Weekly Seeds: Covenant: Hosanna!

Sunday, March 28, 2021
Palm or Passion Sunday
Sixth Sunday in Lent Year B

Focus Theme:
Covenant: Hosanna!

Focus Prayer:
Crucified and Risen One, by your passion, you sustain us when we fall knee-bent into the radical emptiness of bone-wasting sorrow and despair. Teach us to sustain the weary and awaken us to attend to those who suffer. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Mark 11:1–11
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 2 and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. 3 If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’ ” 4 They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5 some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” 6 They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. 7 Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. 8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. 9 Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, 
    Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! 
    10      Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! 
    Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 
11 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. 

All readings for this Sunday:
Psalm 118:1–2, 19–29
Mark 11:1–11 or John 12:12–16

Focus Questions:
1. What happens when our expectations are not met?
2. What does Palm Sunday mean to you?
3. Who do you identify with in the crowd?
4. How do you understand the coming of the kin-dom of God?
5. What do we look for God to save us from now?

By Cheryl Lindsay

Who cries “Hosanna!”? Who’s in the crowd?

I wonder if we don’t get Palm Sunday quite right…from the crowd’s point of view. I wonder if those cries from the crowd were pleas of desperation rather than shouts of joy. How does our understanding of this event change when we consider…deeply…the meaning of the word “Hosanna!”

Many of us know that it means, “Please save us!” or “Save us now!” But consider for a moment, under what circumstances do people ask to be “saved”? Was the crowd gearing up for a parade to celebrate the coronation of a new ruler or getting ready for battle under a new banner?

Jesus and his disciples traveled to Jerusalem for the celebration of the Passover. They weren’t the unique travelers. Many in the crowd would be traveling from their homes to the capital of Judea. Clifton Black makes the point that Jesus travels to and from Jerusalem several times in this chapter of Mark alone, but these trips do not reflect a joyful homecoming in Mark’s portrayal. “Though Jerusalem exerts a gravitational pull, Jesus is never at home there.” Other pilgrims in the crowd would have identified with this push and pull with Jerusalem. Their faith brought them to this place, but Roman occupation and oppressive religious leadership would remind them of the distance from the “glory days” of Kings David and Solomon of their ancestral past and the reality of their presence. The messianic promise would comfort and encourage a people that a better future awaited them.

If we consider this text from the crowd perspective, we recognize that opens a spectrum of views. Even when most of the crowd gets caught up in collective behavior, that does mean that they’re engaged in group-think.

One group reacts to Jesus with hostility. His presence and popularity presents a threat to the status quo. “The ministry that has the crowds following him and his entry into the city amid cries of messianic expectation makes Jesus a threat to both Jewish and Roman leaders.” (Racquel S. Lettsome) Those with authority would be reluctant if not adverse to a rise in power for Jesus. If they shouted Hosanna!, it would only serve as a guise to blend in with the crowd.

Certainly, some in the crowd simply found themselves there. In 2016, when the Cavaliers won the NBA Championship, the city of Cleveland hosted a parade. Estimates suggest that more people attended that parade, including yours truly, than actually live in the city and surrounding suburbs. Like many there, as a native Clevelander, I had been waiting my entire life for a major professional sports championship in my hometown. It was hot and crowded. The parade literally inched along as the route had to be continually cleared as bystanders swamped the streets. Most downtown offices closed for at least part of the day. Yet, every so often, someone would walk by who was not engaged in the excitement of the moment. They had a destination that coincided with this momentous occasion, and they could not care less about the festivities that disrupted and detoured their path that day. Sometimes, you’re in the midst of living your daily life and something spectacular occurs around you that interrupts your plans.

The curious were in the crowd. Word had spread of his ministry. Some people join a crowd so that they don’t miss out on what others experience. They might not have sought healing or deliverance for themselves but wanted to be able to tell the story in a way that included them. Or, they simply wanted to see the show. Margaret Grunn Kibben is helpful in considering how this group’s expectations related to their experience of the actual events taking place:

Reading further into Mark’s version of the Passion, however, we discover that the enthusiastic crowds that gathered to welcome Jesus were not impressed but in fact were overwhelmed by his humble entry. And we, in turn, are challenged to gauge our willingness to worship one who exerts his authority by giving up control, sacrificing his will for God’s.

This is the part of the crowd, I think, that we most often envision in the retelling of this narrative. This crowd would be the type of people who would cheer Jesus on one day and then berate him a few days later. This group would not have any allegiance to Jesus. They would be all about the results, and when the outcome did not match or exceed their expectations, they wouldn’t be disappointed as much as derisive. People in this group root for the team they think will win…and turn on them if that team gets outmatched or simply has a bad day.

Mark, in his telling of the Palm Sunday event, dismantles this approach to the passion narrative. In Mark’s Gospel, he stresses the power and urgency of the ministry and mission of Jesus. His consistent and persistent use of the word “immediate” as Mark describes Jesus’ actions lends a drama to the events he presents without the lyrical language of John or the exquisite details found in Luke. Mark tells an action packed story in language that often is so wooden that it suggests he doesn’t even have time to smooth it out because the events are happening so fast. There’s an energy to his narrative that, markedly, disappears from this passage:

The Evangelist has steered readers to another climax, only to snatch the carpet out from under them (see also 4:30-32; 5:40-43; 6:45-52; 10:29-31). Such narrative subversion matches the character of the gospel that Jesus preaches (10:13-31, 42-45). “Mark uses every strategy to say two things at once: yes, this is the Messiah, the greatest of miracle workers, the Son of God, but, no, that does not mean at all what you thought it meant” (Placher 1994, 14). Mark has not narrated a “triumphal entry.” He has lampooned it.

Of course, Mark has only lampooned it for the groups in the crowd we’ve already considered. But there are two more perspectives to explore: Jesus’ disciples and those who cried “Hosanna!”

Jesus journeyed to Jerusalem with his closest associates. He brought his small group with him ostensibly to observe the Passover but, in actuality, to participate in his passion. They are the ones who have and will continue to receive his instruction and confidences. The disciples are used to Jesus telling them to do things that make any sense to them. They have experience with Jesus taking humble things and magnifying them. They know that when Jesus speaks, things happen. They have witnessed Jesus responding to needs unspoken and answering the cries of the broken, ailing, and despairing exceedingly and abundantly. The disciples carry out his instructions, but they aren’t asking anything of Jesus.

So, who cries “Hosanna!”?

Traditional interpretations of the Palm Sunday event hold that the majority of the crowd welcomes Jesus into Jerusalem for a coronation as their new sovereign leader, but a deeper dive into Mark’s telling questions that framing:

The details vary, but the format is typical: following victory, a military champion enters a city, attended by joyous acclamation, and offers cultic thanksgiving, often at a temple. Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem recalls this pattern, with important modifications. Replacing military conquest is Jesus’ peaceful ministry. Upon entrance Jesus does not perform the usual cultic ritual. In all of the Gospels save Mark, adulation is focused on Jesus himself (Matt 21:9a; Luke 19:38a; John 12:13b). Mark’s account is subdued. A celebrative aura persists: the spreading of cloaks and branches (11:8) is common in Israel’s festal processions (2 Kgs 9:13; 1 Macc 13:51; 2 Macc 10:7). In the multitude’s praise a touch of the martial genre lingers: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” (Mark 11:9b) quotes Psalm 118:26a, a thanksgiving for military deliverance. “Hosanna” (Mark 11:9b, 10b)—”Save now”—is a liturgical formula for God’s praise (Ps 118:25a). In Mark 11:10 the object of praise is general, not concentrated on Jesus: “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David.” Jesus himself has proclaimed “the kingdom of God” (1:15; 4:11, 26, 30; 9:1, 47; 10:14-15, 23-25) apart from bellicose connotations. (Clifton C. Black)

While Black substitutes “Jesus’ peaceful ministry” for a victory in order for the format to work, that might be a stretch for a crowd to begin a victory party over a few miracles they’ve witnessed when they’re looking for a successor to the military prowess of David in order to overcome the Roman Empire.

The part of the crowd who cried out “Hosanna!” were looking for a miracle. That group might have been filled with people like the woman with the issue of blood who crawled her way through another crowd and their hostility toward her in order to touch the one she believed had the power to heal her. That crowd may have been filled with people with authority…who also had concerns for those they loved or under their care like Jairus and his daughter or the centurion and his worker. That part of the crowd might have been full of people thirsting for knowledge and divine revelation like Nicodemus or the Samaritan woman at the well.

That part of the crowd rendered unto Caesar what was Caesar’s and looked to Jesus for a new kin-dom. Their cries came from a people whose lives were in peril–there’s no other reason to ask to be saved. “Hosanna!” isn’t a cheer; it’s a declaration of an emergency expressed as praise toward the God who hears, cares, and responds.

Palm Sunday does commemorate a triumphal entry, but it’s not the form or fashion of a trip into Jerusalem. It marks the beginning of the series of events we remember in Holy Week–the Passion.

Maybe that part of the crowd knew what was about to happen, not the means, but the ends. They perceived that the time had come. This was no ordinary arrival. Jesus, we already noted, traveled back and forth to Jerusalem. Every other time was on foot. Something different was happening. Jesus had attracted crowds before, but he used that as a platform for teaching. When the other crowds rose up in adulation, Jesus would escape the crowd with his disciples or alone. Here, Jesus allows the praise to flow. Because it’s time, it’s happening, and that crowd is ready.


For further reflection:
If we want to dialogue with the Scriptures, we must expose ourselves to the political, social, economic, cultural, and religious situations of the ancient world where the writings were born and where the people did not necessarily enjoy peace and justice.” — Hisako Kinukawa
Remember finally, that the ashes that were on your forehead are created from the burnt palms of last Palm Sunday. New beginnings invariably come from old false things that are allowed to die.” — Richard Rohr
No pain, no palm; no thorns, no throne; no gall, no glory; no cross, no crown.” — William Penn

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Sermon Seeds Writer and Editor (lindsayc@ucc.org), is a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gather ed communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Prayer: Reproduced from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers © 2002 Consultation of Common Texts. Used by permission.