Palm Sunday Cynics

(A Lection Reflection on Luke 19: 28-40)

Fickle. Disloyal. Unreliable.

I’ve heard my fair share of sermons and devotionals that use such terms to describe the Palm Sunday crowd. You have too. I call them Palm Sunday Cynics.

“Here they are, waving palms and praising Jesus, and six days later they are shouting ‘Crucify him!'”

It’s an easy sermon to prepare and to preach — Palm Sunday and Good Friday make nice bookends and a sharp contrast. The perfidy of humankind — got it. And, since none of us would ever be part of that mob on Friday, it immediately becomes about those people, and we can sit back and enjoy, knowing we are not in the picture.

The quote above, though, is a false premise, which is obvious once you look at it. There is no one-to-one correspondence between the palm-wavers and the dust-throwers. The best we can assume is a Venn diagram, as there could have been some overlap between the two groups. But it’s just as likely that the bulk of those praising Jesus were nowhere near Pilate’s pronouncement “Behold your King!” No, we have to take it at face value: these people were sincerely praising Jesus.

But look what they called him: “King.” It’s the same word used for Herod or any other earthly king. Since they didn’t use “Messiah,” their praise was obviously ill-informed and shallow, and doesn’t count.

Yes, it’s true: they called Jesus the same Greek word used to refer to Herod or other kings. And yes, if you were to ask any random member of that crowd about their Christology, they would probably fall right into the Triumphalism wing of the theological spectrum.

And my response is: so what? Just because their understanding of Jesus wasn’t complete, or well-rounded, or to our liking, does that make their praise less valuable, less worthy? Do we look down on them for their ignorance, or celebrate the praise they offered?

Let’s be honest: we have all been guilty of looking down on the faith of another. If their form of worship, or their theology, or their sophistication, doesn’t meet our standards, we dismiss their devotion as so much noise. Just as we are prone to dismiss Palm Sunday as so much noise.

But it’s not just noise. Whatever their understanding of the Gospel, whatever their loyalty over time, whatever their sophistication or intelligence or wealth or any number of things we use to measure each other — these people were doing two important things:

  • They were taking time out of their day to pay attention to what Jesus (God) was doing.
  • They were praising God for it.

It is easy, too easy, to become cynical about the faith, and about the faithful. It is easy, too easy, to be judgmental and dismissive of others. And it is certainly easy to become jaded about the state of the church and the trustworthiness of praise, even praise of God.

As we move toward Holy Week, though, let us lay our cynicism on the same Lenten altar as our other sins and temptations. Let us name it as the slow-killing sin that is is.

Then let us celebrate the praise of those who looked on an everyday man on an everyday donkey, and saw the work of God.

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