I have a confession to make. I am a big fan of “Survivor.” It’s the only “reality” show I watch. I think what draws me to this show is the social element. I wonder if I could get along with complete strangers for forty days. The only time I know of a minister being on the show, he was the first one voted off that season. The survivors said he was too bossy and assertive. The present season of Survivor is called “Edge of Extinction,” and they have added a unique twist to the game. Once a person is voted out, and Jeff Probst snuffs their torch saying, “The tribe has spoken,” the rejected player walks down a dark lonely path. Eventually, he or she comes to a fork in the path. The player now has a choice to make. He or she can either return to all the comforts of home, or go to “Extinction Island,” for an unspecified amount of time, with a chance of getting back in the game. So far, every player voted out has chosen “Extinction Island.” I don’t think reality show are really that real. But the reality of making life-altering choices is real.
Have you ever been confronted with a serious either/or choice? I am referring to a choice where you are consciously aware by choosing one thing you are not choosing the other, and after the decision is made there is no turning back. It could be a choice between two competing career paths, or between two different people to spend the rest of your life with, or between two houses in two different neighborhoods, or between attending two different schools. What I am talking about is an either/or choice that you know will have lifelong consequences. These types of choices are neither easy, nor trivial. Keep this in mind as we look at Luke’s account of what we call “Palm Sunday.”
In reality, what happened on Palm Sunday was a juxtaposition of choice; an either/or decision had to be made by the people experiencing this day. Luke’s account begins, “After Jesus has said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem” (Luke 19:28). So, Palm Sunday comes in the context of Jesus’ teachings on His way to Jerusalem. What was Jesus teaching? What was He saying as He was “going up to Jerusalem?” His immediate teaching was a parable He told while eating in the home of Zacchaeus. Luke writes, “While they were listening to this, he (Jesus) went on to tell them a parable because he was near Jerusalem and the people thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once” (Luke 19:11). The people thought Jesus was going to Jerusalem to start a rebellion to overthrow the oppressive Roman government. They had been anticipating the arrival of the Messiah. Many were ready to fight the Romans, believing their Messiah would be a political/military leader. They thought Jesus had come to revolt! Jesus’ parable was meant to quell that excitement. It didn’t work!
In the parable, an aristocrat leaves his homeland to go to a distant country to be appointed king. Before he leaves, he gives ten of his servants a large amount of money with instructions to “put this money to work” (Luke 19:13). However, the perceived reputation among the servants of the aristocrat is that he was a “hard man” and unfair (Luke 19:21). Jesus says they “hated him and sent a delegation after him” to say to those who were going to appoint him king, “We don’t want this man to be our king” (Luke 19:14). The reason I said “perceived” is because ultimately Jesus is the aristocrat that was hated for being mean and unfair and we know He was neither.
When the aristocrat returns as king, the parable tells us what happened to three of the ten servants. One servant doubled the investment. The second servant significantly added to the investment. Both servants were rewarded for their faithfulness. But the third servant hid the investment. As a result, the king had him executed. (A summary of Luke 19:14-27.)
The point Jesus was trying to make was God’s kingdom was not going to happen suddenly, violently, or militarily; as the people anticipated. Rather, Jesus would going to leave for a while and then return as the King of kings, Lord of lords. In other words, the Kingdom of God is both now and not yet. God’s kingdom began with the arrival of Jesus, but His Kingdom will not be complete until Jesus returns in all power and glory. While we live in the in-between of the now and not yet, we are to be investing in God’s kingdom. How? By continuing to do what Jesus did—“preach good news to the poor…proclaim freedom for the prisoners…recovery of sight for the blind…release the oppressed…” (Luke 4:18), building outposts for the kingdom, praying—“Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth…” (Matthew 6:10); and, until our King returns, “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:19).
So, “After Jesus had said this, he went ahead, going up to Jerusalem. As he approached Bethpage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, ‘Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden (a young colt). Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ tell him, ‘The Lord needs it’” (Luke 19:29-31). Let’s stop and unpack this.
For centuries, the Jewish people had lived as second-class citizens in the Roman Empire. Some Jews were highly successful, but most were poor and oppressed. Life was not easy for them. From the time of the Maccabees, leading up to the time of Jesus, dozens, if not hundreds, of Jewish males had claimed to be the messiah and had led revolts in an attempt to overthrow Rome and re-establish the throne of David. The Roman Empire crucified them all.
The time of the year when rebellions and revolts and uprisings were most likely to occur was Passover Week. In an effort to quell any thoughts of revolt, in the days leading up to Passover Week, the Roman Army would march into Jerusalem with a powerful show of military force. A not so subtle way to say to the Jewish people, “Celebrate your Passover, but don’t start any trouble.” For the Romans, this was a sign of peace by force. But for the Jews, it was a reminder of Roman occupation.
Each spring (the time of Passover) Pontius Pilate would leave his ocean front home in Caesarea and travel to Jerusalem to “keep the peace” and squash any rebellion. Pilate would enter the city from the west, riding a powerful war stallion, with all the might of the Roman Army, the Imperial Calvary, following him. Pilate’s entrance into Jerusalem was a military parade, demonstrating the Imperial rule of the world through their superior capacity to wage war.
The same week Pilate entered from the west with a show of force, riding a war stallion; from the east, Jesus entered Jerusalem, followed by His twelve-disciples, riding a young colt. Do you see the intentional juxtaposition? “Jesus’ triumphal entry was the anti-military parade.” “Jesus entered Jerusalem from the opposite direction and in the opposite manner that Pilate entered the city.” Among other things, Palm Sunday was an intentional prophetic protest against the Empire.
Palm Sunday forces us to choose who we are going to follow. What kind of life are we going to live? Where will we look for security? In whom, or what, will we trust? Is our hope in our country, or is it in our Christ? It’s an either/or choice, not a both/and choice. And it’s a serious choice.
In reality, Palm Sunday is a call. First, it’s a call to declare your allegiance to either a Savior, or to the State. Remember, it’s either/or, not both/and. Luke continues, “Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’ They replied, ‘The Lord needs it.’ They brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it. As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road. When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!’ Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples!’” (Luke 19:32-39). By blessing Jesus as their king, the people were saying Caesar was not their king! This was a political protest! What they were saying was grounds for treason! The people where in an uproar. The crowd was on the verge of rioting. Remember, this is why Pilate and his military were there. The Romans would use force, if necessary, to calm things down. The tension in the air was thick. Thus, the religious leaders wanted Jesus to stop His demonstration before something bad happened. They were mad at Jesus because He was challenging the status quo. He was upsetting the systems in place that benefited them. The religious leaders were siding with power instead of siding with people. They were choosing the State over the Savior.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who sided with the Savior during the time of Hitler and paid for it with his life, said, “When Christ calls a man He bids him come and die.” Joshua challenged the Israelites saying, “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15). Jesus said, “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36). There is coming a day when all of us will have to ask, Are we American Christians, or are we Christians living in America. Palm Sunday forces us to choose sides.
Secondly, and along the same lines, Palm Sunday is a call to commit to either the kingdom of God or the Empires of this world. In response to the Pharisees rebuke, Jesus said, “I tell you…if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out” (Luke 19:40). The Jewish leaders were afraid there would be blood in the streets. Jesus proclaimed He would be worshiped one way or another. Jesus described the kingdom of God as a mustard seed that starts off small but grows large (Matthew 13:31-32). He also described it as “yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough” (Matthew 13:33). Through these stories, Jesus was telling us the kingdom of God cannot be stopped, even though it is small and primarily invisible. The kingdom of God may seem insignificant but it affects everything it touches. Empires will come and go, but God’s kingdom will endure forever. Are you following a Kingdom, or are you following an Empire? Are you investing in a Kingdom, or are you investing in an Empire?
Third, Palm Sunday is a call to weep over what is, instead of what could be. Luke writes, “As he (Jesus) approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it” (Luke 19:41). Jesus wept because He knew how most people would respond. He knew most people would reject Him. He knew, in a matter of days, He would be killed. He knew what could be, but He also understood what was. Likewise, when we see people reject Jesus and make wrong decisions and choose the material over the spiritual, it should break our hearts. Instead of the anger of condemnation we should cry tears of compassion. Matthew tells us when Jesus saw people, “he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). That should be our view of people as well. The Apostle Peter wrote, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
Fourth, Palm Sunday is a call to live at peace in a world of hostility. Why did Jesus weep? Because He knew the people were headed for destruction. Jesus continues, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you” (Luke 19:42-44). This was a prophecy about the Fall of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans in 70 A.D.
The time of Jesus was violent and volatile. It was not all “peace on earth, good will towards men” (Luke 2:14). The early church was birthed and grew through tremendous persecution. Today, our world is still violent and volatile and Christians everywhere are being persecuted. In the month of March alone, over 120 Christians were slaughtered by Muslim terrorist in Nigeria. Jesus prophesied all of this. By riding into town on a young colt instead of a war stallion, Jesus was modeling for us that the way to overcome violence is not with more violence but with love and peace and forgiveness.
Ultimately, Palm Sunday is a call to radical discipleship. It’s a call to be counter-cultural. It’s a call to go all in on following Jesus. It’s a call to quit playing games and to quit pretending and to radically commit your life to Him. It’s a radical call, and one that very few people can answer. Even in today’s story, the same group of people who blessed Him on Sunday, cried “Crucify Him” on Thursday. Why? What happened? What causes people to believe Jesus is the Messiah but reject His call to radical discipleship?
There are at least four causes, and all four causes can be gleamed for what happened to Jesus during Passover week: The first cause is cultural stress. Radical discipleship is not the norm. Not only is it not the norm in society, it is not even the norm in most churches. Peter gave into cultural stress and denied even knowing Jesus (Luke 22:54-62). If you answer Jesus’ Palm Sunday call to radical discipleship, you will experience rejection, ridicule, and rebuke. Answer the call anyway!
A second cause is political pressure. Pilate, the guy riding the war stallion, who entered Jerusalem with a military parade on the other side of town, whose job was squashing rebellions and crucifying the leaders of those rebellions, said of Jesus, “I find no basis of charge against him” (John 19:4). But he still caved into political pressure brought on him by the religious establishment, and handed Jesus over to be crucified. If you answer Jesus’ Palm Sunday call to radical discipleship, people will question your character and integrity and try to do you harm. Answer the call anyway!
A third cause is religious antagonism. Ultimately, the Roman government crucified Jesus but they did so in an attempt to keep peace by appeasing the Jewish establishment. If you answer Jesus’ Palm Sunday call to radical discipleship, your biggest critics might be religious people. Answer the call anyway!
A fourth cause is personal weakness. Ultimately, Jesus is calling you, and it is only you who can answer or reject His call. If you don’t respond, you only have yourself to blame. By the time Jesus was crucified, His only followers that stayed to the end was John, Jesus’ mother, and some very strong women. Out of fear, or personal weakness, everyone else deserted Him. If you answer Jesus’ Palm Sunday call to radical discipleship there will be times when you are afraid, tired, and ready to quit. Answer the call anyway!
In his groundbreaking book, Postcards from Babylon: The Church in American Exile, Pastor Brian Zahnd writes, “What we see on Palm Sunday are two parades. One from the west and one from the east. One where (Pontius Pilate) rides a warhorse and one where God’s anointed Messiah rides a donkey. One is a military parade projecting the power of empire—the Roman Empire. The other is a prophetic parade announcing the arrival of an alternative empire—the kingdom of God. One parade derives its power from a willingness to crucify its enemies. The other derives its power by embracing the cross and forgiving its enemies. One is the perpetuation of the domination systems of empire. The other is the only hope the world has for true liberation. The question is, which parade will we march in?…One parade is led by some dude on a horse…and those who follow are armed with swords…The other parade is led by a king on a donkey and those who follow are armed with nothing more deadly than palm branches. The people in each parade think the people in the other parade are persisting in absolute folly—so you’ll have to make up your own mind about which parade you want to march in.”
Palm Sunday. A call to radical discipleship. Will you follow the One on a young colt or will you follow the guy on a war horse? It’s your decision. How will you answer the call?
 Brian Zahnd, Postcards from Babylon, Spello Press, p. 90. Much of the information about what took place during Passover comes from this book.
 From The Cost of Discipleship.