An illustration of a broken yellow crown over a textured blue background featuring a donkey and hearts

Scripture Reflection: How Love Defies Expectation

“Save us, we beseech you, O LORD! O LORD, we beseech you, give us success! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD . . .” — Psalm 118:25–26

A Look Ahead to Sunday’s Readings

This Sunday’s psalm is unattributed, but we can speculate it’s written by David, the shepherd boy who defeated Goliath and became king. Given its content and author, it makes sense it’s assigned to the liturgy of Palm (or “Passion”) Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week. It’s a day that asks us to sit in tension — between Jesus’s celebrated entry into Jerusalem and his imminent death on the cross; between our expectations and what we then learn to be true; and between the yearning for self-protecting power within each of us and God’s call to sacrificial, self-emptying love.

David was a complicated and contradictory person and king: He was a brutal warrior and a prodigious artist. He slaughtered his enemies in bloody combat and he invented several musical instruments. He has a record of horrible, homicidal treatment of women and extreme abuses of political power, and he wrote some of the most deeply felt prayers and songs of praise, confession, and lamentation in scripture, repeated by people of faith for three millennia since — including Jesus. And David was the primary forecaster of the coming Messiah.

Jesus, on the other hand, is a comparatively uncomplicated person in scripture. His parables and sermons seem cryptic at times, but there’s an unbroken thread throughout his ministry. His message is one of peace, compassion, forgiveness, and love — for God, one another, and ourselves. A lowly carpenter with a divine purpose, Jesus modeled and delivered this message with humility, truth, generosity, and, of course, sacrifice. Jesus shows us what love looks like: laying down our lives for one another.

These tensions play out in Sunday’s Gospel in a story that’s referred to as Jesus’s “triumphal” entry into Jerusalem. Jesus enters the city and the crowd erupts in shouts of celebration, echoing the Psalm, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” That’s the type of Messiah they’re expecting: a conquering king like David. But Jesus’s actions tell us who he is. For his arrival, he asks to borrow a donkey colt, not a war horse. The people expect a king of domination, but Jesus shows up as a humble messenger of radical love. Salvation looks different than what they imagined.

The crowd didn’t understand Jesus’s message at the time (according to John’s Gospel, the disciples understood in retrospect). Even now, I wonder what kind of king we expect to see in Jesus. And likewise, what kind of Christians do we aspire to be? Holy questions for a holy week.

Read all of Sunday’s scriptures.

Here are five ways to meditate on upended expectations:

Theology  Writing on the year anniversary of the pandemic lockdowns, author Debie Thomas names the dissonance of Jesus’s hopeful message in the face of destruction: “Welcome to Holy Week. Here we are, and here is our God. Here are our hosannas, broken and earnest, hopeful and hungry.”

Spirituality  From religion website Patheos, a Sufi spirituality perspective on Jesus and the donkey: “The human being is understood to be the macrocosm of the Universe in our tradition, whose body shares in the sacredness and perfection of the rest of creation . . . the body is our road of pilgrimage.”

Poetry  In our Lenten observances and reflection, we become metaphorical pilgrims, explorers, refugees, and migrants, journeying with Jesus through the wilderness. In “Sympathy,” 19th-century American poet and activist Emma Lazarus writes:

“Not I alone am weak, not I apart
Must suffer, struggle, conquer day by day.”

Music  Immerse yourself in the Berliner Philharmoniker’s recent production of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion conducted by Simon Rattle and staged by director Peter Sellars.

In “Your Peace Will Make Us One,” singer-songwriter Audrey Assad’s reimagined “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” God is a nurturing mother whose gentle love dismantles empire and sets us free to flourish in nonviolent community.

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