool could speak directly to the noble lord with a voice of truth, and get away with it. The fool was the only person allowed to speak truth to power.
You can see this sort of thing in action in what is perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest play, the tragedy of King Lear. In that story, King Lear makes the mistake of dividing up his kingdom among his three daughters – two of whom are evil – then going off into a kind of state-sponsored retirement, living lavishly at public expense. Well, this sort of thing can’t go on for long, and it doesn’t. The two evil daughters strip their father, now the former King, of everything he holds dear: his symbols of royal authority, his entourage, his lavish expense account. Then, they cruelly turn him out upon the moor to fend for himself in the middle of winter.
The King goes mad. He becomes a pitiful figure, who would surely have died out there of starvation and exposure, were it not for the two best friends he has in the world. One is the former Duke of Gloucester, who courageously stood up for his old friend, but who was blinded and had all his property confiscated as a punishment. The other is the King’s Fool, his court jester.
Lacking his sight, the steadfast Gloucester can do little to physically help his old friend, the King. And the King, afflicted by madness, can no longer make sensible decisions, not even about his own survival. It falls to the Fool to look after both noblemen, to be the only faithful and true servant they’ve got left.
The brilliant thing Shakespeare does with this character of the Fool is that he sees to it that every word that comes out of the Fool’s mouth – as absurd as it may sound at times – is truth. King Lear’s Fool never lies to him. Although the message is typically delivered in a joking way, it’s accurate, even if it may be critical in nature.
There was an experienced Roman Catholic Cardinal some centuries back, I forget which one, who advised another newly-elevated Cardinal that he could count on two things in his new position. The first was that he would never again eat a bad meal. The second was that he would never hear the truth again. What he meant by that was that the courtiers who surrounded him, yes-men to the last, were so calculating in the information they filtered and passed on that he could never completely trust what they told him.
Not so with King Lear’s Fool. He speaks the truth always and holds nothing back.
More than that, there’s something else besides truth that forms the foundation of the Fool’s relationship to King Lear: and that is love. The reason the Fool can get away with saying the things he does is that, even in his madness, the King stills knows his Fool loves him, and understands on some level that he feels the same away towards him, in return.
So, there you have it, the characteristics of a Holy Fool: truth-telling and love. Listen to the things the political candidates are saying in this grueling Presidential campaign, and you’ll quickly see these two elements are in short supply. There’s an unapologetic calculation that goes on at all times, as the pollsters crunch their numbers and the handlers spin their talking-points. As for love – well, you have only to listen to a few moments of the character-assassination that goes on, both in speeches and in TV commercials, and you’ll see that it vanished from the scene a long time ago.
All too often, that’s the way of the world: truth and love fall down as casualties, after the first volley on the battlefield. That’s where Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is so different. In the days to come, he will make no compromises on the things that really matter. Whether overturning the tables of the moneychangers or refusing to cut a sleazy deal with Governor Pilate, Jesus cherishes and preserves the truth. As for love – he allows Judas to go forth and betray him, even though he could have saved his own life by exposing him; and he speaks words of forgiveness from the cross, when by every ordinary human standard he would have been entitled to rain down curses and imprecations upon his torturers.
What a way to live! Yes, that’s it exactly: it is the way to live, God’s way to live. Jesus displays that way to live perfectly.
Those around him, even his closest friends, concluded at the last that he was but a fool, and they deserted him. Yet, when – to their astonishment – they met him again a few days later, and marveled at the nail-marks in his hands and feet, they realized that such a fool as he is infinitely wise!
Our next hymn, a new Easter hymn, bears witness to this same deep strain of truth:
In our end is our beginning; in our time, infinity;
In our doubt there is believing; in our life, eternity,
In our death, a resurrection; at the last, a victory,
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.
Copyright © 2012 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.