Summary: Palm Sunday helps us correctly understand humility in relationship to others, and Christian vocation in relationship to God. The following discourse is based upon one of the first sermons I preached, a “Palm Sunday” sermon given many years ago.
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There are very many New Testament scriptural admonitions to humility; for example, Paul writes: “By the grace given to me I bid everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith which God has assigned him” (Romans 12:3). And in 1 Peter 5:5-7 we read: “Likewise you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders. Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for ‘God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble’. Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.” We must not, however, confuse genuine “humility” with weakness and/or obsequiousness. Popular 20th Century theologian C. S. Lewis once observed, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less.” I will explain.
We know that Jesus intends for us to be humble. He was a model of humility in all that He said and did. But was riding into Jerusalem on a humble donkey (see Matthew 21:7) rather than on a noble horse on that first “Palm Sunday” a gesture of His humility, peace, and goodwill, as is so often said? Or, rather than being “humble”, was Jesus going out of His way to call attention to Himself, and if so, why?
The Palm Sunday entrance into Jerusalem as described in all four Gospels is in fact a rather provocative thing for Jesus to have done, not at all humble in the sense of not drawing attention to oneself. Jesus was most certainly not being humble in the way the chief priests, scribes and some of the Pharisees so often wanted Him to be “humble”; i.e. submissive to man rather than to God even when man opposes God’s purposes. Still, I’m sure there will be many sermons preached this Sunday on the significance of that little donkey as a symbol of humility, peace and goodwill, missing the more provocative overtones of what Jesus was doing.
My message this morning will not reinforce this interpretation. There is more going on, a dissonance between our Master’s actions that day, which in fact were deeply humble, and our usual understanding of humility. And there are more than a few New Testament scholars who agree. William Barclay, for example, made this statement: “Jesus entered Jerusalem in a way that deliberately set himself in the center of the stage and deliberately riveted every eye upon himself. All through his last days there is in his every action a kind of magnificent and sublime defiance; and here he begins the last act with a flinging down of the gauntlet, a deliberate challenge to the authorities to do their worst.”
Many pastors seem to resolve some of the issues raised on Palm Sunday by skirting the provocative entry and jumping immediately to the passion narrative which follows. The emphasis of the sermon then becomes the innocence of Jesus, as pointed out in Isaiah and by Pilate himself, and how the death of an innocent was the only possible substitutionary ransom sufficient to pay humanity’s “sin debt”. And of course all of this is true, and makes for a meaningful sermon. What is lost, however, is the rich historical context, the original direct language of the evangelist in this matter, and, of course, the explanation of Christian humility that I will be advancing today.
The triumphal entry is really a “provocative entry” meant to trigger the events of Good Friday, for in their exuberance the people welcomed Jesus as if her were their king. The Psalm Sunday processional is often referred to as the “Triumphal Entry”, but there was no triumph at the end of the day, no mass uprising, no overthrow of the Roman occupation, no setting up of Christ’s kingdom. Instead, the result of the “Provocative Entry” was that a corrupt religious hierarchy was backed into a corner, and the opportunity presented to them to strike out against Jesus with the charge of treason against Rome (see Luke 23:1-5).
Pilate, the Roman governor, had no appetite to put Jesus to death (see Luke 23:13-16). It is obvious that he never believed for a moment that Jesus actually intended to raise a revolt against Roman rule. He tried to get Jesus off the hook by giving him the opportunity to disavow the whole thing, but Jesus offered nothing in His own defense. The religious hierarchy continued to pressure Pilate by inciting a mob which demanded that Jesus be crucified. Pilate found himself backed into a corner and eventually capitulated, giving in to the demands of the mob that Jesus be crucified (see Luke 20-24).