Passover was like Israel's Independence Day. It was the festival that commemorated God's deliverance of Israel from its slavery in Egypt. It is thought that Psalm 118 was sung by those entering the city of Jerusalem during the Passover festival. You can almost see the movement of the people into the city in the Psalm itself. They begin at the bottom of the hill:
"Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; for His loving-kindness is everlasting. Oh, let Israel say, 'His loving-kindness is everlasting.' Oh let the house of Aaron say 'His loving-kindness is everlasting.' Oh let those who fear the Lord say, 'His loving-kindness is everlasting.'"As those singing make their way toward the city, they recount all that God has done for Israel; how God has defeated all of Israel's foes. Then as they approach the city gate they sing:
"Open to me the gates of righteousness; I shall enter through them, I shall give thanks to the Lord. This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it."Those celebrating then remember once again all that the Lord has done for Israel. They rejoice that even though Israel was the stone rejected by the builders of all other nations, God has chosen them to be the cornerstone of His kingdom. Perhaps now they are approaching the Temple at the center of the city, the center of the whole universe in Jewish thought, the place where God himself resides, saying
"Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. We have blessed you from the house of the Lord."The journey climaxes and find its goal with the sacrifice of the passover Lamb. This final sacrifice is where the procession has been headed all along.
"Bind the festival sacrifice with cords to the horns of the altar."And the Psalm concludes with the same words of praise with which it began.
"Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; for His loving-kindness is everlasting."Jesus must have made this journey into Jerusalem many times, maybe every year of his life when it came time for Passover. But the gospels only record in detail for us the last time Jesus would make this pilgrimage. And in this final trip into Jerusalem, Jesus finds himself as the centerpiece of the Independence Day parade. Just as feelings of nationalistic pride soar high in the U.S. on the 4th of July, so also Passover was a reminder for Jews of what God had done and a promise that he could do it again. These crowds had seen what Jesus could do; the healings, the casting out of demons, even raising the dead. Was there anything that Jesus could not do? Many in this crowd must have thought that not even the mighty Roman army could stand in Jesus' way. Maybe Jesus was coming to Jerusalem to claim his throne as king. So the air in Jerusalem is filled with shouts of Psalm 118
"Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!"And the crowd adds to this shouts of "Hosanna!" which means in Hebrew "Deliver us!" The crowds believe Jesus is the one sent to deliver them, to bring them independence once again, just as God had given Israel independence from Egypt at that first Passover meal so many years before. Then Jesus heightens expectations even further by making his way to the Temple. The Temple, besides being the place of prayer and sacrifice had also served as a symbol of kingly authority in the past. The Temple had been built by kings and other kings had solidified their rule through it. Perhaps Jesus would do the same.
But when Jesus arrives at the Temple, he does the last things that anyone expects. He starts tearing the place apart, turning over tables, and kicking people out. Jesus says that those in the Temple have taken what was supposed to be a house of prayer, a place where people seek God, and turned it into the exact opposite, a place where "religious people" could hide from the things that God really cares about.
This is the beginning of the end for Jesus and he knows it. After the triumphal entry and Jesus' actions in the Temple, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record Jesus' telling of the parable of the vine-growers. In this story, the vineyard owner sends a slave and then another slave and a third slave to collect his share of the prophets from the vineyard but the tenets beat all three and send them away empty handed. The owner finally sends his son but the tenets kill him. Jesus summarizes the story with the words of Psalm 118:
"The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone."Whereas it was Israel that was the rejected stone that God had chosen in Psalm 118, now the religious leaders are the ones rejecting Jesus who is the one that God has chosen. Jesus knows that even though he is God'a chosen one and even though just a few days ago all the people were welcoming him as king, his time is now short. In just a matter of a few days, the crowds which shouted "Deliver us!" will turn to shouting "Crucify him!"
Humanity hasn't changed much in 2000 years. We still have our parades to celebrate our independence. We still talk about how much we value freedom and liberty. And we should. But one of the painful truths of Palm Sunday is that we really only value certain kinds of freedom. We don't really want to be liberated from all of our slaveries. We want our political freedoms and the liberty to choose what we want. But what happens when all our choices become a kind of slavery themselves? We are perfectly happy to continue on in our slaveries of greed, nationalism, lust, and pride. We don't really want those chains to be broken. So as long as Jesus plays nice and gives us the freedoms we want then we'll ask him to deliver us. But if his liberating work begins to actually cause pain, if it demands sacrifice on our part, then like the Pharisees, we too begin to plot how we might get rid of Jesus.
In these final days of Lent, we must remember that to be a follower of Jesus is to be associated with a convicted rebel and criminal. To accept the liberation and freedom that Jesus brings is to accept the way that he brings it; through death, through the cross, through sacrifice. It is easy to join in the parade, singing God's praises and waving our palm branches, when we think that this march will end in the fulfillment of our own hopes and dreams but will we continue on this path when we find that the movement of this whole procession is a movement toward sacrifice?