Palm Sunday lays a question before us, maybe the most important question of all. As John Crossan and Marcus Borg describe it in The Last Week, it’s a question about two parades on the same day, one coming through the east gate of the city, the other through the west. The important question is, “Which gate?” Through the west gate, coming from Caesarea Maritima, comes the infantry and the cavalry, with the Governor, Pontius Pilate. It is a national festival, and the army is arriving to stifle any unrest, any thought of rising up against Rome.
Through the east gate comes an odd and ominous parade. Jesus of Nazareth enters on a donkey, laying claim to the city as anticipated by the prophet, Zechariah:
“Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant
and victorious is he, humble,
and riding on a donkey.
It is the first of a series of provocative actions, actions that spell trouble for the religious leaders and for Herod, actions that threaten their tenuous hold on the power they borrow from Rome. On Monday, he will return to Jerusalem and confront the temple authorities. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus calls the temple a “den of robbers”, quoting Jeremiah 7.11, which excoriates the religious authorities of that prophet’s time for treating the temple as a kind of “safe house” in which they can evade the consequences of their abominable behaviour.
On Tuesday he will chastise a group of Herodians for carrying a coin that bears the image of Caesar and ascribes divine status to him. That same day, he will denounce the Saducees (Mark 12.24-27), the chief priests (Mark 11.27-33) and the scribes (Mark 12.38-40).
On Wednesday, an unnamed woman anoints him for his death. Immediately before the anointing, we hear that the chief priests and scribes are looking for a chance to arrest Jesus “by stealth”, away from the crowds who revere and protect him. On Thursday, Judas gives them that chance. Finally, in the darkness, no longer surrounded by the crowds, soldiers take Jesus to a new place where he is surrounded by new crowds. In front of the high priest, at Herod’s home, facing Pilate, he is no longer protected by crowds who would have no access to this drama. Sleepless, beaten, and reviled by this other crowd, he stumbles to the Place of the Skull, Golgotha.
Which gate? You’d have to choose the west gate, wouldn’t you? That’s where the heavy hitters come in. That’s where the winners gather. That’s where “Who’s Who?” meet to look after “what’s what’. It’s the savvy, practical thing to do – to join the parade “most likely to succeed”. And by three o’clock on Friday afternoon, “what’s what” is very clear. Jesus, who twisted the nose of every authority in town, is dead. And yet we gather, every year, to remember the donkey parade.
And just in case we’re inclined to make the lines too clear, tempted either to despair (because we so easily choose the wrong gate) or smugness (because we can’t imagine ever making that mistake) the critical moment of recognition will come to a soldier of the Roman occupation, who exclaims “God’s son” as Jesus dies. The first evangelist came in the wrong gate! (And Judas came in the right one.)