John 12:12-19 “Why the Palms?”

Byron Rohrig, an Indiana Methodist minister, tells of an interesting meeting he had with his worship committee as they gathered to plan for Holy Week and Easter services. The budget was very tight that year because the church was behind in its contributions. Someone asked, “Is there any way to avoid paying a buck for each palm branch this year?” The pastor replied, “Sure,” and went on to explain that only John’s Gospel mentions palms in connection with Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem. Matthew and Mark say simply that the people cut branches from trees and from the fields and Luke doesn’t mention branches at all. The pastor suggested that the committee members think from what trees or shrubs they would cut branches in their community if Jesus were coming to their town. After several brainstorms, one man known for his frugal practicality if not taste suggested pussy-willows. After all, they would be out in early spring and since he always had an abundant supply around his pond, he would be glad to donate all the church needed. Another member of the committee, known for her appreciation of decorum and tradition, squirmed uncomfortably at the thought of forty kids waving pussy-willows at the beginning of Holy Week. Others chuckled until someone asked the pastor, “Why the palms? What do the palms mean? You told us a couple of Sundays ago that when reading the Gospel of John, we should always look for the symbolic meaning behind the words.” The pastor, pleased as punch that someone had actually listened to one of his sermons, told the committee what the palms meant.

Those waving the palms that day would have had a two-hundred- year- old story in mind. In 167 B.C.E., the Jews were ruled by a brutal foreign king named Antiochus IV Epiphanes. This unbelievably cruel king vigorously tried to stamp out the Jewish religion and committed sacrilege after sacrilege, including sacrificing a pig to the pagan god Zeus in the Jewish Temple. He even tried genocide in his attempt to wipe out the Jewish race. (I Maccabees goes into horrendous detail about the torture and slaughter of Jewish men, women, and children by Antiochus.)

One family, led by its aging father Mattathias, began a guerrilla campaign against Antiochus’ soldiers. Mattathias died early in the campaign, but his son Judas Maccabeus was able within three years to retake and rededicate the Temple. (The Jewish holy day of Hanukkah celebrates this rededication.)

But the fighting continued between Antiochus and the Maccabeans. Judas was killed in battle as was another brother Jonathan. Finally, a third brother Simon through military might and diplomacy was able to achieve independence for his people. Of course, there was a great celebration. We read in I Maccabees 13:51, “On the twenty-third day of the second month, in the one hundred and seventy-first year, the Jews entered Jerusalem with praise and palm branches, and with harps and songs to receive Simon, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel.”

The palm tree became the symbol of Jewish nationalism. Coins were minted by the Maccabeans to celebrate their victory, and on these coins was displayed a palm branch representing Jewish pride and nationalism. A century after Jesus when the Romans defeated the Jews in the third Jewish-Roman war, Roman coins were minted to celebrate this victory. Only this time the coins had the image of a Jewish slave kneeling before a Roman soldier with a broken palm branch across the top of the coin, indicating the complete demise of any Jewish hopes of independence.  

So, the crowds welcomed Jesus as their new warrior king and conquering hero by waving palm branches, reminiscent of the last time a leader gained national independence. Something similar had occurred previously in John’s Gospel. In chapter six we read of a crowd of 5000 who were fed by Jesus. (This is John’s version of the feeding of the 5000.) Instinctively the crowd considered the implications of this miracle. A man who could feed multitudes from a boy’s sack lunch would be the leader for them. He could feed their armies, heal the sick and wounded, and even raise the dead to fight again. Their excitement grew until John tells us that “perceiving that they were about to come and make him king, Jesus withdrew.”

The same type of situation is happening with the palms. Jesus tries by riding on a donkey (a symbol of peace and humility) to teach his disciples and the crowds surrounding him what he was about. (Read Zechariah 9:9-10 for the background to this enacted parable.) But he is met with the sin of worship without understanding. They simply did not recognize what kind of Messiah he was.

And of course the question for us is, “Do we understand any better today?” I’m not so sure we do. The impoverished peasants of Central America, the starving masses in Africa, the political prisoners in China, the homeless on American streets (some of whom are abandoned or discarded children and teenagers surviving through prostitution and dealing drugs)—all these would question whether the world or the church understands any better than that first crowd waving their palms. And as we focus on ourselves, our misguided values, and skewed priorities when it comes to the almighty dollar, we must ask if we understand a Messiah riding on a donkey of peace and humility.

It’s so very hard for us to see how we have duplicated the error of nation after nation and empire after empire in the history of Christianity from Constantine to Charlemagne to Colonial Empires. We do not want to take Jesus as he is, so we do our best, like so many other people before us, to receive him on our terms, to baptize him into our nationalistic and consumeristic value systems, and to color him red, white, and blue (or green, the color of our favorite idol, money). We too confuse the Kingdom of God with the narrow interests of self and country.

So, perhaps we should wave our palm branches because we do not understand him either. But is it possible that in John’s Gospel, the palms represent more than this misunderstanding? Does John have more in mind with the symbol of the palm branches? I think he does. The irony of the palm branches is that Jesus is the Conqueror of the world, the Deliverer of humankind, the Ruler of the universe. He is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. But he conquers through love, not war. He rules through peace and humility, not pomp and force. He delivers through sacrifice, not sword.

John, as if in one last attempt to communicate the truth about Jesus, reports the dialogue between Pilate and Jesus. Pilate asks, “Are you King of the Jews?” Jesus responds, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight. But my kingship is not of this world.” (John 18:33-38)

A king—yes; a conqueror, yes—a deliverer, yes. But he is unlike any other king who has ever come our way. So it is possible to wave the palms with understanding—with a real sense of who this Jesus is—with a legitimate comprehension of his kingship and the nature of his Peaceable Kingdom.

Perhaps this is not a bad way to enter Holy Week, sensitive to and conscious of our mixed reception of this strange king. For it is only as we follow him from the outskirts of Jerusalem to the hill of Golgotha to the empty tomb of Easter that we can see the nature of his kingship and appreciate his extraordinary claim: “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all to myself.” There we can see the total victory of God’s love for us. This week may God give us the courage to move from palm waving to cross bearing as we follow this strange king.

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