Palm Sunday | Andy Watts
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
On September 18, 1793, George Washington laid the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol with great pomp and celebration. According to the U.S. Capitol Visitor’s Center, he and his entourage of a company of volunteer artillery crossed the Potomac River and joined with Masonic Lodge members. Together they marched with music playing, drums beating, colors flying and spectators cheering to the Capitol site. The symbolic meaning was rich with democracy’s hopes.
On Palm Sunday, in churches around the world, rituals of pomp and celebration will revel over a different kind of cornerstone: Jesus.
Many Christians will read the account of the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem as a story similar to that of the Capitol Cornerstone. The Gospel of Luke reports that as Jesus “rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road” (19:36). A multitude praised God joyfully “with a loud voice” for all the deeds of power they had seen. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” they sang (19:38). Moreover, biblical scholars point out that Jerusalem had thrown many victory parades for conquerors and liberators, replete with glorifying hymns praising their raw authority. Jesus, too, seems to be received by Jerusalem as God’s new ruler.
Yet, as Luke tells the story, something about this celebration troubles us. The crowds that gathered probably did so because Passover was around the corner. The multitude that sang praises was the rag-tag group of Jesus’ disciples. Most likely the cloaks thrown on the ground were the torn garments of the poor. No army accompanied him; no secret society, unless we call his disciples a secret society. And if Jesus was the new cornerstone of Israel, he was the stone “the builders rejected” found in Psalm 118 to which he later alludes.
Ironically, when the Pharisees implore him to silence his disciples, Jesus says, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out” (19:40). This is a crucial phrase that reveals whose and which cornerstone Jesus is. In the shadow of the imposing Temple structure and all its stones, Jesus is the outsider. Yet, even the Temple cries out for God’s upside-down kingdom, a kingdom of prophetic justice and salvific love. It is a kingdom rejected by the builders of power and the masons of violence.
How then shall we sing, “On Christ the Solid Rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand?”
Associate Professor of Christian Ethics, School of Religion