As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”
— The Gospel of Saint Luke, 19:36-38
ON both sides of the Pacific, people are spreading cloaks and waving palms. Americans and Filipinos are singing hosannas to would-be monarchs battling for national rule.
Their names fill mass and online media: Hillary Clinton. Ted Cruz. Bernie Sanders. Donald Trump. Jejomar Binay. Rodrigo Duterte. Grace Poe. Mar Roxas.
To them turn both powerful factions and powerless folk, seeking to share in the power, prominence and purpose they promise.
So it was two millennia ago when Jesus of Nazareth entered Jerusalem on a donkey, cheered as the promised messiah to end suffering and subjugation and restore Israel to Davidic glory and prosperity.
Then as now, people look to political leaders and movements for salvation from anxiety, animosity, and agony. Then as now, the kings raise expectations only to dash them.
As the first black President of the United States in 2008, Barack Obama stirred hopes that like him, Americans disadvantaged by race, class, poverty, and other burdens, would get a better deal.
But today, brash billionaire Trump leads the Republican Party primaries, tapping widespread distress and anger among Americans who feel shortchanged by an economy enriching the rich and leaving little for the little guys.
And hereabouts, despite the unprecedented 17 years of economic expansion since 1999, plus the high approval ratings of President Benigno Aquino 3rd, voters still seek leaders to beat endemic corruption, lawlessness and destitution.
Plainly, the potentates riding high through cloaked roads and adoring palms are not our saviors. Yet we keep laying cloth and waving leaves.
The problem with kings
Jesus rejected the kingly power the Jews expected their messiah to wield, and the mob crucified Him for that. Yet it was not the Caesars and empires of His time that survived and flourished to this day, but His kingdom built on the Word and Love of God.
Creation not being perfect like the Creator, Jesus knew no power on earth could end pain, want and death. As He told His apostles, “you always will have the poor with you.”
Even as we try to better our world, there is always someone lacking something. Hence, what’s constantly needed to assuage ills, as Jesus urged, is to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, free captives, and otherwise serve the least of our brethren.
But must we choose between service to others and wealth and power? Surely we can serve many more people with clout and cash. Commerce and governance have uplifted multitudes, more than 700 million poor in China alone since 1980.
That power to remake the world for good was one of the devil’s temptations during Jesus’ 40 days in the desert. But our Lord knew that harnessing worldly wherewithal meant ultimately enslaving oneself and others to it.
Thus, politicians endlessly battle to gain and hold authority, and tycoons must keep increasing their wealth or fall prey to rivals with bigger hoards. And the hoi polloi struggle to carve out their share of the pie, with little concern about what’s left for others.
In sum, earthly kings wielding force invariably bring pain and deprivation to some segments of society, provoking them to strive for their own clout and treasure. Just look at the constant conflicts among and within nations.
For sure, we need the powers that be for social order and direction, not to mention law enforcement and security. And there are rulers through the centuries who have brought great prosperity and peace.
But while kings can make people do things, both good and bad, they cannot force their souls to seek what is good and care for their fellowman.
That was the redemption Jesus offered: infusing souls with divine truth, justice and love, so that man strives for goodness in this world and union with God in the next. Or as the Lord’s Prayer puts it, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Okay, let’s have charity, but why Calvary?
Of course, the toughest part about Jesus’ Holy Week message is not disdaining the power and prestige of Palm Sunday, but undergoing the agony and death of Good Friday. One can pass up the chase for money and power, but why the Cross?
Even Jesus asked not to drink of that cup, but did so to fulfill His Father’s will. Why must we follow that drill? Will our pain and death help others in need?
Preachers have said that sacrifice shows our love and devotion, and psychologists argue that the destitute and the suffering are comforted by those who share their agony. And one sure indication that we are not hurting others or unduly serving ourselves is the pain of sacrifice. If we bleed, then we are suffering from harm, not causing it.
All that is true, but even more than demonstrating love and compassion, and tracing God’s tracks on earth, there is one more and perhaps even weightier reason for embracing our own passion and death.
Sacrificing all is the greatest human act God has done, so why should we skip it?
And in offering heaven our earthly woes, pains and mortality, our wretched lives become building blocks of God’s Kingdom, turning our blood, sweat and tears into epiphanies infinitely greater than the dust we are.
Grayed by ashen crosses at the start of Lent, we can emerge dazzling white next Sunday — after the scarlet of Friday and the black of Saturday.
Let us now wear all the colors of our salvation. Amen.