When Jesus rode into Jerusalem that afternoon on the back of a colt, on one level he was looking for a rumble. The Palm Sunday procession was a protest march, a calculated bit of street theater that appropriates a series of metaphors from the prophets, the psalms, and the pages of the daily news. In the 10th century BCE, the Psalmist wrote, “Hosanna (or in English ‘Save us!’). Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” The prophet Jeremiah wrote two centuries later, “Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious… humble and riding on a colt.” And not too long before Jesus, a people’s revolt led by Simon Maccabeus had been celebrated with parades and the waving of palm branches. The stage and the props and the actors were set.
But Jesus’s battle was always with structures, not people—from beginning to end he believed that any individual could choose being good over being right. Surely one could see that the well-being of all was better than victory for some? Turn over the tables, then, if a system has become death-dealing! He showed his followers that religious observance and social status were not nearly as important as the authorities would have us believe. It was how you treated others that mattered most, and the depth of your loving was the measure of your worth. Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly, and you will be changed—and the world might change along with you.
Jesus spent the next week in the Temple courts in an increasingly difficult dialogue, holding the powers that be accountable for their actions, seeking justice and healing for all, inviting peace as a better and more lasting alternative to winning. And we know the rest of the story. As it turned out, the people didn’t want a man on a colt bringing peace, asking them to take salvation into their own hands. They wanted a king, and the authorities wanted a puppet whom they could control. Just about everyone was either disappointed in him, or angry, or both, and the mob grew thirsty for his blood.
The people who knew Jesus firsthand wanted salvation, but like most of us, they couldn’t grasp it when it was offered. We want to be delivered from our distress instead of being saved through it. Do you hear the difference? But there is no way around Good Friday, right, only a way through it? And for what it is worth, we have a companion who has gone there before.
What if the story of Jesus is that we have what we need to make the changes that we long for? What if the story of Jesus is that God is working through our agency the salvation of the world? What if the story of Jesus is that we are healed by love not only for ourselves but in order to love the other?
A God who suffers with us has shown us what it means to be truly human. Compassion is what saves us.