Palm Sunday 2023
Part 5 of a 6-part series looking for answers to the question, if God is both good and all-powerful, how can he allow us to suffer?
11 As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 3 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’”
4 They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, 5 some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” 6 They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. 7 When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. 8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. 9 Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted,
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
10 “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
11 Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.
“Instead of our garments, let us spread our hearts before him.” (Methodius)
The Power of Gentleness
Jerusalem was the envy of every two-bit king and conqueror in the middle east. A city on a hill, difficult to take, many men died trying to take that hill. Sometimes they won, but usually they lost.
On the rare occasions when a conqueror warlord managed to breach the walls of the holy city, they would inevitably make their way, sometimes pitched in hand to hand combat, to the temple, the heart of the city. These few conquerors would stride in on mighty war horses, flanked by troops and drenched in blood, either figuratively or literally. A militant leader might enter the temple grounds, take one look around, spit on the ground, and proceed to desecrate the holy place, the center of Hebrew life and faith, and the place where God almighty had promised His name would rest.
Today we read the story of a different kind of triumph over Jerusalem: the story of an unlikely conqueror who chose not to wield an iron sword, but the word of God; who chose not to attack His enemies, but to love them; who chose neither war horse nor a tank as his mount, but the humble foal of a donkey.
In a time when we are seeing Western culture quickly unravel in the wake of self-serving immorality and an unabashed ignorance of God, it is no surprise that we also observe conflict approaching war-like levels in politics and in the public social square. There is a sense that the very heart of the city is up for grabs, and whoever can overwhelm their opponents with the most violent speech and powerful hands will rule over their enemies for good.
On the left we have militant progressives shouting down and shaming any who dare to disagree with them; on the right we have violent conservatives who prefer to threaten their enemies rather than engage them in meaningful discussion. There’s not much love to go ‘round as the battle-axes of propaganda and pride are sharpened. Each side is convinced that violence – whether physical violence, political violence, ideological violence, or legal violence – can somehow magically vanquish their ideological enemies for good.
But that is not how conquest actually plays out. Any student of history knows that violent conquest always begets a more violent revolt. Any city taken by blood will ultimately be lost by blood. Violence always begets a more violent response. A people subjugated by force will always wait for an opportunity to counterstrike. It may take days, months, even years, but those who are conquered by blood will always rise up and beat back their oppressors by the same means they were conquered.
Offhand, you and I probably cannot name more than a handful of conquerors who stood in those same temple courts in Jerusalem, their robes and swords stained with the blood of conquest. But I bet you can name the One who came in gentle and lowly, riding on the foal of a donkey: Jesus the Nazarene.
Jesus shows us another way to conquer the strongholds of our supposed enemies: gentleness.
He shows us a means of conquest that lasts longer than violent insurrection. It is the conquest of gentleness, driven by love for those we call our enemies, that truly lasts. Rather than pouring gasoline on the bonfires of outrage, gentleness puts out the destructive fires – or at least makes them manageable as righteous anger, which may be applied without committing the sin of vengeance.
As we ponder today that we have been commanded by Jesus to be a people of gentleness rather than violence, I think it is important to make a few disclaimers about gentleness. Gentleness is often misunderstood, and I want to clarify a few points here. [You will find these points in your bulletin if you care to jot them down]
Gentle, not Weak
First, gentleness is not weakness. We would hardly say that Jesus, who calmed the winds and the waves of a sea tempest was weak. Gentle people are not necessarily weak; they are merely restrained. As a powerful horse can be bridled through discipline and self control, so too a human being who is submitted to the will of God can learn to control themselves and resist the temptation to resort to unnecessary violence. Someone who speaks softly can also find themselves in possession of a big stick.
Gentle, not Aimless
Second, gentleness is not aimlessness. Looking on from the outside it may seem that gentleness is a sign of no ambition. And yet, gentle people tend to be the most ambitious in life. They have a goal, and they are working toward it with faces set like flint. Like those who choose violence, gentle people often know what their goal is; they merely aim to achieve it differently. Instead of bludgeoning those in their way, they choose rather to persuade, and perhaps even win their enemies over to their way of seeing things by approaching them with kindness. Gentleness is not aimlessness.
Gentle, not Retreating
Third, gentleness is not retreating. Again, it may appear on the surface that a gentle person is surrendered to those who disagree with them, and not only has given up, but even agrees with their enemies. We have seen this in our current cultural debates over certain moral issues. Out of kindness for those they disagree with, many followers of Jesus have refused to speak out against one moral position or another. But we must be careful, for our silence is sometimes misunderstood as acquiescence and approval, and a retreat from positions we still hold firmly. We must take opportunities to remind those we disagree with that our silence, when we are silent, should not be misunderstood as agreement. More importantly, we should not hide behind gentleness as an excuse to remain silent or withdraw in front of evil, but should do the harder, holy work of finding ways to express our disagreement gently, but firmly.
To recap: being gentle does not mean we are weak, but that we keep our strength under control. Being gentle does not mean that we are aimless, but that we pursue our goals by peaceful means. And being gentle does not mean that we are in retreat from evil, but that we are engaged in battle on a different, spiritual plane.
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12)
On this Palm Sunday, especially because of the violent rhetoric we find ourselves immersed in, may we be reminded by Jesus’ gentle triumph; the conquest of violence and evil through the power of gentleness.
But there is one further dimension to this story of Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem that, given the messages we’ve received the past few weeks on the topic of suffering, warrants a closer look. Jesus knew he was entering the fire when he entered the city. He was fully aware that this path lined with peacoats and palm branches today would lead directly to his death in just a few days’ time.
And it raises a question about suffering that we have not yet addressed: Is there a time when we might, as Jesus did, choose suffering?
Some Hills are Worth Dying On
Suffering is never good, but it may, in rare cases, serve a good purpose. And in those cases we must acknowledge that some hills are worth dying on. Jesus, for example, knew that Calvary was a hill worth taking in order to redeem our souls. Just the same way, a soldier in a foxhole might lay down his life for his friends by laying on a hand grenade, or a parent might choose to suffer the hard labor of two or three jobs in order to give their children the chance of a better life.
I think we would all agree that, as Jesus did on Palm Sunday, there are times when we must say, “Yes, I will suffer for this. Yes, this hill is worth dying on. Yes, I will choose this painful road now because I know it will serve a higher purpose.”
We will all eventually come to walk that path of chosen suffering for a greater purpose, if we have not already. And like the path Jesus took into the city, it is a holy road. But as we make that winding journey on the road of holy suffering, we should take heed that there are two ditches, one on either side of the road that are decidedly unholy.
On the one side is the error of denial… avoiding the subject of our wounds altogether. Many of us have fallen into the trap of thinking that a life lived following Jesus should be modeled as a safe and sanitary life of ease, and therefore are tempted to cover over our wounds, to hide them underneath socially acceptable bandages. Such is not the case. A life lived in dedication and surrender to Christ will be full of trouble – Jesus promised as much in John 16:33 when he told his disciples: and we need not hide our wounds.
“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
It is an error and a ditch to think that we can follow Jesus and avoid the subject of our shared suffering altogether. It may not be suffering every day, or even most of the time, but we know that following Jesus means that we will ultimately find ourselves bearing His cross, and that we will sometimes find ourselves choosing to suffer for a higher purpose.
The second error, on the opposite side of the road, is to glorify suffering; to seek to dwell on suffering out as some sort of twisted hobby. Religion loves to take once-meaningful experiences and, through rote repetition, turn them into rituals, worshiping the form and forgetting the function and purpose. This is true of most everything religion has to offer, but especially true when it comes to rituals that memorialize and glorify suffering.
When I was a kid, we ate only fish on Fridays, because, like all devout Catholic families, we were supposed to be fasting. Don’t ask me how gorging myself on fish sticks counted as fasting, but that was what we did.
Fasting is a wonderful practice; in fact, that is just what it is – practice, as in training, as in exercise, as in preparation for facing real suffering without abandoning our faith in God. But like any exercise, fasting can be abused, and become an exercise that glorifies suffering for sufferings sake.
We must be careful that we do not glorify or impose suffering for sufferings’ sake. This is counter-gospel, bad news that takes away life rather than restores it.
By the same token, we must be very careful not to make others suffer needlessly, hiding behind weak authoritarian claims strung together like a tawdry necklace of half-truths extracted from scriptures taken out of context.
I am particularly sensitive here to the corrupt use of scripture to oppress others. When we agree that some suffering is worth risking for ourselves, we must never distort the holy word of God in order to impose suffering on others. A bad news gospel that glorifies suffering for sufferings sake can easily lead the powerful to exploit the vulnerable. Men do not have the right to abuse women or children under the pretext of righteous suffering. Counselors do not have the right to command the victim in an abusive relationship to simply bear their cross.
It is a manifestation of sinful pride to deliberately seek suffering, and even more reprehensible to tell others that they must suffer in order to please God. We must never glorify suffering to the place of a virtue in and of itself, allowing evildoers to conflate genuine discipleship with abuse and exploitation of the vulnerable.
There will certainly be times when, like the Lord, we must choose suffering for a greater purpose. As we travel the path of Christ, let us be careful to avoid the ditch of hiding our suffering, and the opposite error of glorifying it.
Today, as we conclude our time together, may each of us consider how we might join with Jesus on the road He is walking. Whether it is the road of some particular suffering, or perhaps a path of peace, may we be reminded that we do not walk the path alone, but that He is with us while we abide with Him.