On Palm Sunday this year, my wife and I went for a meeting, and we found ourselves near the New Gate of Jerusalem. We watched as the estimated 15,000 people made their way into the Old City from the Mount of Olives. The procession was ripe with cheers, the waving of palm branches, and the scout troop band. The atmosphere was lively and joyous. In a way, it reminded me of the joy of the people welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem that we read about in the gospels. People at the time of Jesus, like the people at this Palm Sunday procession, had in the forefront of their minds the realities of their daily life. I’m sure many of them were looking and hoping for relief, salvation from the different afflictions and forms of oppression they were experiencing.
But over 2,000 years ago, when Jesus was physically with us, there was another group of people there. The Roman soldiers as well as political and religious leaders, people in power and position, were watching Jesus closely to see what he would do. They did not want to risk losing their privilege and power, so they were waiting for the right moment to strike Jesus down. The Romans expected to defeat Jesus with their power. The people expected Jesus to defeat the Romans and save them. Both were surprised when things didn’t go as they expected.
As Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey, the people sang Hosana to the son of David, with the expectation and hope that Jesus was the messiah they’d been waiting for to deliver them from Roman occupation and their corrupt religious leaders. They expected him to ride in triumphantly, go to the temple and purify it, and usher in the kingdom of David. Jesus did go to the temple but, instead of starting a militant revolution, Jesus left and went to Bethany. What the people expected, didn’t happen.
In the same way, during the trials of Jesus that lead to his crucifixion, there were expectations that were not met, people were let down and confused, and Jesus’s followers dispersed. They expected Jesus to save himself, to call down angels and establish his kingdom. In these two stories of Palm Sunday and Easter, we see, similar to today, people wanting God to act in a certain way. But God works not as we would expect, but according to his wisdom and the plans he establishes. He doesn’t work according to our expectations or wishes. He has something much greater in mind than the small, selfish goals we have for ourselves and our ethnic groups. Author and blogger D.L. Mayfield reflects this idea poetically in one of her blog posts on Palm Sunday:
I'm going to cry if I write about Jesus today. The day we wave palm branches around and pretend he is our king, just like they did so long ago. But really we long for retaliation, for power, we long to make ourselves safe, we long to conquer death on our own, we long to forget our responsibilities to each other. Jesus brought a fire that divided, he brought the fire of neighbor-love and a kingdom without borders, a call to a life based on thousands of willing deaths and thousands of miraculous resurrections. And we killed him for it.
We cry Hosana and see Jesus as our king when we think he will crush our enemies, make us victorious, make the world the way we think it should be. But, as the people who sang Hosana on Sunday and Crucify Him on Friday, when God doesn’t meet our expectations and fix things the way we want, we feel confused and disappointed, like God messed up. We only think about hope for ourselves and our ethnic group and not hope for our neighbors and enemies.
God calls us to change that mindset and to be a blessing to all of those around us. Through the resurrection, we have hope that invites us to always look forward and be active in order to allow transformation in our lives and societies. He calls us to be active participants in the kingdom he inaugurated through his death and resurrection, to bring forth his message of hope and love through acting justly in accordance with this new kingdom reality. We must reach out to those who are on the margins of society: the poor, the immigrant, and the enemy. On this Easter, may we remember Jesus died for all of us so that we might all have life abundant in him. His purposes and ways are good, better than any we could imagine.
By Salim J. Munayer, Ph.D