Stroll through Scripture for Palm Sunday, March 24, 2024

Based on readings from Mark 11:1-11 and Mark 14:3-9

We made it to Holy Week!  Palm Sunday is a unique Sunday in so many ways.  It’s a paradox Sunday.  We have two Gospel readings.  One focuses on the triumphant entry into Jerusalem and the other is about preparation for death that will take place later in the week.  It reminds me of the ABC Sports tag line from years ago – “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”  

So let’s take a look at each of the readings separately.  First the triumphant entry into Jerusalem.  Mark’s version of the triumphant entry is just odd.  Most of the passage is about the events around getting the colt, not the actual entry of Jesus.  And when we do get to the actual entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, we hear the crowd’s assumption about that, and then it immediately turns anti-climactic in verse 11 – “Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.”  Jesus gets in, and nothing happens.  So what’s going on?

Depending on which Gospel you are looking at, you hear about a colt, a donkey, or a donkey and a colt.  Mark is emphasizing Jesus showing who he is – the Messiah and King of the Jews – a fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9 which states: 

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
   Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
   triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
   on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Remember, before this event takes place, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, and many people heard about it, since it happened nearby and not long beforehand.  People know something is about to happen, they just don’t know what.  They have had their hopes raised many times before.  Would this Jesus be the one to throw off Rome?   They were willing to get behind him if so.  

The symbolism can’t be overlooked.  If Jesus is claiming to be the King of the Jews, then this is direct challenge to Herod, who had been named King of the Jews by Augustus, the emperor of Rome.  It would be considered a form of insurrection and punishable with execution. 

There is a bit of a contrast going on.  The phrase “veni, vidi, vici”, translated as “I came, I saw, I conquered,” is attributed to Julius Caesar in 47 BC and essentially means a quick conquest.  In the Gospel, Jesus comes into the city, sees the temple, and instead of conquering it, he leaves.  

When we turn to Mark 14, we are not far away from Jesus’ passion.  In fact, the passage is a burial preparation – but only Jesus knows this.  One wonders if the woman anointing his feet knows it too, or is she just offering a gesture recognizing the importance of Jesus and further identifying him as a king.  She is not named in Mark’s Gospel.  How odd that we have Simon, who was a leper, is named, but the woman is not. Lepers would be outcasts, yet here we find Jesus in Simon’s house, most likely after the disease is gone.  It’s quite possible that Jesus had cured Simon previously and this was Simon’s way of repaying Jesus for his generosity.  

There is debate about the ointment and how it could have been used.  This is a familiar debate even today.  Most recently I heard this debate around the “He Gets Us” ads.  Should the money that was used for the ads been spent on directly helping the poor?  Old debates never die, they just change subjects.  

Jesus gives one of the most misunderstood statements in Scripture – “For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish…”. Often this verse gets pulled out of context and used as an excuse for not helping the poor.  Instead Jesus seems to be pointing to the prominence of unjust systems that perpetuate poverty in society.  He pointed out a similar situation when he was in the temple with the disciples and watched the poor widow throw in her last two copper coins.  Prior to this, Jesus warned the crowd about the scribes who devoured widow’s houses.  Here’s another example of Jesus pointing out systems that devour people, rather than care for them.  There’s always an excuse.  In our modern context we hear similar excuses – “We need to take care of our own before we take care of the immigrants…”. “We need to do XXX, before we take care of YYY.”  But when it comes to actually doing something about X or Y, there always seems to be an excuse as to why we can’t do either.  Yes, the poor we will always have with us, because as a human society, we see intent on maintaining the status quo that we fool ourselves into believing we benefit from.  

But what is this anointing about really?  It’s good news!  Jesus tells us at the end of the selected reading – “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”  The Good News centers on Jesus death and resurrection, his conquering of sin and death, in offering an alternative to the status quo and all the suffering and cruelty it propagates.  That’s why this is an act that is remembered.  It is an anointing and preparation for the inauguration of the Kingdom of God.  We remember the act and that the woman who is nameless in the Scripture has done. 

Questions for reflection:

  • Palm Sunday is a paradox – triumph and death are both present.  Victory and defeat are both about to take place.  How is God showing up in the paradoxes of life? 
  • Think about how empires and conquerors operate.  Think about how Jesus operates.  What is the contrast and what does that say about God?   How are we called to follow?
  • How are we like the unnamed woman anointing Jesus’ feet and Simon the leper?  

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