by Father Mike Stubbs
On Palm Sunday, people like to take palm branches with them to continue the celebration at home.
They may place a palm branch behind a crucifix or a holy picture. They may braid the palm or fashion it into a cross. These are all ways that can reaffirm a central theme of Palm Sunday — that Jesus Christ is king.
All four Gospels recount Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, which we commemorate on Palm Sunday. John’s Gospel describes the crowds waving palm branches to acclaim Jesus as king. The Gospels of Matthew and Mark similarly describe the crowds waving tree branches, without specifying them as palm. Only Luke’s Gospel omits any mention of branches. That is the version you will hear this Sunday, Lk 19:28-40.
Even without branches waving, Luke’s account nevertheless does show an enthusiastic crowd welcoming Jesus into his capital city of Jerusalem as king. Their acclamations leave no room for doubt in that regard: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest.”
We should note that the second half of their acclamation echoes the song of the angels earlier in Luke’s Gospel when Jesus was born at Bethlehem: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Lk 2:14). The theme of peace appears both at the beginning of Jesus’ life and at its end.
The crowd’s explicit endorsement of Jesus as king disturbs some of the Pharisees. They are perhaps worried that the Romans will view these as threats to the Roman Empire’s authority. Accordingly, the Pharisees entreat Jesus to quiet the crowd. Jesus responds: “I tell you, if they keep silent, the stones will cry out.” Luke’s Gospel alone contains this exchange between the Pharisees and Jesus.
On the surface, Jesus’ response may sound like a way to emphasize that it is not possible to hide the truth about his kingship. Even if his followers are silenced, the truth will still come out. There can be no coverup.
But the meaning of Jesus’ words goes even deeper. They allude to a passage in the Bible: “For the stone in the wall shall cry out” (Hb 2:11). The “stone” in this verse refers to the palaces of the unjust rulers at the time of Habakkuk, which were built upon the backs of the poor. The prophet Habakkuk is criticizing those rulers for their tyranny: “Woe to him who builds a city by bloodshed and establishes a town by wickedness” (Hb 2:12).
Years later, by alluding to this prophecy of Habakkuk, Jesus is indeed maintaining that the truth will come out, that it cannot be covered up. But it is not only the truth about himself as king; it is also the truth about the injustice of the current rulers in Israel. Receiving Jesus as king necessarily means rejection of those rulers.
There can be only one king, and it is Jesus.