A.J. Thomas is the Founder of Joyful Giving Group, whose mission is to cultivate a culture of generosity.
A.J. is a practiced believer in the power of generosity to transform individual lives, congregations, and entire communities.
A.J. is an ordained United Methodist pastor with over a decade of leadership experience in the local church. He is appointed to Joyful Giving Group as an extension ministry of the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.
When Jesus and his followers approached Jerusalem, they
came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives. Jesus gave two disciples
a task, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village over there. As
soon as you enter it, you will find tied up there a colt that no one has
ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 3 If anyone says to you,
‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘Its master needs it, and he will send it back
4 They went
and found a colt tied to a gate outside on the street, and they untied it. 5 Some
people standing around said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” 6 They
told them just what Jesus said, and they left them alone. 7 They
brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes upon it, and he sat on it. 8 Many
people spread out their clothes on the road while others spread branches cut
from the fields. 9 Those in front of him and those following
were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessings on
the one who comes in the name of the Lord!10 Blessings
on the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!” 11 Jesus
entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. After he looked around at
everything, because it was already late in the evening, he returned to Bethany
with the Twelve.
One of the formative
experiences of any trip to the Holy Land is to walk the Palm Sunday road, from
the top of the Mount of Olives, down into the Kidron Valley, and up into the
city of Jerusalem.Not surprisingly, at
the top of the route and really all along it, vendors are waiting to sell all
sorts of things to the religious pilgrims walking that route.For a few bucks, you can have your picture
taken riding a camel or donkey, and the vendor who seemed to get the most
business was the one with the best sense of humor.He led his donkey through the crowds,
shouting, “Donkey rides, taxi! Ride Jesus’ taxi!”
I don’t remember my first
parade.But I know I love parades, and
can’t remember a time when I didn’t.What I always loved about the parades were the vehicles.Red and yellow fire trucks with lights
flashing, blaring their horn as they passed, volunteers from some organization
riding on the back and pelting the crowd with as much candy as a kid could
grab.I loved all the special interest
cars, from the shiny new convertibles (though I could care less about the mayor
or city council member riding on the back), to the muscle cars and classic cars
and antique cars that made their way through.
We lived in a small town
in Oklahoma until I was about 3, and our friend and neighbor, Seymour, owned a
restored Ford Model ‘A’ truck, which I thought was the coolest thing in the
world, especially the “ahooga” horn.Seymour’s truck appeared in just about every parade in town, and I have
the vague recollection of riding in a parade with him, where he let me sound
that “ahooga” horn all over the entire route, and I relished every single
minute of it.
Another parade I have an
early memory of is the palm parade every Palm Sunday.As a child, I remember waving my branch high
and shouting, “Hosanna,” much as we have already done, with our children
leading the way, at the beginning of today’s worship service.
Palm Sunday is the
beginning of the Holiest week in the life of the Church, and it moves in roller
coaster fashion for Jesus and his followers from the highest highs to the
lowest lows, and then back up again.The
traditional images of Palm Sunday with which we are so familiar – smiling
crowds, fuzzy donkeys, colorful cloaks laid along the road – may lull us into
the sense that what took place on this day in Jerusalem so long ago was a
matter of child’s play, when the reality is that things of the utmost
importance were in play, setting in motion a clash of forces that would lead to
Jesus’ execution on the cross.Let us pray.
It was the beginning of
the Passover week, the highest and holiest of Jewish religious festivals.During Passover at the time of Jesus, the
population of Jerusalem would swell from 40,000 to 200,000, drawing religious
pilgrims from around the known world together into one place.
But their minds were not
only on things religious.Several came
with political agendas as well.Passover
celebrated the Hebrew liberation from the Egyptians, and during the time of
Jesus, the people found themselves occupied by the Romans.Passover parties of the past had proved to be
a political problem, the perfect staging ground for rebellion and
Picture Jerusalem as the
center of a busy intersection.Jesus’
ride on the stolen donkey was not the only parade taking place that day.As he descended the Mount of Olives and
entered the city from the East, another parade entered the city from the
West.This other parade was led by the
Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, atop a beautiful and powerful warhorse, with
the reigns of worldly power held loose, but firm, in his hands.600 Roman soldiers followed behind to
reinforce Rome’s rule during the festival, accompanied by all the symbols of
military might we would expect – flags flying, trumpets blasting, drums beating,
armor clanking, spears gleaming in the springtime morning sun.
The Romans reinforced their occupation forces on Jewish high holy days to
discourage any attempted insurrection by rebel leaders who might take advantage
of the swelling holiday crowd. Pilate wanted to be close enough to the Temple
complex with a strong display of Roman force to ensure the “Pax Romana,” Rome’s
version of peace. And Rome had the cross, an intimidating execution device, to
enforce Roman authority with any who would question it. Thousands of criminals
and perceived enemies of the state were executed along the main roads so that all
could witness the penalty for insurrection.
The cross was a particularly cruel device of both torture and
execution.Not only did it ensure that
people died in the most painful and excruciatingly long way possible, but it
dehumanized the crucified in a way we cannot imagine.We picture crosses as high in the air, but
the reality is that the crucified typically hung a few feet off the ground,
next to a main road, close enough for people to insult and degrade them
In contrast to the display of Roman imperial power, Jesus, who came with no
sword, rode into the city on a donkey from the east with a group of ordinary fishermen
and farmers and day laborers, tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners, the
least and the last, the lost and the lonely, the downtrodden and the forgotten.
The Roman legion symbolized power and privilege; Jesus represented its
opposite.He was born as an oppressed
minority.He spent the first two years
of his life as a political refugee in Africa, escaping Herod’s infanticide in
Bethlehem.Wherever you consider to be
the most backward, middle-of-nowhere place on earth, that’s where Jesus grew
up, as some had commented about his hometown, “Can anything good come from
Nazareth?” (John 1:46).
Pilate and the kingdom of the world came from one direction; Jesus and the
kingdom of God from the other, and there in the middle, caught between the two,
was a third force: the compromised religious institution. The institution was
more concerned with maintaining the status quo than with caring for the poor
and marginalized.They were intent on personal
gain and institutional security, with no concern for God’s redemptive mission
of justice and righteousness in the world.More concerned with self-preservation than witnessing to God’s love for
those beyond themselves, they had become, as some describe, “so heavenly bound
they were no longer any earthly good.”
On Palm Sunday, the crowds who lined the road and greeted Jesus shouted
“Hosanna!” literally, “Save us,” but those in the crowd were asking for
salvation from different things.Those
with political aspirations were seeking salvation from the Roman
government.They had on their mind a
coup d’état in which Jesus would overthrow the Romans and establish a regime of
his own.Those with religious sensibilities
were seeking salvation from the misguided, self-serving religious establishment,
in the hopes that Jesus would establish a new one in its place.
In either case, first on everyone’s minds were their own aspirations or
desires – whether political or religious.Those looking for a political Messiah greeted Jesus as the new king – of
the old kingdom.Those looking for a
religious Messiah greeted Jesus as the new priest – of the old religion.
And though Jesus is king, he came neither to take over the old kingdom or
to establish a new one, which disappointed those with political hopes.And though Jesus is priest, he came neither
to take over the old religion or to establish a new one, which disappointed
those with hopes for a new religious institution.
Jesus is always a great disappointment to those who wish to use him to
advance their own agendas. Whatever the
disciples expected to happen, and whatever the crowds expected, just didn’t
happen. Their expectations and Jesus’ agenda are worlds apart.That explains how he lost the support of public opinion
by the end of the week, and how the very crowds who exultantly shouted
“Hosanna!” on Sunday, would, by Friday, in blood thirst be yelling, “Crucify
Nothing about the story suggest child’s play.Jesus, riding a donkey, enters the Holy City
from the east. The Roman contingent parades into the city from the west. In the
middle were the compromised religious elite. It became known as Palm Sunday –
when kingdoms collide.
When Jesus came to earth, he brought with him the reign of God, which
uproots self-serving systems of greed, corruption, abuse, and exclusion,
whether political or religious in nature.The reign of God is always a threat to those who benefit from
maintaining the status quo.
Friends, I wonder where we would place ourselves in the crowd.In my own hand, there is a palm branch.Today, we have waved these branches high and
greeted Jesus with shouts of, “Hosanna!”Have we done so in the hopes that Jesus will advance an agenda that
reflects our own?The temptation is always there to co-opt God to
legitimate our vision of utopia, but today, shouts of “Hosanna” can be our cry
for Jesus to save us from our own misguided, small-minded, self-serving,
status-quo-preserving thinking and desires.
Today, as I wave my branch and greet Jesus as king, I do so with the
whole-hearted desire to be a citizen in his kingdom, to pledge my allegiance to
him alone, to bow my will and desires to his.I may not fully understand his kingdom all the time, may not recognize it
when it’s in my midst.I may, at times,
cheer for the wrong reasons, or have expectations for Jesus that reflect my own
thinking rather than the mind of Christ.
Yet, Jesus has so much more in store than my little mind can fathom, and my
limited understanding and misguided expectations do not diminish or dictate
what God is up to.
When my expectations collide with those of Jesus, my waving branch
indicates my desire to do it his way, rather than asking him to promote
mine.This branch is a reminder to me,
to all of us, that there can only be one king, and that position has already
been filled by Jesus.
So lift your palm high and greet him as King.Hail Jesus as the King; love and serve him as your