The story of Palm Sunday, and of the Passion (which is Palm Sunday’s traditional Gospel) reading, is all too familiar. So forgive, if you will, a non-traditional take on it, so as to keep the story fresh. Fresh, that is, but without going far afield from the Gospels themselves.
One of the most interesting, dramatic takes on Palm Sunday comes from the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. Combining passages from Luke 19:39-40 and various verses from John 11 and 12, playwrights Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice locate a meeting of pharisees, including high priest Caiaphas, directly at a place along Jesus’ palm-strewn route into Jerusalem. There, the pharisees both plot against Jesus’ life and, at one point, confront Jesus to tell him to quiet his crowds (to which he replies that if the crowds were quiet, the rocks and stones would sing).
“The man is in town right now to whip up some support,” says one priest. “A rabble-rousing mission that I think we must abort!,” says another.
The reason this is so fascinating is that Rice and Lloyd Webber have taken up the angle, prominent in the Gospel of John, that Caiaphas and company justify their plotting, even within their own ranks, by saying that they act not to protect their own power but to avoid having “the Romans… come and take away both our place and our nation…. It is [better] that one man should die for the people, and that [therefore] the whole people perish not.” (John 11:48-50).
(Superstar’s take on this has Caiaphas forseeing “The crowd crown him king/Which the Romans would ban/I see blood and destruction/Our elimination because of one man.”)
And they do so, in John’s telling, before Jesus has laid waste to the merchants and usurious money-lenders at the Temple. They plot his death not, as in the other Gospel versions, primarily because he threatened their lucre, but because he threatens the safety of the entire people.
What this is, is realpolitik writ historically very large indeed. It is an entirely unsentimental utilitarianism, an approach that holds that the good of the many outweighs the innocence of the one.
Now obviously this train of thought could veer into a discussion of modern geopolitics, but let’s not. The deeper meaning here, knowing what we in retrospect do indeed know, is that when any of us practices a bloodless practicality, we may be risking a far bloodier (or otherwise harmful) set of results than we intend. We may even convince ourselves, though falsely, that our motives are pure. Yet if we do not look beyond a momentary, utilitarian appraisal – if we do not open ourselves to the possibility of the Holy unfolding before our very eyes – we miss both real justice and a deeper Truth.
When the Lord enters into our daily Jerusalems, our mission is not to calculate how to save our cities (or selves), but to follow Him and trust that He will do so in His own good time.