The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the King of Israel!’ Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: ‘Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!’ His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.John 12:12-16
How do you envision the triumphal entry of Jesus and the disciples into Jerusalem? The majority of Hollywood film depictions offer a crowd of homogenous, white crowds of people. Such images have power and influence. Most of us already envision biblical stories through our normative lenses, with white people seeing most of the participants in the stories as looking like white people. Even many people with other skin tones and colors describe primarily white, Western crowds when asked about images of Holy Week. Historically, virtually no one at the triumphal entry into Jerusalem would have looked like a northern European or American white person.
The gathering on the first Palm Sunday would have been richly diverse and colorful. Olive, coffee, caramel, ebony, beige, amber, ruddy, cocoa, coral, bronze, and ivory, and a host of other hues and shades populated the road, shouting “Hosanna.” All the differences among these people were irrelevant in the face of adoration and praise for Jesus. We need to learn this lesson today.
Our United Methodist Communion liturgy (Word and Table Service, United Methodist Hymnal p. 10) asks God, “By your Spirit, make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.” Oneness transcends every difference, especially the least significant difference such as skin color, education, income level, or political preference. Through baptism, most of our lives are consecrated shortly after birth to inclusive, nonrestrictive unity in Christ. Once bound to the body of Christ through this baptism, no force on earth can separate us from it, unless we choose amputation from the body for ourselves. Our prejudices and judgmentalism are meaningless in the face of God’s love and grace. But it is incredibly important in our witness to the world that we dismantle and eliminate discrimination, prejudice, oppression, and ethnic violence in all forms.
Why did so many people come out to celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry? Scanning the crowd, it would be difficult to find someone who was not poor. Everyone under Roman rule experienced some form of oppression, and many endured violence. Most experienced freedom of religious observance, but with obeisance demanded by Caesar. Literacy and education were denied to the majority. Most were trade people living hand to mouth, village by village, and few had hope for improvement or a comfortable life. Survival was a communal concern; every individual was dependent on the goodness and sharing of others to live. Strangers were welcomed, both by tradition and by practical concern. Every new hand contributed to the well-being of the whole. Forgiveness of enemies was not an idealistic conceit but a practical need.
In our growing global community, there is less and less room for enemies and strangers. The more we know one another, the greater and deeper will be our understanding, and the better off we all will be. What is true for our world is very much true for our local communities and neighborhoods. So many people live in fear, under clouds of darkness and despair. Xenophobia—fear of strangers—has become a core value in some groups in our United States. It must not be a value in our United Methodist Church. There is a Greek phrase, κάτω από το δέρμα, that translates, “under the skin,” and means at our “core essence,” at the depths of our being. Christians are one “under the skin,” which means that there is absolutely no defense for discrimination based on skin color. It may take some retraining and reframing to stop seeing color differences as a primary criterion for judgment, but it is essential we do so.
In modern Western culture, we forget that much of the discrimination against Jesus was ethnic, social, class, caste, and economic rather than religious. He was born into a poor family in an occupied region, with few prospects for escape, viewed by Roman leadership as inferior and beneath contempt. He would have been considered a troublemaker and rabble rouser. Even among the Jewish religious elite, he was reviled. He would be the person that most members of dominant culture would make every effort to avoid. This should make us pause in our reflection.
Jesus would not be like most of us. Jesus would be the stranger. Jesus would be the outsider. Jesus would be the protestor, the demonstrator, the rebel. Jesus would be the minority.
Those of us who are members of the dominant culture would be the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Roman soldiers, the provincial governors; the ones to be embarrassed and perhaps a little afraid of this disruptive Nazorean.
It is also worth noting that many New Testament scholars’ conjecture that some of the very people who lauded Jesus with Hosannas on Palm Sunday turned around and called for his crucifixion later the same week. This illuminates the reality that we are not always consistent in our faith and in our ability to understand and do God’s will. We sometimes proclaim with our mouths something very different from the way we behave. Most of us have no problem proclaiming that God is love; it is in our ability to share God’s love that we find the greatest challenge.
Questions for Conversation
1. We wave our palm branches in the safety and comfort of our church sanctuaries. What would motivate us to take to the streets to proclaim Christ’s gospel of love, forgiveness, justice, mercy, and peace?
2. What is your greatest obstacle to reaching out to different people: skin color, language, economic level, educational level, politics, religion, or something else? How can we work together to help overcome it?
3. What specific things might we do within our fellowship to make it easier to reach out to other cultures, ethnicities, language groups, and economic realities?
Questions for Personal Reflection between Sessions
1. What will you do this week to prepare and fully engage in the journey through Holy Week? (A devotional guide for individuals is included with this study.)
2. What does the phrase “unity in diversity” mean to you? How do we honor and value cultural, ethnic, and racial differences while working for unity and oneness?
3. What are some of the things you wish you better understood about people of other cultures, nations, ethnicities, and lived realities? What can you do to find out?
Closing Prayer (or one of your own):
We shout our praises and adoration for your Son, O Lord, and we mean what we say. Yet we find it hard to align our actions with our best intentions. We need your help to bridge the gap between our intentions and our behaviors. Bless us with a love that is not abstract, but real; a faith that builds bridges instead of walls. We ask this humbly, O God. Amen.
Recommended Resources for Deeper Learning and Understanding:
Book: Where Do We God from Here: Chaos or Community by Martin Luther King, Jr. One of King’s last published books raises and explores the question that is still before us today.
Film: Whose Streets? by Sabaah Folayan & Damon Davis. In the wake of the Ferguson protests, the battle was no longer limited to “civil” rights, but the right to live