Sunday reflection: Luke 19:28–40
posted at 11:31 am on March 20, 2016 by Ed Morrissey
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.
This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 19:28–40:
Jesus proceeded on his journey up to Jerusalem. As he drew near to Bethphage and Bethany at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples. He said, “Go into the village opposite you, and as you enter it you will find a colt tethered on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it here. And if anyone should ask you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ you will answer, ‘The Master has need of it.’” So those who had been sent went off and found everything just as he had told them. And as they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you untying this colt?” They answered, “The Master has need of it.” So they brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks over the colt, and helped Jesus to mount.
As he rode along, the people were spreading their cloaks on the road; and now as he was approaching the slope of the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of his disciples began to praise God aloud with joy for all the mighty deeds they had seen. They proclaimed: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest.” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” He said in reply, “I tell you, if they keep silent, the stones will cry out!”
My God, my God … why have you forsaken me?
Today we celebrate Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week and the remembrance of the Passion of the Lord. Our Mass today will feature the Gospel readings of both the beginning and the end of the most critical week in Christianity, and as we believe, for the world — the death and resurrection of Christ. Holy Week provides us a microcosm of our own faith, faithlessness, and redemption, allowing us to live through the cycle of salvation that has played out since the Garden of Eden.
Rather than choose the Passion reading today, which will have the greatest focus of the Mass on Palm Sunday, let’s consider the first reading from Luke and the responsorial from Psalm 22. At the beginning of the week, the crowds of Jerusalem welcome Jesus as a conquering king, providing a triumphal entry to this teacher riding on a humble colt. This is no mere curiosity or popular interest; the people of Jerusalem see Jesus as a savior, as the Messiah that they want. The Pharisees see this as approaching blasphemy, for which they hold Jesus responsible, but Jesus’ response shows that their adulation is inspired by the Holy Spirit — and serves His purpose, although we do not yet understand why.
In a few short days, the mood of the people changes entirely. By Friday, most of the same people who praised Jesus as “the king who comes in the name of the Lord” would call for his blood. Jesus did not come as a conquering warlord to smite the Romans and restore Israel and Judah to dominance, which is how the Israelites expected the Messiah to arise. After feverishly embracing Him, they rejected Him utterly and wanted Jesus destroyed.
And so it is with us, on our path to salvation. We come to faith with unrealistic expectations, or sometimes expect God to exist merely to affirm our own desires and attitudes. We welcome the Lord not to grow and prepare for Trinitarian life, but to welcome God to endorse our own life in the present. The Lord has patience with this, and allows our faith to mature if we so choose, but often we reject salvation through a preference for the illusions of worldliness and sin. We want power and pleasure for ourselves, not a focus on salvation in the next world and healing in this one. Too often, we welcome Christ as King, only to hoist Him on the side of the road when His mission conflicts with our predilection for sin.
Christ knew this, of course. He wept over Jerusalem, knowing how the scourge of sin would play out in the Passion. He understood that the people would reject salvation for illusion, in this case the illusion that Jerusalem would become a mighty world power, and in the end would lose both salvation and Jerusalem itself as a consequence for that choice. That is also the path of sin. We put aside the Lord to engage in what we think will bring pleasure and power, only to find that sin’s promises are all lies and illusions in the end. Sin can supplant faith in our hearts, but it can never replace it, or the joy it brings.
And yet, still Jesus comes to Jerusalem, knowing that the people who embrace him one day will want him dead a few days later. He comes in obedience to the Lord, under no illusions, because while the people will not remain true to Christ, He will remain true to the Lord to provide them with the path of salvation. That obedience remains constant, even on the cross, as Jesus prays to the Father through his torment and the humiliation of rejection and hatred.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Psalm 22 is the cry of a man forsaken and alone by all — but who still trusts in the Lord. “Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce my hands and feet. All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me.” By all measures of blessings, the voice of this psalm is one who has seemingly been abandoned by God. However, the voice of the psalm continues to express faith in the Lord, and pledges to serve God no matter what his own circumstances might be. “I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you.” The psalmist understands that the circumstances of his life are not a sign that the Lord does not love him, but an opportunity to serve Him and proclaim His praise in a more meaningful way.
It is no accident that Jesus recites this psalm on the cross. Jesus understands that his agony serves a purpose — to bring salvation to hard-hearted humanity, to unlock the illusions of sin and show the path to the Lord. He has been forsaken by the same people his death and resurrection will save, and not just in that time, but for all time. We continue to live in sin, replaying the cycle of palm-waving and rejection whenever we fall back into sin and despair, whenever we try to make Christ our idol of approval rather than our call to recognize our own shortcomings.
And yet Christ keeps coming to Jerusalem, keeps coming into our hearts to challenge, teach, and comfort us. He keeps coming to lead us to salvation. The Lord has not forsaken us even when we forsake Him. Christ calls us to return by showing us the illusions and lies of sin, even at those times when we clearly prefer the lies and illusions to the truth — and perhaps especially at those times.
The psalmist sings the praises of the Lord in the final verse of Psalm 22, providing the contrast with the opening line that unlocks the call of the Lord:
Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord.
They will proclaim his righteousness,
declaring to a people yet unborn:
He has done it!
“Have faith in the Lord, for He is good; his mercy endures forever.” God will not forsake you; Christ remains ready to lead all people to salvation who choose it, even if they stumble and get lost at times on the way. This week is about walking that path, perhaps as palm-bearers, but better as those who come as penitent sinners to embrace the Lord with open hearts and with faith that His plan and His will provides for us better than ours, and better than even the most marvelous illusions of power and pleasure that sin can offer. May your walk be blessed.
The front page image is a mosaic from the Cappella Palatina, Palermo, Sicily (12th century).