The challenges of boot camp typically culminate in celebration. The hard work and self-examination experienced along the way come to an end with a sigh of relief and a hoot of satisfaction, with high fives all around for the group that has taken this journey together.
All four Gospels state clearly and repeatedly that crowds followed Jesus, at times to His own frustration. It follows that in His final return to Jerusalem the same crowds would gather and welcome Him, potentially becoming the riotous and revolutionary mob that Rome worried about at Jewish festivals. It it exactly this scene that the disciples wanted to avoid, what Thomas meant last week when he said, “Let us go with him to Jerusalem to die.”
The people, the rabble that Jesus loved, loved Him back. They did not have the power to protect Him, but they could proclaim their love much like those at a rally you might see today. They knew the wondrous things He had done and the powerful words He had spoken. He was the celebrity of His day. He was famous.
We live in a world where you can be famous for being famous. Once, not so long ago, one was considered famous only after making a life-changing discovery (Jonas Salk), or after orbiting the earth three times (John Glenn), or after displaying extraordinary talent (Van Cliburn), or after achieving some other great, historic endeavor.
Today you can be a celebrity if you merely spend time with other celebrities (pick a Kardashian), or if you engage in illegal behavior (Jeffrey Epstein), or if you have no shame (Maury Povich).
The Time-Life Corporation was really on to something when they created People magazine in 1974 as a respectable alternative to tabloid fare. Once only The National Enquirer or The Globe would print headlines like these: “Harry and Meghan: Why They Walked Away” “Oprah Answers Everything!” “Rendezvous in the Oval Office!” But when the creator of Time’s esteemed “Man of the Year” gave birth to People’s “Sexiest Man Alive,” our culture would never again be satisfied only with cover stories about national trends or global affairs – unless, of course, a scandal was involved.
How many tens of thousands of readers pore over celebrity magazines every month? To satisfy an unquenchable thirst for celebrity news, People is going strong; particularly remarkable in an age when print seems to be on the way out. And other publications take notice. News magazines cannot survive without including news on the rich and famous. Specialty magazines on everything from cigar smoking to furniture refinishing use celebrities to adorn their covers. One can become famous for a myriad of noble and ignoble reasons.
The special annual issue of People magazine which highlights “The 25 Most Beautiful People,” displays the faces and bodies of the physically blessed: beautiful actors, beautiful musicians, beautiful politicians. These people are famous for being beautiful. And it is one of People magazine’s best-selling issues.
And with Quentin Tarantino’s new movie and Bindi Irwin’s recent marriage, People has taken full advantage and run issues with Sharon Tate’s murder and Steve Irwin’s tragic death gracing the cover. For a first-rate celebrity, the story never ends. Frank, The Duke and Elvis will always sell magazines and books. We will forever be “intrigued” by celebrity mysteries: Can we blame the Kennedys for Marilyn’s death? Could Diana have survived if taken to a different hospital? Was Jeffrey Epstein “helped” with his suicide? What exactly did these people eat for their last meal?
Can you imagine if Jesus had been treated like a 21st-century celebrity as He rode into Jerusalem?
- Anderson Cooper might have reported on rumors that Jesus planned to disrupt temple business.
- Pundits would have argued about who He “really” was.
- Dr. Phil would undoubtedly have done a psychological profile for his TV show.
- TMZ would investigate Jesus’ relationship with “the woman at the well.”
- There would be in-depth analysis by cult specialists and modern-day Pharisees on MSNBC and cult specialists and modern-day Sadducees on FOX.
- A council of church officials would be in place to study the authenticity of Jesus’ feeding the multitudes and walking on water.
- As He entered the dusty city, hundreds if not thousands would have pulled out their smartphones, snapping pics and grabbing videos while Kelly Ripa, along with Michael Strahan, making a special appearance, would stand by to offer color commentary. Of course this year the crowd would have been much smaller – each of them gathered on individual balconies or porches – and Kelly and Michael would be up on a specially-constructed aerial platform.
But it was not like this at all, was it? While the celebrities of today are famous because they have hired promoters and agents, Jesus was celebrated by a relatively small number of followers who were not quite sure why they were there, except for the fact that something drew them to this teacher, this holy man. He could heal them. He spoke in mysterious parables. He was very different from anything they had seen before. And He loved them in a way they had never before experienced.
There was something about Him. In a cruel and violent world, where most people were interested in basic survival, Jesus regularly stirred up enough trouble to risk His safety. In a culture where people shamelessly promoted themselves, Jesus told those He healed to “tell no one.” He was not swayed by current trends. He was not concerned with money. He had no problem with challenging those in power. His ministry was guided, nourished and planned by the only Power that really matters.
The Bible, of course, is a best seller. One could make a case that it is a celebrity best seller. It is not exactly a “tell-all” book, however. And yet, while most best sellers about celebrities chronicle every possible detail about the subjects’ lives, from what the celebrity ate for his or her last meal to what the celebrity “would have wanted” after death, we have relatively few details about the life and death of Jesus. Most Christians are unconcerned with the precise details of Jesus’ crucifixion, much less the details of His last days.
So what was it? Did Jesus ride into Jerusalem on a donkey or a colt? Matthew’s account of the first Palm Sunday makes it sound like Jesus sat on both animals at the same time (though it probably means that He rode the mare with the young colt at its mother’s side). The other gospels tell us that Jesus rode only on a colt. Does this really matter?
And exactly who was there with Jesus when He entered Jerusalem? Matthew’s gospel tells us that there were great crowds both in front of and behind Jesus as He rode into town. But in Luke’s version it sounds as if the crowds were not part of the procession at all. Perhaps I should have read Luke’s more COVID-19 appropriate account. Does it really matter?
Our faith does not rise and fall on such details. We do not need to “make sense” out of seemingly inconsistent or inconsequential particulars.
Palm Sunday marks the beginning of the last week of Jesus’ life. We know some, but not all, of the details. We know:
- He was not particularly young, considering the life expectancy of a man of His time.
- He probably looked nothing like People magazine’s idea of “The Sexiest Man Alive.”
- He was most definitely not rich.
- His groupies were limited to 12 men of limited resources and a few women of uncertain reputations.
And while His followers often could not believe that He could really die, we know that He could and He did. It was as senseless to His disciples then as, on the face of it, it is senseless to us today.
The one detail we know for certain is that this story never ends.
It did not end in a procession in Jerusalem.
It did not end on a cross.
It did not end in a cave on the property of Joseph of Arimathea.
Boot camp, after all, is not an end unto itself. It is a preparation for the challenges still to come.
So, the story continues. It continues in the lives of people like you and me in whom the living Christ continues to work wonders.
The story continues in those of us called to keep it alive.
The story continues. It may not continue on the pages of People magazine, and therefore, it is not “need-to-know” material for many. Perhaps not surprisingly, however, in this time of world crisis, many more are feeling a need to know this story. For it is an irresistible story, a life-changing story for those of us who have, by grace, found ourselves following Jesus. We do not know many of the details of that last week of His life on earth.
But we do have a pretty good idea what He ate for His last supper.