As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.” This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: “Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?” The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”
If a person not versed in ancient languages were to attempt to decipher the meaning of the word “hosanna” as it is typically used in church services and contemporary worship music, they might guess it means something like “Yay God!”. The word “hosanna” is an English transliteration of the Greek ὡσαννά. In Hebrew, the word is הושיעה נא , which has the root meaning of “save” or “rescue”. That’s how the word is usually translated in the Psalms, where the Psalmist implores God for help. So when the crowds shouted “Hosanna!” as Jesus rode into Jerusalem, what they were really saying was “Save us!” or “Rescue us!’ It was a cry for help.
Life was not good for the people of God in the first century, and hadn’t been so for centuries as they suffered under the whims of one brutal occupying power after another. They longed for a liberator along the lines of the great military leader and king David, who had reigned a thousand years earlier, and whose memory had faded into the mists of legend. This liberator…this messiah….would drive out those nasty Romans once and for all and peace and prosperity would come again. Everyone would live under their own vine and fig tree, with no one to make them afraid. The miracle-worker Jesus certainly seemed to fit the bill. As a descendent of David, he had the right bloodlines, and he had a reputation for doing things the people liked. He went around the countryside healing people of physical, mental, and spiritual disease, and sometimes providing them with a free lunch as well. If the rumors were to be believed, he had even raised the dead. No wonder they lined the streets crying, “Hosanna!….Save us!”
But the kind of salvation Jesus was bringing wasn’t what the majority of people expected or wanted. They expected a military messiah who would establish his kingdom by force. Jesus was not that kind of king, and the kingdom of God was and is not that kind of kingdom. The kingdom of God comes not through the love of power, but the power of love. When the ecstatic expectations of the cheering crowd were not realized, they turned into disappointment and then to anger against the one who had not done what they wanted him to do. And so the same people who shouted “Hosanna” on Palm Sunday were quick to shout “Crucify him!” less than a week later.
It’s the same today, isn’t it? When life becomes hard, we look for a way out. We want God, or the government, or a charismatic leader, somebody, anybody, to get us out of trouble right away. And when that doesn’t happen, or doesn’t happen quickly enough, we tend to get angry, and often at the wrong people. We have certainly seen this thought process play out in all kinds of ways in the past few months. Some grasp at every straw of a rumor of a quick cure for the coronavirus. Some blame and attack everyone who appears to be of Asian ancestry. Things aren’t the way we expected or wanted them to be, and we are quick to cry out both “Save us now!” and “Crucify!”
The palm-waving crowds were looking for a shortcut into the promised Kingdom of God, which they expected Jesus to deliver quickly and easily and at minimal cost to themselves. I am extremely mistrustful of populism, whether it comes from the right or the left sides of the political spectrum. Populism is quick to jump on board with those who promise easy solutions to difficult problems, and just as quick to abandon ship when the promised salvation does not come quickly or easily., or costs more than we are willing to pay. I wonder how many of the people in that crowd actually paid attention to what Jesus taught. Jesus never promised his followers an easy life. In fact, he often said that following him would be quite difficult, was not a choice to be made lightly, and that his followers were likely to be quite unpopular.
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
“You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way.”
“And whoever does not carry his cross and follow Me cannot be My disciple. Which of you, wishing to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost to see if he has the resources to complete it”
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me.…
It’s particularly interesting to note that Jesus’s statement about the narrow and the wide gate in Matthew 7:13 follows directly after he gave us what we have come to call the Golden Rule in Matthew 7:12:“In everything, then, do to others as you would have them do to you. For this is the essence of the Law and the Prophets. ” That sounds so simple, yet in practice is so hard. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that we don’t even come close to living like this. Like the crowds lining the road into Jerusalem, we aren’t looking for someone to save us from our own selfishness, only from the consequences of selfishness. When selfishness is multiplied by a factor equal to the population of the world, a lot of very bad things are the result. Income inequality, crime, pollution, violence and war, global warming…most of the biggest problems we face have their roots in the grasping selfishness that arises from egocentricity. Just imagine what the world might be like if in every situation, everyone followed the Golden Rule. (There would be no hoarding of toilet paper, for one thing!)
Jesus was and is the promised Messiah, but the salvation he brings isn’t what the people of his time expected or wanted, and sometimes I wonder if we don’t make the same mistake today. Jesus didn’t come to make life easy or comfortable for a select few in the short term, but to address the root problem of all that is wrong with everyone in the whole world. He came to set the wheels in motion to correct the world’s trajectory, which was headed toward destruction and death, and set it instead on a path of “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” And he left us with instructions to follow the trail he blazed for us, to live like he did, to treat others the way he did, with love and compassion and the realization that we are all connected. “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
Sometimes I also wonder if Jesus didn’t make a mistake by leaving matters in flawed human hands, because we haven’t done such a good job of following the path he laid out for us. We keep wandering off the trail he marked for us into the wilderness of our own self-interest, and getting lost. We can no more follow the one simple rule Jesus gave us than the one simple rule God gave Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. We have not loved God with our whole heart and we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves. We have failed both in what we have done and what we have left undone. As a result, things are pretty messed up in our personal lives and the world as a whole. We are all in need of saving, and not just from coronavirus.
But God doesn’t give up on us, and never will. Jesus’s journey to the cross demonstrates just how far God is willing to go for us. Jesus’s resurrection assures us that God will ultimately be successful in putting right all that has gone wrong. Good will eventually triumph over evil, in spite of all our failings. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
And that’s good news to me.