RCL Year B
A Thread of Kingship
Palm Sunday is a favorite subject of visual artists. Pictures and stained glass windows in churches around the world tell the story of Jesus riding humbly on a donkey into Jerusalem on Sunday before he was crucified on Friday. The colors are brilliant; it must have been a beautiful day, four days before Passover. A perfect day for a parade. The crowd is cheering and singing, waving palms. It’s a happy crowd, acclaiming their king.
But I’ve never seen a Palm Sunday picture of Jesus that looked as though he’s enjoying the parade. He sits quietly, solemnly, almost unaware or detached from the noise around him. Some artists depict him gazing up into heaven, a stream of light touching his face. Some have his eyes cast down, sad, resigned. He’s never smiling. Jesus is drawn in stark contrast to the crowd.
The thread of kingship runs through the Gospel of Mark. “King of the Jews” is always popping up. At one time the crowd tries to make him their king, and he has to run away. He seems torn sometimes between accepting the title and refusing it, even being angered by the idea that it would be cast on him. So why does Jesus agree, even take the initiative, to ride into Jerusalem amid cheers and cries of Hosanna? Has he decided to be the king of the Jews, after all?
In today’s lesson and in other places in the Gospels, Jesus refers to himself as teacher, Son of Man, shepherd. When Pilate asks him point blank if he’s the King of the Jews, Jesus doesn’t deny it but puts the answer back on Pilate. When Pilate asks the crowd if they want Jesus to be released, he refers to him as the King of the Jews. Soldiers mocking him use the title, so it must have been voiced commonly among the people. But we never see Jesus accept it.
It’s a statement of the charge against him when he’s crucified, and Pilate refuses to have it changed. The chief priests refer to him mockingly as the king of Israel. It’s clear that the title “king” was an issue of great import. Maybe more of an issue than we usually understand it to be. Even one of the most significant charges against Jesus.
The title “king” itself does not necessarily carry a bad connotation. It’s all the trappings of kingship: authority, even entitlement and autonomy; power and misuse of power; benevolence or cruelty; divine right. All the trappings that historically have been ascribed to royalty. All the ways earthly power can be wielded.
So why does Jesus ride into Jerusalem and let the crowd cheer him as king? Why earlier in the Gospel does he make a conscious decision to go into Jerusalem, where he knows there are powerful people just waiting to grab him and charge him? Why not keep evading the powers? Why become conspicuous?
All through his Gospel Mark keeps bringing up the question of kingship. He’s asking, What does it mean to be king? What is a king? If it was an issue with the people and with those in power, it also seems to have been an issue with Mark as he wrote his Gospel. It’s almost as if Mark has Jesus thinking that Palm Sunday, “All right, you want a king. I’ll show you what a king is.” And he rides into Jerusalem on a weak little donkey instead of a war horse. He presents the picture opposite that of earth’s kings, and he doesn’t enjoy the parade at all.
Artists have depicted Jesus as sad, as resigned, as detached. This was not an act of submission, unless we consider that Jesus submitted to the crowd’s praises that he didn’t want. It wasn’t an act of triumph; clearly, he had failed to convince anyone that the way to life is the way of peace. He didn’t ride into Jerusalem blindly; he knew what was waiting for him.
Palm Sunday was an act of defiance. Take note, Rome! Here I am, leaders of Israel! Earthly kings are not true kings at all. Look! This is a true king: one who does not seek power; one who finds life serving others, bringing peace, giving love. The leaders of this world have it all wrong. I’ll show you the way to life, even if you hate me for it and put me to death.
And so Jesus rides into the week that will bring his death, fully aware, openly, peacefully, defying the powers of the world. He’s through teaching about it. He has to live what he knows to be Truth. He has to die defending it. He will submit to mockery, injustice, torture, the most degrading death of his day with the grace and humility of one who knows his equality and kinship with all of Creation. Riding on a donkey, symbol of peace. A true king.
Would there were more kings and leaders to follow his example today.