The whole multitude of disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Luke 19.37-38)
On a sunny day in late August, a bunch of kids on our block got together and decided to create our own amusement park. We’d all returned from our family vacations. The first day of school was coming. Building a playland would likely be our last hurrah. We pooled a bunch of toys and stuff from our garages and went to work in an empty lot on our street. Someone found a stretch of rope that we used to string together a train of old tricycles. Someone else showed up with a spare tire; we rigged a ramp so we could climb inside the tire and push it over the edge. I pulled out my wagon and we laid a cardboard track over dirt mounds at the back of the lot. Voilà! Now we had a rollercoaster!
What we were up to was dangerous, for sure, and someone might have got hurt if our moms hadn’t stopped us. Even before they shut us down, however, we’d bumped into the realities of physics. Nothing worked as smoothly as we’d hoped. Pushing and pulling one another over uneven ground was hard work. Realizing we didn’t have the energy to keep our makeshift park going, we’d already figured out the good times weren’t going to last. By noon, it was over and we went back to our usual play. Still, it was one of the best summer days of my childhood.
One moment in particular stands out. An older girl from several streets over pulled up on a fancy purple bike with a sparkly banana seat and colored streamers on her handlebar grips. While we probably looked like The Little Rascals, her clothes were clean and her hair was adorned with a couple of fancy barrettes. Although she was older than us by several grades, we knew who she was, as she regularly babysat a toddler down the street. She asked what we were doing and when we explained, she turned up her nose. “I’ve been to Disneyland,” she said snottily, “and it’s a lot nicer.” I’ll never forget my buddy, Mike’s, reply: “Yeah? This is better than Disneyland because we made it.”
Better and More Powerful
My mind races back to that terrific morning when I read Luke’s account of the Triumphal Entry, reminding me that, in many ways, I lived out this story in miniature. As Kathryn Matthews Huey points out in her insightful exegesis of the passage, Luke’s version features several key differences from the other gospels. First of all, there are no palms, no cries of hosanna in his retelling. The people lay down their coats to pave the way for Jesus. And the crowd is comprised entirely of His disciples. No one here can be accused of praising Jesus on Sunday and shouting “Crucify Him!” come Friday. This is an impromptu event that takes shape as it goes—a makeshift parade designed to imitate imperial processions. It is far better and more powerful than any over-produced Roman pomp because Jesus’s followers make it from scratch. It’s not a show, nor is it a command performance. It’s an outpouring of love and creativity. And, on some level, the parade makers surely realize this is their last hurrah. Jesus has told them He’ll be arrested and executed in Jerusalem. Something inside them senses their traveling days are over. The weather’s about to change; their time together is going to end.
A more natural response might compel the disciples to huddle around Jesus, damping the spotlight that finds Him wherever goes, and settling into a quiet place where they can savor their last days with Him. But timing is everything in this story. It’s the week before Passover. While Jesus and the disciples are entering Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, across town preparations are underway for another triumphal entry. Pontius Pilate is due to arrive with garrisons of Roman guards to ensure the holiday excitement won’t get out of hand. The masses along that parade route will shout, “Hail, Caesar!” and bow and scrape and clamor to show fealty to their oppressors. This is where we find the crowd that hasn’t the nerve to save one of its own from tyrannical injustice. These are the people who do and say as they’re told. There’s not the slightest hint of freedom or joy at this parade. Meanwhile, freedom and joy abound at the cobbled-together celebration on the other side of the city. It’s as if Jesus’s followers say, “What we’ve got is better because we made it.” They’re absolutely right to say that. This is their parade, built by their own hands to honor their king. And that’s what makes this ecstatic display of loyalty to Jesus so dangerous.
Power. Freedom. Courage. Joy.
Like the vigilant mama bears they presume to be, the Pharisees are alarmed at what’s going on. They rush to Jesus and demand He put a stop to this nonsense. Even though this activity places His own life at risk, He shrugs them off. “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out,” He says. (Luke 19.40) He understands what’s really happening. This is a people’s parade, not a royal procession. The excitement will eventually cool down, once the disciples discover how much energy is required to keep it going. For now, however, they need this big moment. Brief and dangerous though it may be, they need to know what it feels like to make something of their own. They need to find the power and courage within themselves to create a better alternative to Rome’s glitzy make-believe. Jesus puts the Pharisees on notice. This sham government that depends on their complicit support can’t last. They’re on the wrong side of history. Luke underscores their powerlessness in a very subtle way, too. After their appearance here, they drop out of the story. From here on out, Jesus’s fate rests in the hands of their authoritarian leaders. After all this time nagging at Jesus and trying to discredit Him, the Pharisees turn out to be nobodies.
God’s new contract with humanity is signed at Calvary and guaranteed through Christ’s resurrection. But its terms are fleshed out here, in this crazy-quilt parade that sets everything in motion. To the natural eye, its borrowed donkey and ragtag carpeting and motley crew praising an uncrowned king may look silly compared to Rome’s mighty stallions and yards of purple silk and thousands shouting praise to an emperor. Yet what’s really going on is anything but silly. The Gospel of Christ is coming to life in the full exercise of power and freedom, courage and joy. That is Palm Sunday’s legacy to us. Power. Freedom. Courage. Joy. We are called to be parade makers, not parade watchers.
The disciples’ makeshift parade for their king bursts with unspoken declarations of power, freedom, courage, and joy.