Have you ever noticed how often Jesus is misunderstood?
The religious leaders don’t understand him—they accuse him of false teachings and try to trap him into saying things he doesn’t mean so they can turn the people against him.
The people don’t really understand him. Remember when Jesus asks his disciples: Who do people say that I am? “John the Baptist or one of the prophets.” The people don’t know.
Even the disciples don’t understand him. They try to keep the children away from him. They want to go buy food for the crowds. They don’t want to listen to Jesus talk about his coming death.
Black liberation theologian James Cone writes: “Who can read the New Testament and fail to see that Jesus took sides and accepted freely the possibility of being misunderstood?” (James Cone, “Jesus Christ in Black Theology”)
All throughout the Gospels, Jesus’ words and actions are misunderstood. The ultimate example of this is in the story of the arrest, trials, and crucifixion, which we will hear next week. The authorities don’t understand what it means that Jesus is “King of the Jews.” They don’t understand that he is not some kind of miracle-working showman—like so many other would-be messiahs. They don’t understand that he comes in peace and love for everyone.
But we’re not there yet. We are preparing for Palm Sunday. And there is a very interesting type of misunderstanding going on here: Jesus is misunderstood in a positive way—the people like the Jesus they perceive better than the Jesus who actually is.
Jesus rides toward Jerusalem on a donkey as a sign of peace, as a connection to the prophets. And the people wave branches to herald him as a victorious leader—most likely thinking of him as a military leader, someone who would lead an armed revolt.
“Hosanna,” the people shout, which means “save us!”. And Jesus is, in fact, saving them. But their cry is for a political salvation—a salvation in the form of overthrowing the oppressive Roman regime. They want the coming kingdom of their ancestor, David—to go back to the (very brief) glory days when Israel was a united, prosperous, nation. They are talking about a literal kingdom—a land with a king; their king rather than someone else’s.
Jesus, of course, talks a lot about the Kingdom. In Matthew it’s the Kingdom of heaven, in Mark and Luke, the Kingdom of God. Guess what? It turns out that God’s Kingdom and David’s kingdom are quite different realities. David’s kingdom is for a particular group of people. God’s kingdom is for all people. David’s kingdom is maintained by military might. God’s kingdom is maintained by the Spirit. David’s kingdom is visible and temporal; God’s is invisible and eternal.
When Jesus talks about ushering in the Kingdom of God, the people get excited about the coming kingdom of David. Which is not what Jesus means; yet there he is, riding toward Jerusalem on a donkey with the crowds waving branches and chanting his praises.
“Who can read the New Testament and fail to see that Jesus took sides and accepted freely the possibility of being misunderstood?”
Jesus took the side of the weak, the vulnerable, the poor, the outcast. He took the side of peace and justice and love and life. And people did not understand.
People still do not understand.
We still do not understand.
Not fully. Not completely. How could we? How could we understand God taking on flesh? How could we understand the power of vulnerability in the face of might? How could we understand what it means to walk the path of God in this world?
It’s too much for us. We do the best we can. We try to understand—sometimes we get it right; sometimes . . . not so much.
Perhaps one gift of the Palm Sunday story is it’s assurance that we do not have to understand perfectly.
We can show up wherever we think Jesus might be and cheer on the work we see God doing in the world. We can sing songs of praise and listen to Jesus’ words and lay down our coats to honor him even if we don’t completely understand him.
Let’s strive to understand as much as we can, to walk as faithfully as we can, to follow Jesus with humility and accept divine grace with gratitude.
This excerpt is taken from a sermon on Mark 11:1-11.
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