Commentary on John 12:12-27; 19:16b-22
The crowds have been trying to make Jesus their king for a long while now.
The crowds by the side of the lake started it all. When that crowd saw the sign that Jesus had done — feeding five thousand people with five barley loaves and two fish — they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”
This word spread as the crowd’s enthusiasm for Jesus grew. They decided to coronate him on the spot, and Jesus knew it. “When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself” (John 6:14-15). The crowd wanted to make Jesus their kind of king, and Jesus wanted no part of it.
In our reading, the crowd up from the country to purify themselves for the Passover festival has the same idea. They want to make Jesus their kind of king. The crowd hears that Jesus is coming into Jerusalem. And they are sporting for a fight. “The chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him” (11:55-57).
We know that the chief priests and Pharisees have already decided to kill Jesus, because Jesus is drawing crowds. They’ve decided to kill Lazarus too, because they need to eliminate the living evidence of the sign that Jesus performed by raising Lazarus from the dead. So the word is out that the religious authorities are looking for Jesus. For Jesus to show up would be a direct, in-your-face challenge to their authority. And the buzz on the street is that Jesus is coming.
So the crowd arms themselves with palm branches and goes out to meet Jesus, singing his praises with an adaptation of Psalm 118:25-26: “Save us, we beseech you, O LORD! O LORD, we beseech you, give us success! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD. We bless you from the house of the LORD.” Once again, the crowd wants to make Jesus their kind of king — their expected, national, political messiah. And once again, Jesus will have no part of it.
But before we move on to what Jesus does, we do well to pause and reflect on how we seek to make Jesus our kind of king. If we take this narrative seriously, that’s what we are doing when we wave palms on this Sunday. No one waving branches in the crowd wanted or expected Jesus to go willingly to the cross. If they had come up from the lake or over from Bethany, they were looking for a miracle-worker. If they were waiting for Jesus’ showdown with the authorities, they wanted and expected a revolutionary to overthrow the status quo.
This crowd is not the only one to lay their expectations on Jesus. We are happy to wave palms and sing his praises as long as Jesus is our kind of king. So, what expectations do we lay on Jesus? Perhaps that he will — or won’t — be political. Perhaps that faith will lead to earthly success.
As a bishop, one of the expectations of Jesus that I hear most often is that, though Jesus may not save every ELCA congregation, Jesus will certainly save ours. What are your expectations of Jesus? We need to be clear that, as we wave the palms and sing hosanna, we are joining the crowd in celebrating our expectations. The least we can do is to know them and to name them.
And Jesus will have no part of meeting our expectations. Jesus will have no part of being our kind of king, because Jesus is committed to being God’s kind of king. And that’s the good news. Jesus is committed to being God’s kind of king.
No, Jesus doesn’t withdraw to the mountain. He knows that his hour has come to die. He said so in Bethany, after Mary anointed him. Jesus said, “She bought [the costly perfume made of pure nard] so that she might keep it for the day of my burial” (John 12:7). Jesus does not flee from the crowd’s acclamations. He enters the city.
But Jesus enters the city with a twist. Jesus enters the city seated on a young donkey (12:14). Jesus corrects the crowd’s expectations — and ours — using a prophecy from Zechariah (9:9). “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” (John 12:15). Jesus comes seated on a donkey, not riding or mounted on a war chariot. Jesus comes humbly, not dolling out miracles.
His gesture makes clear that Jesus is a king, but not the king we expect. And the disciples only understand this after Jesus is glorified on the cross (John 12:16). Speaking only for myself, understanding this is a lifetime’s work.
I wonder. As Jesus passed by, seated on a donkey, did the palm waving stop and the crowd go silent as they breathed in the sight? Or did the crowd wave even more furiously and cheer even louder in an attempt to convince — even will — Jesus to be their kind of king?
And what of us? As we wave our palms as the cross passes by, might we dare cease our waving and allow our palms to fall to the ground, as a way of releasing our expectations of the kind of king Jesus should be?
When we do, we are free to enter with joy upon those mighty acts by which God has given us abundant, eternal life. Perhaps the best thing we can give up for Holy Week is our expectations.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of honor and celebration,
Together we cry, “Hosanna!” to your son, who rode willingly and bravely into Jerusalem. Hear us as we celebrate our king. Amen.
My song is love unknown ELW 343, H82 458, NCH 222
All glory, laud, and honor ELW 344, H82 154, 155, UMH 280, NCH 216, 217
At the name of Jesus ELW 416, H82 435, UMH 168
Hosanna to the Son of David, Luc Jakobs