Posted by: Philip Rushton | April 18, 2011

Riding Colts Down American Thoroughfares: How Palm Sunday informs our engagement with culture.

Palm Sunday is an odd celebration. I do not always know what to make of it. When we sing “hosanna” and wave palm branches we knowingly align ourselves with a celebration that was misguided from the get go. These first worshipers misinterpreted Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem. They expected Jesus to overthrow the government while he was coming to overthrow the power of sin and evil. They expected a political leader while Jesus intended to lead the whole world to eternal salvation.

I suppose it is appropriate for us to align ourselves with these misguided followers. Like them, we often fail to perceive Jesus correctly. We often limit Jesus’ influence to a single political agenda or we think he is a means towards immediate earthly prosperity. So maybe the procession on Palm Sunday could be viewed as a confession – a time where we recognize that we do not always follow the real Jesus. Maybe it functions as an opportunity for our vision to be corrected.

Or perhaps we should take our cue from Jesus rather than from the celebrants. Ched Myers suggests that Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem functions like a public liturgy. A liturgy is a formal act of worship. Jesus is taking a formal worship event and enacting it in the public square. He makes intentional plans, sets the scene, and commences his parade in order to make a statement about himself to the world.

Through this dramatic parade into Jerusalem, Jesus tells the world that he is a different kind of messiah than they expect. Myers argues, “the parade is filled with conflicting signals, as if it intends to be a satire on military liberators” (1). On the one hand, Jesus is playing into the messianic expectations of the day. He departs “at the mount of Olives,” which has associations with the final battle between Israel and its enemies in some of the apocalyptic literature of the day. Jesus also enters to the waving of palm branches and shouts of praise. This event makes connections to Simon Maccabaeus, who two centuries earlier entered Jerusalem, “with praise and palm branches and with hymns and songs” (1 Mac 3:51). Maccabaeus was a rebel general who used military prowess to liberate Palestine from Greek rule (2).

On the other hand, Jesus’ entry is different. Jesus does not come as a well armed king on a stallion or even a grown donkey. Instead he rides in on a small colt. A colt is a baby donkey and functions as a symbol of humility. The colt picks up on the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9, which points forward to a humble king who will enter on a colt and bring peace. Jesus, then, enacts the role of a coming king but profoundly reinterprets it. He is not coming with military power, he is coming to overthrow evil through non-violence and sacrifice.

Ched Myers suggests that the Palm Sunday story should inform how we represent Christ in our culture. Myers writes, “Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem suggests that our liturgical actions may also at times belong in the public square” (3) He evokes examples like that of Martin Luther King Jr. who stood up to the powers of hatred and racism through non-violent marches. He tells the story of a group 30,000 people who marched through Washington DC and wrapped a peace ribbon around all the major landmarks. This took place on the 40th Anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and was intended to be statement against the dangers of the nuclear arms race. These are examples of modern ‘public liturgies’ – staged events that promote the values of Christ in the public square.

Of course our public engagement requires a lot of discernment. There are inappropriate ways to lift up the name of Christ in the public square. Sometimes people align themselves with the powers of violence, rather than with the ways of Christ. For example, when Westboro Baptist members hold up signs that say, “God hates gays,” they are enacting a problematic ‘public liturgy’ – one that does not represent the love and grace of Jesus. We have a high calling as Jesus’ followers to make sure we represent him correctly in our world.

Myer’s read on the Palm Sunday story has helped me see the significance of this event in a new way. Jesus reminds us in this text that it may be appropriate for us to creatively take our worship out into the world. Perhaps we might find ways to promote the peace and love of Jesus in the public square through creative ‘public liturgies.’

(1) Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, 295
(2) Ched Myers, Say To This Mountain, 146
(3) Ibid, 144


  1. “public liturgy” – I like that!

  2. Hey Dave,

    Yes, Ched Myers has some great concepts. He has really helped me read Mark in a fresh way. I don’t agree with all of his ideas but it is definitely engaging stuff.

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