Commentary – Palm Sunday

Commentary for Palm Sunday

With the Liturgy of the Passion

By Father Doug Woods

Commentary for Palm Sunday

With the Liturgy of The Passion

By Father Doug Woods

The texts:

1)         Liturgy of the Palms:  Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 and Mark 11:1-11

2)         Liturgy of the Passion:  Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 31:9-16, Philippians 2:5-11, and Mark 15:1-39.



Liturgy of the Palms


Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, is a curious Sunday. For one thing, often the Liturgy of the Palms is in another place, not in the church.  Frequently, it's in the parish hall, and afterward there's a procession into the church from there.  For another thing, Palm Sunday gives us a look at nearly a whole week, from the Triumphal Entry Into Jerusalem to the Crucifixion on Good Friday.  It's as if we're looking at the events of the week from a distance or through a tunnel.  It's as if we're taking pictures, some with a regular lens and some with a wide-angle lens.


This week, it's important to follow the story as it develops, so we won't be doing the usual deep dive.  It'll be kind of like 5x2 instead of 2x5; it all comes out to 10, but in different ways.


The two pieces of scripture for the Liturgy of the Palms aren't cross-referenced, but they do fit together thematically; they both have to do with the triumphal entry of a king.


Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 In many bibles, this psalm is labelled A Song of Victory, and indeed, that's how it opens; it's a call to thank God.  Then it jumps ahead, straight to vs. 19-29, and here's where we catch the triumphal entry.  A king, having won a battle against enemies would return to his city at the head of his victorious army.  The gates would be opened, and there would be a procession-what we today would call a parade.  Maybe if you want a more modern version, you could look at news photos of celebrations, say, at the end of WWII.  There's that one of the sailor kissing a woman-from Life magazine?


However, at v. 19ff., we begin to hear some strange things.  "This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it."  "the righteous"?  Ah well, with a little imagination, you could call a victorious army "righteous", but still, it's a little strange.


Read on a little further.  "The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone."  What "stone"?  Maybe it's meant metaphorically, i.e., everyone thought the king was incapable of ruling or of commanding an army, but he proved them all wrong?  And then it hits you.  This whole thing is metaphorical.


So, go back to "This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it."  What "gate" is it, and why do the "righteous" enter through it.  Oh, I get it.  It's the gate to the kingdom of heaven, and the victorious general is someone who was truly unexpected, a "stone" which was rejected, but now he's the "chief cornerstone", the most important one of all.


Now go down to v. 26 and you see exactly what the crowds are shouting as Jesus rides into Jerusalem:  "Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord."  And we get it.  The victorious one is Jesus.  But before you get too excited about that, read what we have to say about the reading from Mark.


Mark 11:1-11 Again, your bible might very well label this passage Jesus' Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, but as "triumphal entries" go, it's a little strange.  To make a long story short, Jesus sends his disciples to get a donkey-a DONKEY?!-but he's not stealing it:  "The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately."  Well, O.K., so he's going to ride a donkey into Jerusalem; that's not so strange.  Then they bring the donkey back and instead of a saddle or anything like it, they throw their cloaks onto the donkey's back and hoist Jesus up onto it.  Why do I get the feeling I'm watching a Monty Python film?  Then, as they go along, people ahead of them and behind start shouting, "Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!  Hosanna in the highest heaven!"  Are they serious?  It looks and sounds as if they are!


Is now the time to go back to Psalm 118?  Is this a victorious general coming back at the head of his army?  Is there going to be a parade?  You can imagine that some people along the side of the road are laughing at this; they're saying, "Is this really supposed to be a 'triumph'?  It's pathetic!  A warrior king doesn't ride on a donkey; he rides on a war-horse!"


This whole story is ironic because it makes reference back to the Maccabean Revolt of nearly two centuries before (look it up online); here's the reference point:  "On the twenty-third day of the second month, in the one hundred seventy-first year, the Jews entered it (i.e., the citadel at Jerusalem: JDW) 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." (1 Macc. 13.51) So, here's the reference to victorious armies.


But riding on a donkey?  Well, it was sometimes a sign.  If a king was coming with warlike intentions, he rode a war-horse.  If he was coming in peace, he rode a donkey.  "Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!  Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!  Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, HUMBLE AND RIDING ON A DONKEY, on a colt, the foal of a donkey." (Zechariah 9:9) Ah, this is beginning to fall together.  "For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." (Is. 9.6) THIS king, a prince of peace, is riding on a donkey.


And what does Jesus do when he gets into the city?  "Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve." (Mk. 11.11) No storming the ramparts.  He goes to the Temple, looking for all the world like a tourist.  But don't let that fool you.  Go on to the Liturgy of the Passion.


The Liturgy of the Passion


If you want some perspective, I'd suggest you just keep reading, starting from Mk. 11.12 all the way through to the end of Chapter 15; it's only six+ pages.  Even if you read slowly it'll take only half an hour.  What happens in that stretch of the gospel?  Jesus causes quite a stir by "cleansing" the Temple, causing the authorities to question his authority to do such a thing.  Jesus turns right around and issues his own challenge to the authorities:  The Parable of the Wicked Tenants.  Then, various people come along and try to trip him up-to shame him and make him look foolish, i.e., someone who has NO authority:  The Question About Paying Taxes, The Question About the Resurrection, The Question About the Greatest Commandment, The Question About David's Son.  But it all blows up in their faces, and it's clear that JESUS has authority, but THEY DON'T.  Then Jesus turns around and goes on the offensive:  Jesus Denounces the Scribes, The Widow's Offering.  I'll just sum up Chapter 13; it's about the coming destruction of the Temple, the coming of the Son of Man, and the need to stay alert.  After all of this conflict, the authorities say, "That's enough.  This guy has to go."


Jesus then withdraws to Bethany, just a hop, skip, and a jump from Jerusalem.  The story there all tends toward Jesus' death-his anointing, Judas's decision to betray Jesus, and Jesus' celebration of the Passover with his disciples, all of which brings us to the gospel reading for the Liturgy of the Passion.  But before we get there, we should say at least a few words about the other scripture for this liturgy.


Isaiah 50:4-9a Your bible probably labels this passage something like "The Servant's Humiliation and Vindication".  Well, that's certainly loaded!  This king who some sneered at as "pathetic" at the time of the Triumphal Entry Into Jerusalem, the one who rode in on a donkey, is already humiliated, but his crucifixion is the biggest humiliation of all.  It's an execution reserved for lowlifes.  It's a public shaming.  It's also an example to others:  "Behave yourself, or this could be you!"  If you did read through from Chapter 11 to Chapter 15, it must have struck you how humiliating Jesus' trial before the Council was, how humiliating it was for Peter to deny his relationship with Jesus, how humiliating his trial before Pilate was and his treatment by the soldiers who mocked him.  They're all piling on.  So, if we needed examples of "The Servant's Humiliation", this is it in spades.  So what about the "Vindication"?  We'll have to wait a week for that.


Psalm 31:9-16 Well, if you want to see how Jesus, the human being, must have felt through all of this, look no further.  "I am in distress."  I am in "misery".  "I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbours, an object of dread to my acquaintances."  But through it all, Jesus has faith:

14 But I trust in you, O Lord;

    I say, 'You are my God.'

15 My times are in your hand;

    deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.

16 Let your face shine upon your servant;

    save me in your steadfast love.


"Steadfast love."  That's what it's been about since the beginning of the story, for Adam and Eve, for Moses and the people of Israel, and now for Jesus.  Just wait; you'll see.


Philippians 2:5-11 This is possibly a hymn which was used in worship at that time-just guessing.


Just a few comments:


1)         We've been talking about humiliation, and here it is again.  However, this time, it's Jesus humiliating HIMSELF.  Well … that's open to misinterpretation.  What I mean is that Jesus TOOK the humble status.  He's the Son of God; he could just avoid all of that.  But kindness and gentleness-love-are at the centre of what he believes and preaches, even at the time of his death-even though it LEADS TO his death.  That's how serious and steadfast he is.  He's not a "sunshine patriot".  He "emptied himself … he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-even death on a cross."  A big deal person doesn't have to put up with that; Jesus CHOOSES to.


2)         Paul is using a technique here:  memory, model, maxim-also called the "Scotch Tape" method (3M, get it?).  He's reminding us of something (memory), he's telling us that's an important MODEL, and then issuing a MAXIM:  "Let the same mind be in you …"


3)         Jesus' obedience becomes his glorification, his exaltation, and that's Jesus' vindication.  The authorities may have charged Jesus with "crimes" and they may have executed him, but the "judge" declares Jesus innocent; he's right, and the accusers are wrong.


4)         Now, it's up to us.  "… at the name of Jesus every knee should bend … every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord".


    • Why? Because it's "to the glory of God the Father".  Obedience glorifies the person we're obeying; it honours her/him.


    • How? By being in Jesus-humble in the manner of Jesus.  My favourite picture of that is John 15.1ff.



Humility isn't a matter of being a doormat; it's true self-giving for the good of others-very active and courageous.


Mark 15:1-39 Well, this is it.  It's a huge piece of scripture-two to three times the size of a normal Sunday morning gospel reading.  Years ago, I used to go to a church where, if I remember correctly, we stood through the whole thing-and the Gospeller used to CHANT it.  It was an endurance test!


So, I choose not to do an in-depth treatment of this reading; it's just too much.  My remarks will be more "wide-angle-lens" discussion.


Well, we're finally there:  the Passion.  Some commentators call Mark's gospel a Passion narrative with an introduction.  Well, however you see it, we've gotten to where the Gospel was going all along.  Jesus is caught in a black hole; there's no escaping it.  He's arrested, his disciples have abandoned him, and he's tried before the Council.  The authorities have decided he should be executed, but in the Roman Empire, they can't do that-only a Roman court can-so they have to manoeuvre the Romans into doing it for them.  In Jewish culture, they would stone a person to death, but in much of the ancient Mediterranean world, crucifixion would be the execution of choice.  For example, after the siege of Tyre, Alexander the Great lined the shore with 2,000 crosses; and Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BCE) crucified 800 Pharisees.


The story today is in three parts:


1)         15.1-15 The Trial Before Pilate and 15.16-20 The Soldiers Mock Jesus.  During the trial before Pilate, Jesus does-indirectly-acknowledge that he is the King of the Jews.  At that point, you'd expect Pilate to say, "Oh well, then, the trial can't go any further.  I can't put a king on trial.  I'll have to release you."  Instead, however, he releases Barabbas, the insurrectionist, as part of the Passover Clemency-and all of this is part of God's purpose and plan to bring about salvation.


When this trial is finished, Pilate sends Jesus away with the Roman troops.  First, the soldiers mock Jesus as "King of the Jews", and then they lead him away to be crucified.


2)         15.21-27 The Crucifixion of Jesus and 15.29-32 The Bystanders Mock Jesus.  The events of the crucifixion heap on more humiliation.  There is one small act of mercy in v. 23; the soldiers offer Jesus wine-mixed with myrrh-to deaden the pain of crucifixion.  Actually, this was also used for women in childbirth, but with frankincense mingled with the wine, not myrrh.  But after that, the humiliation continues.  Jesus is stripped of his clothes; Jewish modesty would have been very offended by that.  And, of course, the crucifixion, itself, was a huge humiliation, as mentioned already.


Parts 1) and 2) are linked by repeated humiliation.


3)         15.33-38 The Death of Jesus and 15.39 The Centurion Confesses Jesus.  Now comes the crux (no pun intended!) of the story:  Jesus dies.  Four events signify the theological significance of all that's happened:


    1. The darkness - eschatological judgment


    1. Jesus' cry of abandonment - "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" - expressing Jesus' despair


    1. The tearing of the Temple curtain - judgment against the nation and the coming end of the sacrificial system


    1. The cry of the Centurion - a confirmation of Jesus' true identity



The first half of the Crucifixion scene shows what is done to Jesus:  scourging, crucifixion, stripping of clothing, and mockery.  The second half of the scene shows the significance of what is happening: the cry of despair, the darkness, the tearing of the Temple curtain, and Jesus' final cry:  "Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last."


The third section, the burial of Jesus is a kind of epilogue.  Following each of the sections, there's a response.  For the first two sections, the response is mockery; for the third, it's confession.


It's ironic, but true; everything that's said here about Jesus as mockery is true:  1) he WAS the King of the Jews, and 2) he WOULD destroy the temple-metaphorically-and rebuild it in three days.  And yet, he could not-would not-save himself.  The cry of abandonment, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" expresses that.


I wish you a blessed Holy Week.

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