I really like that, in this relatively brief story in today’s Gospel readings, common fare for those who observe Palm Sunday every year, those who oppose Jesus and those who support Jesus are at the same time getting what’s going on entirely right and missing the point entirely. When preachers get to preaching on this passage, more often than not the focus is the punchline, when Jesus tells his opponents that if the people don’t cry out, the very rocks will. It’s a great little triumphal note at the expense of the Pharisees, who in many modern Christians’ imaginations are some sort of cross between Ben Jonson’s Puritans and that traffic cop who always seems to turn up when you’re in a hurry and aren’t doing anyone any harm, after all. With the bad guys in that role, the image is something like the scene (that used to appear in music videos as I remember them, though my memory might be skewed) of the wild rock ‘n roll party erupting against the protests of the grumpy librarian or the uptight school teacher. (I’m quite certain both of those stock repressors appeared in Twisted Sister videos at some point.)
As fun as that image is, the Pharisees, of course, were a more complex lot. Far from being the establishment of the day, they were among the most threatening groups in the eyes of the Roman Empire, and in the generation after Christ ascended a faction of theirs would be among the most ardent supporters of armed revolt against Rome. (The faction that called for nonviolent responses lived to see another couple millennia and eventually became the Rabbis we know today.) One could easily imagine the Pharisees in the Jerusalem crowd that day as being among the pacifist faction, beseeching Jesus to quiet this open rebellion lest the Roman army come marching in to put it down. And to be fair to the Pharisees (not something that many preachers spend much time doing, I realize), in the next scene Jesus does (in the synoptics at least) condemn the Jerusalem Temple precisely for being a den of lestai (a word that the Jewish/Roman historian Josephus uses to name the armed robbers who resisted Rome in the Jewish Wars of the day). So insofar as they realized that armed rebellion would end badly for Jerusalem, they were precisely right.
But this moment, between the approach to the city and the entry into the Temple, Jesus surprises me every time, rebuking the Pharisees indirectly and claiming that the shouts of praise are something approaching inevitable. That the people think that armed rebellion is going to give them the legendary Davidic age that they’d spent their youths dreaming about is entirely wrong, but that they see something grand coming into Jerusalem is entirely right. And the Pharisees’ fears of mob revolt is right on the money, but their identification of Jesus with simple mob revolt is entirely off target.
Such complexity falls on deaf ears, I think, when we Christians think of passages like Psalm 118 as “predictions” that “come true” in the day of Jesus. To be sure, Matthew often writes of Scriptures’ being fulfilled, but that image is a different one from the simple toggle switch that either falls on “fact” or “not-fact.” To fulfill means that there was something there already that becomes full, not merely verified, that what generations of Israelites and Jews heard in their Temple and their Synagogues was not some bet placed on a football game that either paid off or didn’t but the very fabric of their imaginations, something that likely resonated in scores of ways in the days of the early Roman Empire (and whose harmonies come to us in at least two very different bodies of literature, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament). There were would-be Messiahs before Jesus, and there would be more to come. To blame these folks for “not seeing” that Jesus was the toggle switch flipped is to miss the whole idea of fulfillment and to point a self-righteous finger where perhaps more appropriate would be a kind of Aristotelian fear and pity, wondering whether we might be the ones next to read wrong.
As Jesus approaches, the response that the universe, whether humanity or rockiness, issues forth is praise. Such is only natural. What takes grace is to stick around when Thursday night comes.