Everyone who has ever been to a football game or a political rally or a rock concert knows that there is a peculiar feeling you get from being in a large group of
excited people. It’s intense. Crowds take on characteristics of unity almost as if every person is just part of one big organism. They can do the wave or clap in unison (as they do at concerts in Eastern Europe).
Big crowds make police nervous. Things can happen; they can get out of control. Peaceful demonstrations can quickly become violent if the right spark occurs. Look at how nervously and tragically desperate the governments have been when huge crowds take to the streets in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain. Yesterday in Zagreb, Croatia too.
Passover Memories & Hopes
So it was at Passover time in Jerusalem. Lots of people; multitudes. They are excited to be there. They have come from all over the country to this important religious event. They are full of Passover meals, passover stories, passover hopes.
When they gather to share the Passover meal, they re-tell the story. They remember together how it all started. “There we were, long ago, filthy, exhausted, aching, hungry slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but one night, God came, and delivered us! Next thing you know we were crossing the Red Sea into freedom! God saved us from Pharaoh!”
They could not tell that story often enough. “Memory is hope,” so they say. It gets you worked-up just thinking about it.
It had happened once; in fact it had happened twice! They had been conquered and captured by the Babylonians too. For seventy years they were away from their land while their temple lay in ruins. But God saved them from the Babylonians! They returned, they rebuilt.
In fact, God had saved them a third time when they threw off the yoke of the Greeks in the great Maccabean War. What a day that was when Simon the Maccabee came riding into Jerusalem triumphantly on a war horse as people waved palm branches in celebration.
So now, here they all are, crowding each other to get to that re-built temple for another Passover celebration. Tensions are high on the streets. Everybody is thinking the same thing: “God could do it again. If he wanted to, God could do to the Romans what he did to the Egyptians, the Babylonians, and the Greeks. God could save us from the Romans!”
What the Romans Know
The Romans are no fools. They know what Passover celebrates. They know what Liberation memories do inside the heads of conquered people. They know
crowds, and they know about crowd-control.
So each year at Passover, Pilate leaves his sea-side palace and comes to Jerusalem for Passover. He does not travel alone, nor lightly. He comes with horses, with chariots, with armored soldiers. They march down the road; the earth trembles. The sun reflects off of their helmets and shields, their armor clanks in rhythmic time with their marching.
You can feel their collective power. You know that they know how to use those swords and spears. You know they feel no qualms of conscience about using them. It’s a show of force with a specific intention: prevention by intimidation. Works every time. Or nearly every time.
Pilate and all of that power with him march into Jerusalem from the West. The East side of Jerusalem faces the hill famously called the Mount of Olives, known for its groves of olive orchards. It’s an old name, as old as the nation of Israel. Even the old prophets called it the Mount of Olives. Zechariah had prophesied boldly:
3Then the LORD will go forth and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle. 4 On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which lies before Jerusalem on the east” Zech. 14:3-4
So Pilate and all his power is coming down the hill from the West towards Jerusalem, while at the same time, a mirror parade is coming down from the East. From the Mount of Olives comes Jesus and company. The scene is almost comic. There he is, riding a donkey colt, not a big war horse like Pilate’s. His colt does not pick up his hooves in stately parade manner. In fact this young donkey has never been ridden; it’s not happy to have its first rider. It doesn’t cooperate easily.
People notice this awkward scene, but they start getting ideas. They start shouting. The crowd forms. They get branches and start waving them. They start lining the lane with their coats like you would for a king’s entrance. Could this be the king that Zechariah spoke of?
“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” – Matt 21:5 (Zechariah 9:9)
They start shouting in unison, “Hosanna” or, in English, “Lord, Save us! Lord, Save us!”
“Save us” from what?
It is crucial to notice that there was a huge disconnect between what the people on that parade route were wishing for and what Jesus had in mind. He was not on a war horse like Pilate, he was on a donkey – a colt! He was not coming with heavy weapons, in fact he was completely unarmed. It’s as if everything about Jesus’ parade was a mockery of Pilate’s power-politics parade. Was that all he was mocking?
Clearly the people shouting “Hosanna” that day wanted to be saved from the Romans. Just as clearly Jesus knew they needed to be saved from themselves. Jesus had told them numerous times in a number of different ways that the path of armed revolution was the path of disaster. Yes, he was mocking that plan as much as he was mocking Pilate as he rode that ornery little beast.
There is more to it, of course, but let us stop right here and notice this: Jesus heard their cries of “Lord, save us” and knew that first they needed to be saved from themselves. That the path they were on was going to end in ruin (which of course, it did, just a bit later).
All the gospels show us this strange contradiction between what the people meant and what Jesus meant by “Lord, save us.” Maybe we need to look at that and put ourselves in this story.
How many times have we heard ourselves say “Lord save us” with a very specific plan in mind for how he needs to do it? But could it be that God wants first to save us from ourselves?
“Lord, Save us!” (from ourselves!)
I wish God would save us from our short-sightedness.
As a culture, we are like people putting off the visit to the dentist. We seem to wait to the very last minute to act, when it’s probably too late, and end up with tragic results.
For example, we all know that the path out of poverty is hopelessly road-blocked without high quality education, but look at how we choose to run our schools
in poor parts of our nation. And we expect them to turn out people equipped to escape poverty? Lord, save us from short-sightedness.
We all know that people with no legitimate means of escaping poverty will turn to illegitimate means, drugs, crime, violence. But we prefer to wait and then spend our money on police, courts and prisons, rather than on effective prevention. Lord, save us from short-sightedness.
We all know that poor sick people end up in our emergency rooms, where the care they receive is the most expensive in the world. But we would rather wait and spend the money on emergency room care than on effective health care that would prevent the need for much of it. Lord, save us from short-sightedness.
We all know that a welfare system that penalizes marriage creates an incentive for single parent families – and we all know that statistically they produce children that do less well in school, have more sick days, have lower graduation rates, and are more likely to be poor and need assistance. Lord, save us from short-sightedness.
We all know that outrageous medical malpractice settlements produce out of control price increases in medical care for all of us, but we won’t cap them. Lord, save us from short-sightedness.
We all know that conducting off-budget wars makes a mockery of financial responsibility as if nobody will have to pay the bill if it’s not written in the budget. Lord, save us from short-sightedness.
Adolescent Freedom Obsession
There are all kinds of ways in which we need to be saved from ourselves.
I wish God would save us from our adolescent-like obsession with freedom, as if being told “no” was a fate worse than death.
We all know that there will always be people who will be as bad as they are allowed to be – lots if them. And yet in the name of freedom we pretend that regulations are not needed. As if people who are in a position to ruin everything would never be bad.
As if, for the sake of short term financial gain, they would never risk our jobs, our pensions, our health, our whole economy, or our planet. As if banks, oil companies, mining companies, investment companies, gun sellers and all the rest were all self-disciplined saints immune from temptation. Lord, save us from ourselves.
There are so many ways in which we need to be saved from ourselves. From our cultural obsessions with sex, and with violence. From our blindness to our own greed and selfishness. From our judgmentalism and presumptuous unwillingness to forgive others. From our double standards that hold people guilty for the very things we excuse in ourselves. From our hostility to people who look differently, speak differently, or don’t fit the standard mold. Lord, save us from ourselves.
Let this be our Palm Sunday prayer, “Come to us, Lord, on Palm Sunday, mocking our self-destructive plans with your little donkey. Hear our cries of “save us” and take them seriously; save us from ourselves, O Lord. Hosanna!”