Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
By G. K. Chesterton
When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.
With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.
The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.
Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.
We sometimes hear it said that Jesus was just a teacher full of punchy aphorisms and turns of phrase: a mystic who wandered around saying nice things about the niceness of being Nice. But his stupid disciples, being 2000 years, stupider than Extremely Clever Us, managed to completely misunderstand him and construct an elaborate religion around him that he absolutely never intended. It's a narrative in which our culture places an extraordinary amount of faith--far more faith, in fact, than the Christian story requires, since the Christian story does not require us to believe in absolutely ridiculous claims about human psychology that nobody would ever advance for one second were it not for the special need to debunk Christianity. To be sure, the faith advances extraordinary claims--the two principal ones being "God became man" and "Jesus rose from the dead in glory." These claims have been disputed as matters of fact down through the ages, of course, but they are not ridiculous claims on the face of them. Anybody can see that, if there is a God, he might if he chose, become human and he might, if he chose, rise from the dead. Whether he did or not is a matter of evidence and faith. But there is nothing prima facie laughable about the claim, unless you happen to have an irrational prejudice against miracles.
But it is laughable--Monty Python laughable--that a man could deliberately gather a group of disciples around him and spend years assuring them that he is not the Messiah, all while they nodded and repeated back to him, "Exactly. You are the Messiah." It's silly to say that Jesus labored for three years to say, "Don't worship me. Worship God" and saw nothing amiss as his disciples murmured as one, "Yesssss, Maaaaster. We worship God and you." If Jesus was really the brilliant teacher polite unbelievers say he was, you have to wonder why he said, "This is my body" and not the much clearer and more obvious "This symbolizes my body". And if he didn't want to be called "son of David" (that is, "Messiah") then you have to wonder why he kept saying, "You rang?" when people shouted "Son of David, have mercy on me!" instead of chewing them out for being silly.
Here's the deal: the disciples thought Jesus was the Messiah because he claimed--in a dozen ways--to be the Messiah. No. Really. He did. And Palm Sunday is the most public and obvious claim of all. The only reason we don't see that clearly is because we aren't steeped in Jewish history. The history takes us back a thousand years to the moment when Solomon, the first "son of David" was crowned king. Bathsheba, mother of Solomon, acting in her office as Queen Mother, goes to the aging David to warn that Adonijah is making a grab at David's crown and to ask that he name Solomon as his successor:
And the king swore, saying, "As the LORD lives, who has redeemed my soul out of every adversity, as I swore to you by the LORD, the God of Israel, saying, 'Solomon your son shall reign after me, and he shall sit upon my throne in my stead'; even so will I do this day." Then Bathsheba bowed with her face to the ground, and did obeisance to the king, and said, "May my lord King David live for ever!" King David said, "Call to me Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet, and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada." So they came before the king. And the king said to them, "Take with you the servants of your lord, and cause Solomon my son to ride on my own mule, and bring him down to Gihon; and let Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet there anoint him king over Israel; then blow the trumpet, and say, 'Long live King Solomon! (1 Kings 1:29-34)
The gesture of riding the donkey into Jerusalem was not lost on a single person in the crowd on Palm Sunday, because it's about as subtle in that culture, as a presidential candidate in our time announcing his candidacy in a powdered wig at Valley Forge. That's why they shout "Hosanna to the Son of David!" People thought Jesus was the Messiah, not because they were spectacularly obtuse to the real meaning of a man who never intended to be seen as Messiah, but because they understood perfectly well that he was claiming to be the Messiah.
"But didn't Jesus himself rebuke them for not understanding him?" Correct. They misunderstand--as we still do today--what kind of Messiah he was. Just as we do today, They tried to fashion a Messiah into their own image and likeness: a military conqueror who would kick out the Romans and set up an earthly kingdom. Jesus had other plans and taught his disciples over and over until, in the crucible of the passion and resurrection and Pentecost, they finally understood what kind of Messiah he was. In other words, the disciples began with an imperfect understanding of who Jesus was and eventually came to a full realization of who he was with the help of grace. The only other alternative--the world's--is to begin with an imperfect understanding of who Jesus is and, by refusing to repent and listen to Christ and his Church--adopt an endless series of Latest Jesuses who perpetually reflect back to us our own faces and the prejudices, enthusiasms, fears and superstitions of our own age.
Jesus claimed to be Messiah on Palm Sunday, as he claimed it many times throughout his ministry. What this week burned into the souls of the apostles like a kiln firing clay was just what sort of Messiah he was. They learned. Will we?