The big ditch: A reflection on Palm Sunday

Reflections on Matthew 21:1-11

On Palm Sunday at the Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City, churchgoers arrive early to get a good seat. The graceful procession of the children waving palms is a sight I recall decades after I worshipped there.

On Palm Sunday at the Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City, churchgoers arrive early to get a good seat. The graceful procession of the children waving palms is a sight I recall decades after I worshipped there.

First came the babes in arms, then balky toddlers, then nursery and preschoolers, and finally school-aged boys and girls poking each other with the long green leaves. The organist boomed out “Hosanna, loud hosanna, the little children sang,” but we were too busy watching the tykes and swallowing the lumps in our throats to sing. “Through pillared court and temple the lovely anthem rang,” goes the hymn, and in the stately pillared sanctuary of the old church, we could imagine the parade of the faithful on the dusty road to Jerusalem. There must have been children in the crowd that first Palm Sunday, and two millennia later, the little ones that Jesus loved still wave palms to bless him, the one who came in the name of the Lord.

The great Jewish philosopher, Abraham Joshua Heschel, once wrote that “religion begins in mystery, but ends in politics.” As a university professor, Heschel taught that human spirituality and divine mystery lay at the heart of religion, but he left the ivory tower to practice his faith in the political arenas of civil rights and Vietnam. Religion, he believed, must be experienced in a way that works for peace in the lives of God’s people. Heschel’s trajectory from divine mystery to everyday politics can be traced as Jesus rides one or two donkeys (that pesky Hebrew parallelism again) over a carpet of cloaks and branches (no palms in Matthew, rather in John), and enters finally into the storied City of David. In the Matthean texts that surround the events of the first Palm Sunday (or was it Monday?), Jesus evolves from the patient healer of two blind men sitting by the roadside into a man driven to honor his father’s house by cleansing the temple of those who would debase it by bilking the poor. From the tranquility of the garden he would return to within the week, to the chaotic streets of the city that would break his heart, Jesus was transformed that first Palm Sunday from a man of mystery to a revolutionary.

Where did our Lord gather his strength for the challenges that awaited him in the city on a hill?

Somewhere in the big ditch.

One of the first things a visitor to the Holy Lands notices is that places seem a bit different from their descriptions in Scripture. The mighty Jordan meanders more than rolls, and the Promised Land seen from Mount Nebo looks less like a garden paradise than just more desert. Distances are shorter than Westerners expect, but we are not driving camels. I was surprised to stand among the ancient olive trees on the Mount of Olives and realize that I could (almost!) throw a stone across the Kidron Valley and hit the East Wall of the Temple Mount. I had been expecting a gorge, a dramatic breath-taking sweep of riverbed but instead, I saw a big ditch.

I began to suspect that the crowds that lined Jesus’ route that first Palm Sunday were probably also modest by comparison. But there is no doubt that expectations were great that day, for Matthew records that the crowds that preceded and followed Jesus shouted hosannas to hail the arrival of the long-expected prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.

On that first Palm Sunday, Jesus would have ridden his gentle steed down the Gethsemane Incline, across the Jericho Road, and up the rocky slopes to the city that he loved. He would have entered through the portals of Solomon’s temple and perhaps passed the courts of the gentiles and women, finally coming upon the sight of merchants and bankers exacting exorbitant rates of exchange from the poor. If there had been any doubt of his impending confrontation with Roman and Jewish authorities, Jesus’ scathing rebuke and upending of the money tables sealed his fate. In the few thousand meters between Gethsemane and Jerusalem, the man of mystery became a force that would redefine political power for all time.

Matthew 21:1-11 tells us that when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil. Jerusalem seems always to have been in turmoil, and still is in turmoil, as are much of the Middle East and the world. As a pastor with a church of my own now, I look out over my congregation and see families who will celebrate Easter by staying near the phone in hopes of receiving calls from sons and daughters and grandchildren stationed in Iraq and Germany and South Korea. Middle East politics and the alternate universe of North Korea and nuclear proliferation in India and Pakistan, to say nothing of the devastation wrought by Indonesia’s tsunami, make us ask where God is in these catastrophes. The answer is, of course, that God is with us always in our joys and in our sorrows. He was with our Lord Jesus Christ that first Palm Sunday morning, as Jesus enjoyed fleeting moments of affirmation as the Son of David, the servant king, the one who came in the name of the Lord.

For better or worse, Heschel’s view of religion seems fair this Lenten season. The world’s great faiths are born in mystery and lived out in the political realities of diverse societies. The Kidron Valley that Jesus crossed that first Palm Sunday still yawns between the doors of churches and the steps of city hall. We drink in the deep peace of morning worship and walk out into a world that turns again and again to war as an instrument of national policy. We despair that nothing has been learned and that the peoples of the world are incapable of living in community with one another. But there is that Palm Sunday glimpse of paradise that sustains Jesus, and those of us who follow him, in the dark days and terrible hours of Holy Week.

As faithful Christians, we must call on people of all faiths to continue to pray and work for the peace of Jerusalem, whose mysterious light shines on us all.


KRISTINE JANE JENSEN is pastor of Stone Church in Clinton, New York.