Revisiting Palm Sunday: Reflections for our time

Thangpu Haokip
One of the most significant dates in Christendom is Palm Sunday. Now, this article does not seek to engage in a discourse on the what, why, when and how of Palm Sunday. Such a treatise deserves perhaps a lengthier and a more suitable audience capable of appreciating the nuances of the details associated with the historical event. But for the sake of a more diverse and sophisticated audience as ours, we shall seek to reflect upon select episodes of the biblical drama with an aim at drawing potential lessons for ourselves today irrespective of our religious differences.
Nevertheless, Palm Sunday refers to the first day of the week leading to Jesus’ crucifixion on the cross and subsequent resurrection which fall on Friday and Sunday respectively. This day was marked by Jesus’ entry into the city of Jerusalem amidst a tumultuous welcome by a crowd that had gathered from near and far to celebrate the Passover Feast, an important Jewish festival. The spreading of cloaks and branches (specifically of palm trees) on the road as Jesus entered the city ushered in the day marked as Palm Sunday since the birth of the Christian faith.
Before we proceed, may it be pointed out that it is more than mere coincidence this year’s Palm Sunday falls around the same time as the Lok Sabha elections are happening. This is significant since a great deal of the insinuations which the historical event of Palm Sunday offers can be related with the socio-political scenario of our day in the same manner Jesus’ triumphal entry and the events’ surrounding it had implications for the Jewish society then. Granted, that the primary objective of Jesus’ mission and ministry was concerning spiritual dimension; it may however be made clear that such emphasis upon spirituality for Jesus was in no way detached from a concern for the social, political and economic spheres of life. To be sure, Jesus not only talked about spiritual matters but in perhaps equal measures showed concern for social, economic and political issues. He gave food to the hungry and provided free healthcare services. The outcasts and marginalized were welcomed gladly into Jesus’ presence and he mingled closely with those whom the society deemed ‘untouchable’. Perhaps for Jesus, addressing people’s physical needs was equally as important as addressing their spiritual needs; or perhaps people’s physical needs had to be met first before meeting their spiritual needs. Further on the political front, Jesus’ ministry occurred within the context of the Roman-rule wherein he subjected himself to the law of the land. His arrest and subsequent crucifixion took place as per the Roman law of handing out the sternest of penalties to alleged political dissenters.
Now, let’s turn to the three episodes of the biblical drama for our reflection. For those attuned to the Bible, these events are recorded in Matthew 21:1-22. We shall look at three things: the entry, the cleansing of the temple and the cursing of the fig tree. First, the entry. Jesus rides on a donkey; people exclaim “Hosanna” hailing him as the king who’s come to save them and laying out clothes and branches on the road. “Hosanna” literally means “save”. Then we ask, “To be saved from what?” For the crowd with Jesus that day, the answer was political in nature: freedom from the oppressive foreign (Roman) rule. Yet, on a spiritual front, and the one which Jesus stood for primarily, it connotes freedom from spiritual bondage.
Secondly, the cleansing of the temple. This is the first act Jesus performs right after his “coronation ceremony” which marks the inauguration of a new world order. Jesus’ act of cleansing the temple heralds changes under the new regime: end to religious hypocrisy, extortions, social injustice, corruption and all forms of oppression. Finally, the cursing of the fig tree which took place the following day. Good to behold and full of expectations, yet the fig tree was fruitless, and hence invited Jesus’ wrath. The fig tree withered instantly as a result. This incident is a depiction of things to come in the new era ushered in by the new king. Such will be the fate of many who on the outside appear good yet do not possess the one thing required – a repentant heart and transformed lives.
And now, the implications. First, from the entry episode. This incident alone can offer several implications. However, one stands out strikingly for our time: fame and influence follow actions; they cannot be bought. Jesus’ fame by the time of this event had already spread across all Palestine, and perhaps even beyond. This fame led to the exuberant welcome by the crowd upon his entry into Jerusalem. This is much unlike our so-called leaders and politicians today who must splash the cash or even threaten with guns to garner public support. How many leaders or politicians do we know of today whom we hold dear in our hearts, and for whom we would be willing to spread out our “cloaks” for them to walk upon? True fame and influence, such as the one which can inspire people to risk their health and wealth for us, cannot be bought; it must be earned with exemplary deeds.
Second, from the cleansing of the temple. Jesus’ inauguration of the new regime was immediately followed by a bold act of driving the illegal residents from the temple premise. A coronation followed immediately by an action. This too runs in sharp contrast to our elected political representatives today who upon coming to power fail to act on their hitherto promises and manifestoes. The question here is of accountability – to act out in accordance with expectations. The same goes for our civil, religious and educational institutions upon whom the public places their trust. Furthermore, this applies to any individual in a position of accountability. Finally, from the cursing of the fig tree which can throw much light on our general state of affairs today. Like the fig tree which was full-grown and full of life, people today have prospered much in terms of material living. The advancements in science and technology and burgeoning economy have modernised our living standards to an entirely new and higher level. Yet in the process, we seem to have lost much of our moral values. Neighbourly love, concern for the weak and downtrodden, family values, communal harmony, environmental concern along with justice, peace, honesty, integrity, morality, charity and the likes have almost become antiquated. In Jesus’ words, we have failed to produce fruits despite our outward prosperity. May this year’s Palm Sunday serve as a pointer to our deficiencies as individuals, leaders, communities, organisations and institutions, and may it remind us of the need for transformation for true progress and prosperity, and not of mere outward change.
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