Today is Palm Sunday. It’s the day Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey surrounded by palm-waving crowds. Jesus probably intended it to be a symbolic act, a piece of performance drama. But what kind of statement was he making? And how does it fit with the rest of his ministry? Interestingly, not even Biblical Commentators are entirely sure what Palm Sunday’s symbolism means.
And so, in this age of fake news and competing media reports, I thought I’d see how four different news sources today might report on Jesus’s Triumphal Entry. Along the way I’ll include some of the ideas that the scholars have had. But I’ve also linked our four news reports with various views around today about what Jesus means. Perhaps, as I read my stories, you might want to think about which parts you’d put in if you were writing about Jesus. So, can I invite you to join me in a slightly light hearted version of ‘What the Papers Say’? (and I confess there are some journalistic in-jokes).
We’ll start with a report about Palm Sunday as if from a tabloid. The headline is ‘Christ pinched my ass!’
Harry Cohen, 27, of Bethpage got the shock of his life when men claiming to represent the Messiah ‘borrowed’ his donkey. “Yeah right, and I’m the Roman Emperor,” Harry said. “But they took it anyway.”
Harry’s ass was pinched by cheeky followers of Jesus, 33, from Nazareth. Jesus entered Jerusalem sat on the stolen donkey.
“It was lovely,” said star-struck fan Rebecca. “Loads a’ people ‘ad branches an’ put clothes on the floor like e’ was a king.”
Roman police were unhappy. Sword-wielding centurion, Lucius, joked, “he’s not the Messiah, he’s just a very naughty boy.”
It’s not the first time ‘Messiah’ Jesus has caused controversy.
“He wanders about like he’s God Almighty,” said one Pharisee. “But we all know about him and his women.”
For months there have been stories about Jesus’ and several shady ladies.
“‘Kingdom of Love,’” said one shop-holder, “I’ll be in on that.”
So, one story that could be told about Jesus and his Triumphal Entry is that it shows that he was a mostly harmless religious eccentric. Jesus is meaningful to certain emotionally-needy people, but for many he’s a little bit of an other-worldly joke, or an even an embarrassment. I wonder: like me, when you meet someone new who discovers you are a Christian, do you sometimes feel that you have to prove to them that you’re still ‘normal’?
Let’s try approaching the symbolism of Palm Sunday, and who Jesus is, from a different perspective.
My next report I imagine appearing besides a campaign against the single Roman currency, called ‘Save the Shekel!’. The editor of this paper also seems to think that the Triumphal Entry story is best illustrated by a picture of an attractive (but long-dead) female member of royalty – how odd. The headline is ‘Terror Fear in Holy City’.
PASSOVER INTERRUPTED BY RELIGIOUS EXTREMISTS – The normally peaceful procession to the Holy City was this year hijacked by rowdy migrant peasants. Whilst pious pilgrims entered on foot showing humility, the mob’s self-proclaimed leader, Jesus, entered on a ‘borrowed’ donkey.
Charismatic preacher Jesus comes from Galilee, an area notorious for Greek-speaking immigrants and lax Judaism.
As he entered, Jesus’s followers noisily proclaimed him the ‘Son of David’ in a provocative move that is bound to upset the government. The crowd looted nearby fields to gather palm branches to pave his way and, in what appears a symbolic gesture, they spread their garments before him.
Our security correspondent explained the symbolism: “The last time this happened was in 850BC when King Jehu usurped the throne of Israel. His army put their cloaks beneath his feet when he was made king. Within a year Jehu was responsible for the slaughter of the entire ruling elite.”
“History records that Jehu led a root and branch reform of Jewish religion, killing many priests of the foreign cult of Baal, and ordering the death of sultry queen Jezebel” (see front page).
“We’ve notified the army to expect trouble,” one source close to the High Priest commented.
However, from observations made by this reporter there clearly aren’t enough forces to topple the Roman regime. “This is just a stupid grab for power by a bunch of yokels,” said a bystander. “It’ll all be over within a week.”
In this version the Triumphal Entry is taken to illustrate a common fear today: what happens when people get enthusiastic about religion and allow it to mix with politics. Religion, it’s often said, can lead the impressionable to violence; and so it’s better, if you must be religious, to do it privately and keep it out of the public realm. Again, like me, I wonder if you sometimes feel the difficulty of how to speak about your faith in a way that doesn’t paint you as politically naïve or extreme? Or, perhaps you’ve felt a strange kind of pressure to keep your faith private?
HOPES RAISED – Popular revolutionary, Jesus of Nazareth, took his first move against the Jerusalem ruling authorities and won the biggest battle of all – the battle for hearts and minds. For weeks he has been gathering support among Judea’s poorest villages. This morning he mustered his forces at the symbolic site of the Mount of Olives. The Mount has been spoken of by one Jewish prophet as the place where God himself would appear to fight against the pagans. Then, in what was clearly intended to be provocative, the Jesus movement orchestrated a dramatic re-enactment of the victory parade of Judas Maccabaeus.
Many in Judea still think of Judas Maccabaeus as a hero. One political analyst explained: “After the Syrian takeover, in 167BC the Maccabees fled to the hills and began a highly effective guerrilla war. In the end they were brilliantly successful, entered Jerusalem and kicked out the old regime from the Temple. Jesus is clearly wanting people to think that he’s the next Maccabee. It’s a fantastic propaganda coup.”
But our military correspondent is pessimistic about the outcome. “From the size of the forces I’ve seen, this is going to be the shortest rebellion I’ve ever witnessed: palm branches against swords – you’ve got to be kidding.”
The Roman-backed Temple authorities seem tense but quietly confident. One insider stated that counter-revolutionary measures had begun, and hinted that the authorities may already have someone inside the Jesus camp. “Hopefully we can bring this down from within before it really begins.”
Tonight Jesus is holed up in a secret location making plans with a cabinet of twelve generals. The hopes of many of Judea’s poorest are set on him. After years of brutal Roman occupation and a corrupt collaborationist government they sense freedom is only days away.
So, here is the opposite of the previous story: the Triumphal Entry shows us a Jesus who is a sort of socialist revolutionary. I’ll admit I feel quite sympathetic to this one: it’s a bit right-on, a bit fashionable. But it also seems a bit thin, there’s not actually very much about God in it. Instead, it’s about what we can achieve, and like me, perhaps being a Christian just seems a bit daunting in the face of the world we actually live in.
Let’s finish with a more, well, once I might have said Independent, view. But we’ll have to go for the BBC instead (that’s, of course, the Babylonian Broadcasting Corporation). This time it’s an editorial piece from our own correspondent, and I suppose it reflects more of my own view about Palm Sunday, and beyond that what Jesus’ significance means to me, and what it is to be a follower. It’s entitled: A New Kingdom?
Despite expectations widely voiced by other commentators, I do not expect a battle for Jerusalem. Amid the welter of symbols his followers and detractors have seized upon, I am struck by Jesus’s choice of a donkey on which to make his entry into Jerusalem. There are no shortage of horses locally, but riding on a donkey carries a certain meaning. During the monarchy kings entering Jerusalem would often do so on a donkey to indicate that they had finished fighting and were returning home to rule in peace. Is Jesus signalling that a period of struggle has come to an end?
Despite extensive investigation, I can state that so far neither Jesus nor his followers have been involved in physical violence. A different kind of battle has been being fought in Judea. My interviews in villages up and down the land where Jesus has visited have turned up reports of a different kind of revolution. Time and again I have heard of dramatic personal encounters with Jesus that have caused conventional social values to be turned upside down.
In one case, Jericho’s tax collecting system was overhauled when Jesus met the hated local tax collector over a meal, after which he pledged to return his ill-gotten gains and no longer ask for more. In many villages individuals forced into begging on account of local prejudice about their skin have found themselves the focus of Jesus’s healing attention. Widowed and unmarried women resorting to prostitution to survive, a common strategy, have found themselves being invited to join local dignitaries at the same table.
Meanwhile, religious leaders have been challenged to practise what they preach. In countless speeches in which Jesus rarely dictates behaviour, his hearers have been encouraged through story-telling to imagine what God might want for them and their local communities, and to work this out for themselves. As a result some of his hearers have left everything to follow him. But the majority he has encouraged to remain in their villages speaking about their experiences, and practising the same inclusion and imaginative application of tradition that he has taught them.
Naturally, these transformations are only a drop in the ocean of need. Jesus rarely stays in a village for long and has barely set foot outside Judea. But a quiet revolution has begun, fuelled in particular by an odd ritual repeated, wherever he goes, of eating a meal together. This simple act seems to his followers to create a new form of equal inclusive community where old hierarchies of wealth, gender, and class are forgotten. Some speak of it as a taste of heaven on earth. And after the meal ends, they carry on living the same way.
Could this be the ‘new Kingdom’ his followers refer to? Jesus has certainly convinced many who previously had nothing to hope for that they are valued in God’s sight. If people took this man seriously the world would indeed become different place. However, what the long-term outcome will be is going to be determined by what happens over the next few days. Clearly his followers expect something dramatic to happen. Will we see Jesus ascending his throne and declaring himself the focus of a new kingdom? Will this remarkable movement be quashed by the forces of order and apathy? Or will, something totally unexpected come to pass? All this correspondent can say, is that there’s something deeply intriguing about the man from Nazareth.
So, four views of Palm Sunday; four view of Jesus; and four views about what it means to follow him.
I wonder what slant would you put on Jesus’s story?