And the crowds that went before and that followed shouted, “Hosanna to the son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” - Matthew 21:9
In the world of the ancient Near East, the world of the Bible, monarchy was taken for granted. It was the only form of national government known. When the Israelites embarked on the conquest of Canaan, they were met by coalitions of kings—first five from the south, then four from the north. The twelfth chapter of Joshua lists thirty-one kings defeated by the Israelites. That means that there were thirty-one kings in a land not all that much bigger than Vermont, and in fact, it is made quite clear that this lists only the defeated ones.
It is no surprise, then, that both Abraham (Genesis 17:6) and Jacob (Genesis 35:11) heard the promise of future glory in royal terms. Kings would be numbered among their descendants. It is no surprise that when the promised nation was actually formed, it was ruled by kings. It is no surprise that when it collapsed, the promises of its restoration included promises of a messiah, an anointed king, a descendant of David, who had been the “king after the Lord’s own heart.” There was no other known form of national independence, of national greatness. When the elders came to Samuel in a time of distress, they asked for a king to rule over them “like all the other nations.” Jews of Gospel times could not conceive of a restoration in any other form.
When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, he tapped a rich vein of frustrated hopes. After the Babylonian captivity, after having been subject to the Persians and then the Greeks, after one relatively brief period of independence, they were subject to the Romans, to a nation that had not even existed at the time of Israel’s glory. They were subject to a king of kings, an emperor, whose military power dwarfed anything they could hope to muster. All they could hope for was the greatest upset of the ages, so to speak, and the power of hope so unrealistic cannot be overestimated.
It can get to be pathological. Time after time, we read of individuals whose sense of powerlessness leads them to construct fantasy worlds, worlds in which they are the heroes, the saviors. The more hopeless the cause, the less grounding their fantasies will have in reality. Hitler lived in such a world, incapable of seeing that if you make the whole world your enemy, that world will ultimately crush you. By all reports, as his world fell to ruin around him, he retreated more and more into the recesses of his own mind.
This may seem a strange comparison to make with the crowds that cheered Jesus. We are attracted to the image of welcoming the Lord into our lives. But in the Gospel story, just a few days later these same crowds were shouting for his crucifixion. Surely that should slow us down a little, should lead us to take a second look at their Palm Sunday fervor. Were they cheering for the real Jesus, or were they simply cheering for a winner?
Looking back on the story from the perspective of a couple of millennia, some things seem fairly clear. “The kingdom of god” was not the same as “the kingdom of Israel.” In the Gospel of John, we hear Jesus saying quite explicitly, “My kingdom is not of this world.” This was a man who advised his followers to give Caesar what belonged to Caesar, and differentiated that from what belonged to God. The only apparently political act of his career was the cleansing of the temple, and the whole point of that was to separate the domain of prayer from the domain of commerce.
I would suggest that it all makes sense if we assume that he was addressing a pervasive pathology, and that the name of that pathology was “materialism.” The culture was caught up in the illusion that the root of their problems lay in their material circumstances and not in themselves. They believed that if they could be out from under the yoke of Rome they would be contented. If they had looked around at the real world they lived in, at the actual individuals they knew, they would have seen what we ourselves can see, namely that in all kinds of circumstances, some people will find ways to be at peace and some will find reasons for discontent. In his book, Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman observes that given a setback, some people will look to learn from it, with the confidence that they can do better next time, while others will take it as proof of their own ineptitude or inadequacy. This, more than measurable intellectual ability, turns out to be a consistent predictor of eventual success.
Inherent in a materialistic outlook is an attachment to literalism. The prophecies spoke of a king from the line of David, and that was the limit of their meaning. Their language could not be figurative. The idea of deeper meaning, to this mindset, seems escapist and irresponsible. That’s what the book says, and that’s what it means. Don’t try to explain it away.
How does one break through such rigid defenses? How does one wake a people up to the world of spirit which gives life and meaning to lifeless matter? How does one open the eyes of the blind or give hearing to the deaf? It cannot be done, it seems, unless the essential materialistic assumptions are brought out into the light of day and given their chance to work. They will fail, not because of their “enemies” but because of their own utter unrealism.
Materialism, in fact, is a form of escapism. It is a way of burying one’s head in the sand, of refusing to acknowledge the obvious. It involves pretending that physical beauty matters more than personal integrity, that wealth matters more than trustworthiness, that external power matters more than love and understanding.
In the Palm Sunday, we see a Lord who will have none of this nonsense. We have the material expectations brought to the surface in all their naivete and unrealism. And we who have read the chapters that follow know how decisively those expectations were demolished by the crucifixion.
In a sense, then, the Lord did ride into Jerusalem as a conqueror. He had overcome within himself virtually all of our very human tendency to trust in superficial appearances. He saw the issue clearly and confronted it without compromise. The illusionary aspect of his triumphal march was not in the march itself or in him, but in the way it was understood.
All this is not far removed from the issues we face. We are bombarded with the messages, the promises, of materialism. “The American Dream” of the house in the suburbs with all the appliances in the kitchen and with at least two cars in the garage is blatantly materialistic. It looks very much, though, as though we are being pressed toward a recognition of the impracticality of this very “practical” set of values. That is, there simply are not enough resources in the world for everyone to realize this dream. As the world shrinks, the stone age bushmen of the Kalihari become our next-door neighbors, and the inequalities become inescapably obvious.
Even without this global pressure, it has become clear that the age has passed when we could assume that our children would be better off than we. Fewer and fewer families can manage with only one wage-earner, and the stronger the pressure toward the acquisition of material goods, the harder it will be on the home. If we were content with the life-style of a previous generation, content to live with what was in an average home in, say, nineteen-twenty, one income might be perfectly adequate. Of course, our economy would collapse because no one would be buying about ninety percent of the goods in our stores. We are rather trapped by our plenty.
The Lord as king comes into this culture of ours with some very harsh words about this. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust corrupt, where thieves break through and steal. Rather, lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust corrupts, and where thieves do not break through or steal: for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Eternal life is not something that starts after we die. It has started already.
Not all the people who shouted hosanna would shout for the Lord’s crucifixion. His disciples shared in the illusion of outward triumph, but they had within themselves enough experience of his inner nature, they were strongly enough bound to him by love, that they were incapable of turning against him. They might not have the strength to follow him, but they were beyond the reach of cynicism. The depth of their despair was a direct result of the integrity of their trust. The seed had taken root in them, deep enough root to survive even this calamity, and it would bear fruit in its own season.
The timing was not of their choosing, and that has something important to say to us. There is a loving and wise providence over our own lives, a providence that, so to speak, chooses the issues we face, and chooses when we will face them. We can live with the trust that what we encounter today is, in ways we cannot understand, what we need today. We may have moments of clear vision when we see what it is in ourselves that we need to overcome, but we are quite incompetent to draw up a schedule for the battle. When or even whether we face the great confrontation of Palm Sunday is, fortunately, not up to us.
What we can know and trust is that the kingdom of God is always “at hand.” Yes, “the world is too much with us,” but we need not fear. It is the Lord’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom.