It’s early. Rumors are already spreading. You aren’t going to believe who’s come to town! Families stumble over themselves to prepare. Women grab cloaks. Men cut palms. Kids organize confetti. City officials sweep the Temple and clean the streets. His presence demands it. His followers love it. You aren’t going to believe who’s come to town!
All kinds of people are lining the streets: Old, young, and everyone in-between. Everyone wants to get a glimpse of his royalty. Everyone wants to see his entourage. It’s not every day Pilate comes to town.
In their book, The Last Week, theologians Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan paint this scene: Pilate and Jesus enter Jerusalem at the same time from different gates on Palm Sunday.
Of course this is imaginary; we have no historical evidence to account for Pilate and Jesus entering at the same time, but if you think about it, it is possible.
“Palm Sunday is approaching, and it matters. The parade we choose to attend will make all the difference.”
Pilate comes in the West Gate riding a white stallion caravanning with his entourage of Roman officers, jesters, cooks, cup bearers and lackeys.
People line the streets when Rome comes to town. Pilate is the extension of Caesar. He’s the face of Rome in Israel, so when he rolls up, people notice. People cheer. People extend him the curtesy of respecting his authority, and we have evidence that proves that people threw down cloaks and palms as Pilate entered.
Now imagine at the same time, over at the North Gate, Jesus enters. Rather than a war horse, he’s riding an untested donkey. He’s not caravanning; he’s carpooling. He doesn’t travel with an entourage but with fishermen and women. Nobody is supposed to notice Jesus entering. He is a nobody from nowhere.
But that is not what happens. The celebration reserved for Pilate is transferred to Jesus.
Now, imagine a slightly different picture. Pilate, who sits in power, enters Jerusalem alongside the “One who has no power” and sees a more robust welcome for Jesus than his own. The tension this imaginary scene creates introduces us to the underlying tension of Holy Week.
Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week. It is the day we remember how the palms reserved for Pilate were actually used for Jesus. Another way to describe it is Palm Sunday is the moment Caesar’s old realm finally comes face-to-face with God’s new realm. And they could not be more different.
The old realm is controlled by Rome. The old realm is for the elite. The old realm says, “Caesar is Lord.” The new realm is controlled by God. The new realm is for the lowly and downtrodden. The new realm says, “Jesus is Lord.” And these two realms meet in the street.
Pilate comes to maintain law and order. Jesus comes to fulfill the law and subvert the order. Pilate comes from Caesarea Maritima, a port city known for trade, commerce and politics. Jesus comes from Nazareth, a no-nothing town from the farm country in the north.
Two ideologies, two realms, two completely different stories parading the streets of Jerusalem. It’s a powder keg about to explode, and people don’t know what to do. They should be at the West Gate bowing to Rome. They should be throwing down cloaks and waving palms for Pilate. They should be singing, dancing and witnessing the spectacle that is Caesar, but something new is taking place.
Jesus is here. The same Jesus we’ve heard stories about. The same Jesus who teaches with more insight than the scholars. The same Jesus whose touch heals the sick and the disabled faster than the water at the pool of Bethesda. And he just entered the North Gate.
So people run to him. Here’s how the Gospel writer narrates the scene:
Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were 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!” (Mark 11:8-10, NRSV)
Blessed is “he” who comes in the name of the Lord. This phrase used to mean “Blessed is Pilate, for he comes in the name of Lord Caesar.” But Mark helps us re-imagine Palm Sunday and realize Jesus is the “He” who comes in the name of Lord God.
Palm Sunday is approaching, and it matters. The parade we choose to attend will make all the difference.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the latest in a series of articles submitted by our opinion contributors for the season of Lent. Look for additional reflections during each day of Holy Week.