“Hosanna” is a shortened form of a Hebrew phrase, a plea that means “save us, deliver us!” Christians hears this word every year on Palm Sunday, and this year from Matthew’s account of the Gospel (Mt. 21:1-11).
Jesus has come from Galilee and has just crossed the border into Judea. He has brought a large crowd with him, and as they march into Jerusalem together, the crowds cry out: Hosanna! Save us! Deliver us!
How very strange to see these jubilant marchers become a hostile mob shouting “Crucify!” The jarring shift happens every year at the beginning of Holy Week; in Matthew’s account, these crowds were no longer marchers but bystanders (Mt. 27:11-66).
I remember hearing, many years ago now, an NPR commentary about the news coverage of O. J. Simpson’s infamous attempt to flee policy custody in a white Ford Bronco. The commentator linked the development of cable news shows to that June afternoon in 1994 as people lined Los Angeles streets and sat glued to their television sets.
“We are becoming,” that commentator said, “audienced.”
As if gathered in bleachers to watch the big game, or perhaps more comfortably at home, safe on our couches, we now view the world from a distance.
This all sounded a bit melodramatic to me back then. But the situation has only grown more severe: the Internet, the World Wide Web, smart phones, social media. We can watch acts of gendered violence or racial hatred on our phones, as if going to an afternoon matinee, and then head out to dinner. Migrants and refugees, shooters in schools, factory farms and ecosystem destruction—for all this and more, we are more surely bystanders; we have become “audienced.”
I thought of that analysis as I pondered Matthew’s stories for Palm Sunday. Rather than wondering how the crowd could turn so quickly from adulation to accusation, I suddenly realized instead that these were not the same people; these were different crowds.
Some of the people in each crowd probably overlapped, like a Venn diagram. But by and large, those marchers and those bystanders were not the same people. This startled me; it was like seeing a black-and-white movie rendered into brilliant Technicolor. It changes so much, nearly everything.
So who were these people who processed with palms into Jerusalem, who marched with defiance into the Holy City so long ago?
Once you start asking that question, Matthew readily supplies the answer: they were not the clergy, like me, the religious leaders who worried about proper piety and strict observance of religious standards; nope, they weren’t marching.
Neither were the wealthy merchants who worried about disrupting the business cycle and shrinking their profit margins. In the very next story, Matthew shows us the moneychangers who stayed in the temple; they weren’t marching.
The Romans were certainly not out there, not the soldiers or the imperial officials; they were worried about a riot and disturbing the peace.
All of these—or at least most of them—audienced themselves that day; they chose the sidelines; they decided to be bystanders, simply to “stand by” as the parade passed by.
Well, then, who exactly were these people who marched so audaciously with Jesus into Jerusalem?
Mathew’s pretty clear about this throughout his whole account of the Gospel: the marchers were most certainly the poor—or to be clearer, the ones with nothing left to lose. They ripped palms off the trees and tossed them in front of Jesus like a party had just come to town. And the working classes and day-laborers were out there with them; not today’s electricians or plumbers but the stable cleaners and fishnet-menders. Let’s not forget the prostitutes and sex workers (all those “dirty” people), and probably a good number of tax collectors, who usually didn’t have any friends—these were the ones shouting Hosanna!
“Save us!” they cried, as Jesus rode a donkey into the Holy City, as if he were a king.
These were the ones who had come with Jesus from Galilee, the ones who had shared meals with him (even though they weren’t supposed to); the ones who got into boats with him and sat on hillsides with him while he broke bread and multiplied fish and had finally found their place, with him.
These parade-goers were the “outside agitators,” the trouble-makers who had nothing to lose if the empire fell, or the system collapsed, or the banks crashed; to the contrary, they had everything to gain from the coming Kingdom of God—and they had already tasted it around tables of shared meals.
As I think back on every congregation I have been in over the years, including the one I am now privileged to serve as rector, all of us have quite a lot to lose; it’s unlikely any of us would have been in that parade. And this isn’t accidental.
There are powerful forces in this world—imperial, corporate, moneyed—forces that will not relent in trying to “audience” us, to make us passive, acquiescent, and comfortable. That’s how they make profits and secure their power—it really is as crude as that, and it always has been, which is why the Palm Sunday narrative is a classic.
I am now plagued by another question: who am I in the Gospel story? Or more importantly, who do I want to be? (Just being able to ask such questions is itself a pricey privilege.)
As most Christians around the world enter our holiest of weeks, do we want to be mere bystanders—audienced—in the Gospel? Or, do we want to be “discipled”?
To live the Gospel of Jesus Christ is to follow a road toward the Cross, not merely to watch from the curb. It’s not an easy road to travel, not at all (even though it’s carved by an unimaginable grace). We can’t take very much with us on this road and we have to leave a lot behind; it’s pretty scary.
And I’ve come to see (far too slowly over the years) that the only way to travel this road is to do so with others, with companions—a lovely word that refers to those with whom we break bread.
Of all weeks, this one just now beginning is the time to resist that worn-out and utterly toxic supposition of modern Western society that we must always fend for ourselves, buck up and undertake arduous journeys on our own strength.
Traveling with others not only—as the old cliché has it—makes the burden lighter, it’s also how we learn why love is worth the truly hard work and also just how much we’re willing to risk for it (the answer is everything).
Yes, this road to the Cross is a hard one, and it’s scary. This also is true: it’s the only road that leads to Easter.
So let’s walk it together.