Text Study for Sunday of the Passion (March 28) 2021

1. Sunday – Mark 11:1-11

The Sunday of the Passion creates all sorts of liturgical and homiletical headaches for worship leaders and preachers, at least in our American Lutheran tradition. The service begins with the Triumphal Entry and the procession of the palms. Then the liturgy turns to the Prayer of the Day and the reading of the Passion Gospel. The corner is turned into Holy Week, and the momentary triumph is laid aside.

Except that for many worshippers, the triumph is not laid aside. Instead, the preference is to keep on celebrating right into Easter Sunday. Lots of folks prefer to move from “Hosanna” to “Alleluia” with no dark and dismal detours into the depths of the grave. That preference is ratified by the worship practice of many of our members who ignore Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services (especially when Holy Week coincides with “March Madness” as it does this year).

The result of this practice is that Easter becomes an anti-climax following the Palm Sunday parade. After all, what’s the big deal on Easter if we never really have to deal with betrayal and burial, with darkness and death?

Photo by Vincent M.A. Janssen on Pexels.com

So, during Holy Week I will share a meditation each day on a section of Mark’s Passion account in chapter 15. I will pair that with an account of the lynching of a Black person in our recent American history. In such a time as this, I cannot think of one execution without reflecting on the others. But today, we begin with the Passion Sunday Protest in Mark 11:1-11.

If you don’t want politics from the pulpit, then you had better skip Holy Week altogether. Perhaps that is why some people do just that. The Triumphal Procession cannot be described as anything other than a political demonstration. In that demonstration, Jesus takes the role of the Coming Messiah. As he rides a donkey, he brings to mind several Messianic predictions, and especially the words in Zechariah 9:9.

“Pilgrims coming to Jerusalem for such occasions as Passover,” Larry Hurtado writes, “customarily entered the city on foot, and Jesus’ entrance mounted on the donkey signals a special dignity for him” (page 179). Mark’s “emphasis is on the fact that no human being has as yet sat upon and ridden the animal,” Malina and Rohrbaugh write, “Jesus, then, is seated on and rides a ‘sacred’ animal, untamed and alien to the world of human use, consecrated to the special, extraordinary task of bearing ‘he who comes in the name of the Lord’ to the very central place consecrated to that Lord” (page 248).

The pilgrims “prepare the royal highway” by covering it with garments and by waving branches. This is the first-century version of the “red carpet treatment,” as Malina and Rohrbaugh note. The palm branches may have been carried by the marchers from Jericho, eighteen miles distant. Jericho was labeled several times in the Hebrew scriptures and Josephus as the “city of palms” (see IDB 3:646). In the psalms, the palm is a symbol of righteousness (Ps. 92). In that psalm, the righteous are “planted in the house of the Lord” and “they flourish in the courts of our God” (verses 12-13). At the end of the parade, Jesus enters the Temple for a look-see. The next day Jesus will come to the Temple and seek to reassert the righteousness of that space.

“Two hundred years before,” notes N. T. Wright, “Judas Maccabaeus defeated the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes, entered Jerusalem and cleansed and rebuilt the Temple – and the people waved ivy and palm branches as they sang hymns of praise. Judas started a royal dynasty that lasted a hundred years” (Location 2649). The meaning of the actions during the Palm Sunday protest would have left no doubt in the minds of the protestors as to the significance of the day.

I imagine that at least some of the protestors would have been prepared for a violent response on the part of the Jerusalem authorities and the Roman garrison. Passover was always a volatile and even explosive time, with its emphasis on liberation from bondage. Messianic demonstrations and protests could have resulted in aggressive and deadly responses, much like those that protestors experienced at the Edmund Pettis Bridge on “Bloody Sunday” in 1965.

In Isaiah 9 and 19, palm branches are symbols for the corrupt and ineffective rulers of Israel. These rulers shall be cut down without remainder, the prophet declares. It may be, therefore, that the palm branches function much more as placards of protest than as royal fans for the coming king.

The waving placards are accompanied by revolutionary slogans. Mark records verses from Psalm 118 in particular, a psalm from the “Hallel” section of the psalter that will be quoted at length during the upcoming Passover observance. Psalm 118 is a prayer of thanksgiving for deliverance from battle. Those who have been rescued from their enemies are, in the psalm, making their way to the Temple to offer their sacrifices of thanksgiving.

This is a “little text, big context” interpretive moment. “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in mortals,” the psalmist writes in verse 8. This wisdom counsel continues in verse 9: “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in princes.”  The psalmist continues by noting that the nations (Gentiles!) had surrounded the psalmist on every side. The issue was in doubt for a while, but the LORD triumphed in the end.

The next stanza is even more to the point. “There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous,” the psalmist sings in verse 15. This language can take us back to the triumph over God’s enemies at the Reed Sea in Exodus. Then we get to language that Mark’s readers would know so very well. “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord,” the psalmist declares in verse seventeen. “The Lord has punished me severely,” the psalmist notes in verse 18, “but he did not give me over to death.” Mark’s audience cannot help but connect this to the Resurrection to come.

Now the worshippers in the psalm come to the gate of the city. “Open to me the gates of righteousness,” they shout in verse 19, “that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.” Those who keep watch over the gate answer this challenge with a joyful reply. “This is the gate of the Lord,” they respond, “the righteous shall enter through it.” I can clearly imagine the Palm Sunday protestors singing this entire psalm as they come to the gates of Jerusalem and enter the Holy City.

For Christians, the payoff in this psalm is still to come. “I thank you that you have answered me,” the psalmist writes in verse 21, “and have become my salvation.” Before we slip past this prayer of gratitude, we must note how it ends. The word for “salvation” here is the same root as the name “Jesus” (Yeshua). The marchers would not have missed the connection.

Now we land on verses that must have occupied early Christians in meditation and study for lifetimes – verses 22 and 23. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.” The text is quoted in the gospels, in Acts, the Paul, and in the Pastorals. It is an interpretive key for Christians in understanding Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension to glory. And it shows up first in the Palm Sunday protest.

Finally, we come to the “loud hosannas” of Palm Sunday – the part that most people like the best. Hempel notes in IDB 4:648 that this is the Vulgate transliteration of the Hebrew for “Save us, we beseech you,” in verse 25. Hempel notes that this verse was sung by the priests in the Temple at the Feast of Booths. As they sang, the worshippers waved myrtle, willow, and palm branches.

“The sentence that follows means, literally, ‘Blessed is the one who comes’,” observes N. T. Wright, “but in Hebrew and Aramaic that’s the way you say ‘welcome’. In the middle of the chant they have inserted the dangerous prayer: Welcome to the kingdom of our father David! This is what the scene is all about,” Wright concludes, “as Mark’s readers have known for some while, and as we saw in the shout of blind Bartimaeus in 10.47–48” (Location 2657).

Hempel suggests that the protestors greeted Jesus as the “Son of David,” that is, the Messiah. This would lead us to believe that a number of the protestors recognized Jesus’ triumphal entry as a messianic protest and proclamation. Hurtado thinks “it is unlikely that Jesus’ entrance was recognized as the appearance of the Messiah by any more than a few disciples at best” (page 180). I’m uncertain of the basis for this conclusion given the behaviors described here. It seems to me to be a fairly broad-based action, even if it has a number of competing agendas behind it.

In conversations with a number of experts on political protests, Brian Resnick has identified four elements that contribute to effective protests. Those elements are:

  • Make the message as salient as possible.
  • Unite overlapping protest concerns under one banner.
  • Pivot from talk to action.
  • Protests can’t just be reactive. They need to be proactive.

As we look at the Palm Sunday parade, let’s examine it as a political protest. It’s clear from the rhetoric that the crowd expected some sort of political action on Jesus’ part. Their expectations would be disappointed, and therefore they abandoned Jesus by the end of the week. But on Palm Sunday, protest salience was high.

We don’t know the specific concerns represented by the marches, but Jesus spoke to the hopes of revolutionaries and reformers alike. All those parties were represented, after all, in his company of disciples. We will see the pivot from talk to action in the Temple Incident, as reported by Mark. Jesus may have been reacting to innovations in Temple mercantile practice, but he was certainly bringing about a confrontation with the authorities on his time schedule and not theirs.

Therefore, even if the Palm Sunday protest was not effective as a political tactic (not surprising since that was not Jesus’ final goal), it certainly had the marks of such a protest. Those present would have experienced it as such, I believe. In combination with the Temple Incident and the public demonstrations against and debates with the Temple authorities, Jesus would have offered more than enough provocation to lead us into the Passion week texts in Mark 15.

References and Resources

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Resnick, Brian. “4 rules for making a protest work, according to experts.” https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/1/31/14430584/protest-trump-strategies-experts.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone) . Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.