Grace does not unfold in expected ways. This is what our readings teach us this week. In fact, through human eyes, God’s plans can seem quite obscure, even perplexing. Each of the Palm Sunday readings invites us to consider that reality.
The Church reflects on two Gospel readings this Sunday, one at the beginning of the Mass, and one at the normal time at the end of the Liturgy of the Word. In the first Gospel reading, the expectations of the crowd are clear from their greeting:
“Hosanna to the Son of David;
blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord;
hosanna in the highest.”
Jerusalem was the ancient capital of Israel. Although it was under Roman control in Jesus’ day, its citizens still dreamt of restored independence guarded by a descendant of David. Jesus was the man on whom they pinned these hopes. Their greeting, meanwhile, shows little knowledge of or interest in the message of reconciliation and faith that Jesus had been preaching throughout his ministry.
The Hebrew scriptures contain other instances of these faulty expectations. The prophecy from Isaiah in this Sunday’s first reading speaks of a prophet whom people constantly misunderstood. He had inspired many with his preaching, but from others, he received abuse. These expected a divine spokesman with a fierce and awe-inspiring demeanor, as they imagined Israel’s ancient prophets to be. Instead, the prophet was humble to the point of meek: “He will not cry out, nor shout, nor make his voice heard in the street. A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench” (Isa 42:2-3). In spite of the prophet’s failure to meet expectations, his message proved true, and by Jesus’ day his words had already guided Israel for centuries. Likewise, in this week’s responsorial psalm, the sacred author recounts the experiences of those who, although they feared God, encountered hostility and rejection. Humans too often project their own will onto God’s messengers, and when that will is not fulfilled, they react with violence.
In this week’s second reading, St. Paul reflects on the deeper realities of this violent misunderstanding. Human fantasies like power, glamour, and the domination of others are not the ways of God. To break their allure, Christ took on opposite qualities—he was humble and poor, more a slave than a king or a god. Yet he spoke words that people recognized instantly to be true, he manifested a profound charisma in spite of his appearance, and he worked throughout his ministry for freedom and salvation. His death did nothing to halt him. In fact, by accepting death on a cross, he made his mission unstoppable.
Matthew reflects on human misunderstanding throughout his passion narrative. It is especially clear in dialogues between Jesus and Caiaphas, Jesus and the Sanhedrin, Jesus and Pilate and in the statements of passers-by during the crucifixion. In each case, Jesus’ accusers unwittingly speak the truth. They accuse him of calling himself the Son of God, the King of Israel, the Messiah, a prophet, someone who would raise up the temple in three days, and a savior. He was in fact all of these things, but their understanding had wandered so far from God’s that they could not perceive the truth even when it was right before them.
In their fatal misunderstanding is a challenge for our own discipleship. Human fantasies of power and glory can mesmerize us as surely as they did our ancestors in the faith. The liturgy of Palm Sunday reminds us that God’s ways do not unfold as we expect. It is among the seemingly helpless and hopeless of our world that we have the best chance of encountering the risen Christ still at work fulfilling God’s plan of salvation.
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