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What Do the Palms Say? (A Meditation for Palm Sunday)

by Byron L. Rohrig

Byron L. Rohrig is pastor of First United Methodist Church in Bloomington, Indiana. This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 9,1988, p. 236. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


One year while serving as pastor of a congregation just outside Indianapolis, I met with a two-member worship committee to plan Holy Week and Easter services. The budget was tight that year. "Is there any way to avoid paying a buck a palm branch?" I was asked. I moved quickly to seize the teaching moment.

"Surely," I said, and explained that only John’s Gospel mentions palms in connection with Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem, anyway. Matthew, for example, simply says that people "cut branches from the trees." From what trees or shrubs would the people of Pittsboro cut branches if Jesus were approaching the town limits? we wondered. We also considered the more profound question: what has branches that will be out in early spring? In such fashion was born the idea for what we might have called "Pussy Willow Sunday."

Delighted with our idea, we sat for several moments trading self-satisfied grins. Suddenly the spell was broken when one-half of the committee asked, "What do the palms say?"

My heart was strangely warmed. No question could have brought more delight to a preacher who had spent the previous weeks preaching on the Gospel of John. "When reading John, always be careful to look behind the story for a symbolic message," I had said time and again. One listener had apparently heard me say that seemingly incidental details often point to deeper truths in John. Thus the question: what do the palms say?

What we don’t read but may assume is that the frond flappers of John 12:12-19 who go out to meet Jesus move toward the city gate with the 200-year-old story of Simon Maccabeus vividly in mind. Maccabeus emerged at a time when the brutal and genocidal Antiochus Epiphanes held sway over Palestine. In 167 B.C. Antiochus precipitated a full-scale revolt when, having already forbidden the practice of Judaism on pain of death, he set up in the Jewish temple an altar to Zeus and offered swine’s flesh upon it (which the Book of Daniel refers to as the "abomination of desolation") Antiochus was an apostle of Hellenism and meant to bring his entire realm under the influence of Greek ways. The Book of First Maccabees in the Old Testament Apocrypha witnesses to his resolve: ‘They put to death the women who had their children circumcised, and their families and those who circumcised them; and they hung the infants from their mothers’ necks" (1:60-61)

Stinging from this outrage, Mattathias, an old man of priestly stock, rounded up his five sons and all the weapons he could find. A guerrilla campaign was launched against Antiochus’s soldiers. Though Mattathias died early on, his son Judas, called Maccabeus (hammer) , was able within three years to cleanse and to rededicate the besmirched temple with no small thanks to a turn of events that drained the occupier’s army. But the fighting wasn’t over. A full 20 years later, after Judas and a successor brother, Jonathan, had died in battle, a third brother, Simon, took over, and through his diplomacy achieved Judean independence, establishing what would become a full century of Jewish sovereignty. Of course there was great celebration. "On the twenty-third day of the second month, in the one hundred and seventy-first year, the Jews entered Jerusalem with praise and palm branches, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel" (I Macc. 13:51)

Knowing First Maccabees allows us to read the minds of those who are waving their own palm branches. They are going out to meet Jesus in hopes that he is coming to crush and remove from Israel another great enemy, this time Rome. What do the palms say? They say: We are tired of being kicked around, hungry to be Number One again, ready to strut our stuff once more. Here’s our agenda, and you look like just the man we need. Welcome, warrior king! Hail, conquering hero! The "great crowd" of Palm Sunday is reminiscent of another multitude in John’s Gospel. That mob, 5,000 strong, was miraculously fed by Jesus. Because they had gotten their bellies filled, their expectations were high, like those of the Jerusalem crowd. But "perceiving that they were about to come and take him by force and make him king, Jesus withdrew . . . (John 6:15) Likewise, on Palm Sunday, amid the clamor of the crowds, "Jesus found a young ass and sat upon it."

Like that of the prophets of old, this was an overt act designed to drive home the truth of the whole matter: a king bent on war rode a horse, but one seeking peace rode an ass. John’s crowd was remembering another triumphal entry, one that Simon had decreed would be marked annually as a Jewish independence day. Jesus’ mind, however, was on something else:

Rejoice greatly, 0 daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, 0 daughter of Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on an ass,
on a colt the foal of an ass [Zech. 9:9].

The palm wavers rightly see triumph in Jesus, but they don’t understand it. Jesus has come to conquer not Rome but the world. He comes to the holy city not to deal death or to sidestep death, but to meet death head-on. He will conquer the world and death itself by dying. Just after his triumphal entry, according to John, Jesus makes it clear how he will win: "Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself" (12:31-32) His being lifted up to glory is at once his being lifted up on the cross.

We confess our misunderstanding. We, too, come to the city gate, agendas in hand, amid crowds lined up as though Santa Claus were coming to town. In a world that routinely places ultimate value on less than ultimate things, even the faithful are tempted to come with their want lists. Our nationalistic or consumeristic religions preach that to keep the rest of the world scared or guessing while satisfying our seemingly endless material desires is to be not far from the Kingdom of heaven.

The palms or pussy willows say that such an approach has been taken before, but has been found wanting. Glory worthy of the name, the glory that is promised, will not be found in a new hero, system or political movement. "My kingship is not of this world," says the Johannine Jesus (18:36) -- who also says of his followers, "they are not of the world" (17:14) Jesus’ glorification comes through an act of self-sacrificing love. Life of eternal dimensions is the here-and-now gift to those who believe that this self-sacrificial One is the Son of God. The waving branches say that we misunderstand as did his disciples. Our hopes and dreams are too much occupied by the ultimately doomed and dead. And as in the case of the disciples, only Jesus’ death and resurrection will clear up our misunderstanding.


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