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Problem Palms And Pilgrims
Yes Hosanna, Hosanna, No Crucify Him, Crucify Him
Miguel López de Legaspi was a Spanish conquistador who established one of the first European settlements in the East Indies and the Pacific Islands in 1565. After obtaining peace with various indigenous tribes, López de Legazpi made the Philippines the capital of the Spanish East Indies in 1571.[i]
In his letters, he left a classic comment that foreshadowed the exasperation of westerners with Asians for centuries to come: “Face to face, they agree to anything—never saying ‘no’ to any proposal. The moment they turn their backs, however, they never keep a promise nor have they any concept of honesty and sincerity. Accordingly, it will be difficult to make durable arrangements with them on the basis of friendship, rather than through coercion and fear.”[ii]
Many westerners think that Filipinos are habitual liars or promise breakers. And based on western standards they are 100% correct. But when one accuses the Filipino of lying or not keeping a promise they are shocked. This is often the problem that exists between two different cultures. What one culture thinks is proper another culture has a different perception.[iii]
In America and the western world in general, people are upfront about their answers. For example, if you ask your friend “Would you like to go to a movie?” Your friend will give you a definite answer Yes or No. If your friend says “No” you understand that he or she is being honest and has other commitments.
The problem is that Filipinos wish to always make people happy. So if you ask them a question, they don’t like to say “No.” Instead the Filipino will give you what is called a “Yes-No” meaning “Maybe” answer. A Filipino may say “Yes,” but he or she may really mean “No.” If a Filipino says “Yes” but adds that “Maybe” he or she might be busy at the time, that really means “No.”
Of course, like most things, everyone assumes that one should know the rules. This can cause all sorts of confusion. You may ask a friend “Do you think this is a good idea?” It may be a really bad idea that would make anyone say “No,” but to make you happy the Filipino will say “Yes.” In reality, it’s a big “Maybe.”
That’s why most surveys conducted in the Philippines are inaccurate. Filipinos will answer the questions with what they think will make you happy. They avoid telling you how they actually feel. It’s not that they’re indecisive. The response shows a well-mastered tact of protecting the other person from hurt. Filipinos prefer to preserve a relationship at the expense of telling you the painful truth.
Jesus said, “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, ‘Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.’ Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”[iv]
What Jesus is saying is that when you’re talking, say “Yes” when you mean Yes, and “No” when you mean No.[v] Anything that goes beyond the true meaning of your answer be it “Yes” or “No” is begotten from the evil one.
This background brings us to the foreground of what was happening when Jesus entered the gates of Jerusalem. He just raised his friend Lazarus from the dead. Nobody has ever done that since the days of the prophet Elijah. This miracle comes at the heels of many other miraculous deeds he had done. Maybe Jesus is who he says he is? Maybe Jesus is what his followers have made him out to be? Maybe the rumors about his identity are true after all? Is he the promised Messiah? The long-awaited Deliverer? The King of Israel?
It’s been two hundred years or so since an Israelite stepped up the fight against the Roman occupation and oppression in their land. Judas Maccabaeus and his family dynasty of rulers were short-lived conquerors. It’s been quite awhile since the nation had a real legitimate king to lead the people in restoring their sacred practices and cleansing their way of life. Herod the Great and his family dynasty were total phonies. It’s high time that someone offered them a way out—a political exodus from being enslaved by the iron hand of a foreign power and being duped by the illegitimate rule of a puppet king.
Whatever Jesus was promising, or his followers were expecting, sounded too good to be true. At this point, the people were ripe and ready to hitch their bandwagons and shout, “Yes! Yes!” to anyone who would stand up against the Romans and the Herodians. In fact, they embraced Jesus for all the wrong reasons with a resounding “Yes.” The great crowd of pilgrims that had come to celebrate the Passover festival in Jerusalem was stirred up by the coming commotion. Jesus was making his way toward the city gate riding on a donkey’s colt. The picture was irresistible! The prophetic signs and symbols were obvious! The age-old prediction was being fulfilled before their eyes!
Joining in on the action, the great crowd cut branches from the palm trees nearby and spread them on the road.[vi] The palm branches provide a shade of truth as to what happens when a conquering king comes to liberate a city. No sooner did the people witness this spectacle that they lined the streets in a frenzy waving palm branches and shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the King of Israel!” The blessed teaching of old is retold. God’s promise faithfully handed down to them by their forefathers is making his appearance before us. Jesus comes as the promised Messiah—the King of Israel — the one who will deliver them from their enemies! Their freedom and future is theirs for the taking. It doesn’t get better than this! The people have no trouble identifying with Jesus’ cause. Whatever he’s selling, they’re buying. Throwing their “Yes” his way they shout out, “Hosanna! Jesus save us! Save us now!”
What the prophets of old foretold was coming to pass. This great vision, straight out of the Hebrew Scriptures, danced in their heads. The prophetic words of Isaiah and Zechariah were coming to life: “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!”[vii]
The problem with palms is that once you cut the branches from the trees, they don’t live long.[viii] They grow dry all too quickly. They become brittle in no time. The problem with Palm Sunday is that the excitement of the great crowd faded fast. Jesus wore out his royal welcome. It did not last past Palm Sunday.
When Good Friday rolled around, the Romans were still very much in control. The religious establishment had Jesus arrested and tried. His would-be followers and supposed supporters were nowhere to be found. True to form, these hypocrites honored Jesus with their lips, but their hearts were far from him.[ix] After all, the great crowd’s expectations weren’t met. Their zeal for the Lord was shallow. They pinned their hopes and dreams on the mind-blowing miraculous deeds Jesus could do for them. They were caught up and confused with all the signs and wonders he performed. When his mission misfired and their plans came to nothing, their enthusiasm dried up. When Jesus failed to meet their worldly demands, they turned on him. Their brittle hearts hung him out to dry. Their willing “Yes!” wilted down to a chilling “No!” The same voices that cried out “Hosanna!” six days ago, now cried out “Crucify him! Crucify him!”[x]
The problem with pilgrims is that they would willingly get behind Jesus’ parade to the throne, but they would not follow him on the road to the cross. They would gladly choose the crown of gold over the crown of thorns. They would say “Yes” to the thrill of victory and “No” to the agony of defeat. These pilgrims would wave palms before the coming King of Israel, but they would not bow down and obey the Suffering Servant of God.[xi]
Palm Sunday is a day in history that speaks to Christians in every age. It’s relatively easy to set aside one Sunday out of the year to wave our palms and sing our hymns of Hosanna to our hearts content. It was one thing to rally behind Peter and say alongside him, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.”[xii] I will not disown you. I will never say that I don’t know you. It’s another thing to take up our cross alongside Jesus Christ and follow him to our death.
I’d like to introduce to you two modern-day pilgrims in search of the truth—men that asked what it meant to follow Christ. Eric and John are two seekers that I have come to know through my teaching ministry. They were intelligent as they were inquisitive. Eric was a former senior graphic designer on my staff in the early 1980s. John worked in the healthcare industry providing nurses for caregiver homes throughout Los Angeles. Both men said “Yes” when they were invited to attend a Bible study. Eric attended a study with his peer group in Metro Manila, while John attended a study alongside those in the medical industry in Eagle Rock. It was obvious that both men replied with a “Yes” to attend and know Christ, but really meant “Maybe” when it came down to following Christ.
In time, Eric understood and embraced the commitment he needed to make in carrying his cross daily in order to follow Jesus. He got involved in a church, continued to attend Bible studies, exercised his God-given spiritual gifts, joined the choir, and made a difference for Christ through his life in his community. Eric’s initial reply “Maybe” eventually became a resounding “Yes.”
John, on the other hand, was an antagonist. His questions in the Bible studies were often sarcastic and at times disruptive. In spite of being reprimanded for his attitude, John continued to attend in Eagle Rock. While he was listening to the lessons, he was squeezing his knowledge of Christ into a box of his own choosing. He persisted to make Jesus out according to his own preconceived understanding. As John would find himself at cross-purposes with the teachings of Bible, his initial reply “Maybe” was obviously a discouraging “No.”
Last Thursday I learned that Eric and John passed away on the very same day. Both men in their early 50s battled with terminal cancer to the end. Eric remained just as committed to Christ upon his deathbed as he was from the time he decided to follow Him. His “Yes” to Christ will echo throughout eternity. John held back from making a verbal confession to follow Christ as his Lord and Savior. His answer “No” toward the truth of the Bible remained.
There is a life ahead of us. Christ himself assured us that those who lose their lives for his sake would save it.[xiii] None of us will know the length of our days. We don’t know how much time we have left on earth. Every time we learn of someone who dies we are reminded of that. Like Eric and John, none of us can know what the future holds. But we can know that God has a purpose for us. He calls us to remain vibrant in our faith and resilient in our resolve to follow Him. He calls us to wave our palms in praise and carry our crosses in obedience. Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”[xiv] I hope you choose to follow Jesus, wherever He leads. If that is your choice, I encourage all pilgrims this Palm Sunday, to confess and/or rededicate your lives to Jesus Christ with your lips, come forward with your commitment, and lay your heart before the cross. Amen.
[i] Stanley Karnow, “Miguel López de Legazpi,” In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines (New York: Random House,1989).
[ii] Ibid., 45.
[iii] “Filipino businesspeople try to avoid confrontations of any kind; giving a direct answer of NO can be especially difficult for them… As a “face-saving” measure, Filipinos will often say YES when they don’t actually mean it. For example, a YES may be used to disguise a lukewarm response such as “I’ll think about it” or an outright NO You will have to be alert to subtleties in conversation to help discern the sincerity of the response… to ensure that a Filipino YES really means YES, you must get it in writing. Typically, Filipino businesspeople feel obliged to honor any written agreement.” (ASAG, 2005)
“When a Filipino executive feels that telling the truth might embarrass or offend, he or she will often beat around the bush. In this context, YES doesn’t necessarily mean YES. The word YES could also mean MAYBE, ‘I guess that’s what you want to hear,’ ‘Perhaps someday,’ ‘I have no idea,’ or NO. There are, of course, a wide array of subtle cues to the real meaning, some nonverbal and some in Tagalog. For example, the word mamaya implies ‘later today,’ while saka na means more like ‘sometime later, maybe tomorrow, maybe next month, or next year… ’”
“In the Philippines, YES is YES, MAYBE is NO and NO is rarely heard. Ask a Filipino a YES or NO question… one is likely to get a YES if the idea sits well with him. If it doesn’t, he won’t say NO he’ll say MAYBE. His response, irresolute as it may seem to non-Filipinos, doesn’t necessarily reflect an inability to make decisions. Rather, it shows a well-mastered tact of protecting the other person from hurt. He says MAYBE though he means NO to soften the force of a direct negative and thus immediately assuage the other person’s feelings.”
“All of those words mean more or less the same thing. They all show that something is possible, or might be true. However, the real difference in meaning between them is when we use them and in what context. One is informal, another is neutral and another one is formal… ‘Maybe’ is quite informal, ‘perhaps’ is neutral, and ‘possibly’ would be a little bit formal.” [Emphasis supplied.]
[iv] Matthew 5:33-37.
[v] N. T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1, Chaps. 1-15 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 46.
[vi] Matthew 21:8.
[vii] Isaiah 62:11; Zechariah 9:9.
[viii] Tony Cartledge, “The Problem With Palms,” Matthew 21:1-22, a Palm Sunday sermon, Tuesday, March 4, 2003.
[ix] Matthew 15:8.
[x] Matthew 19:6.
[xi] Isaiah 53:5.
[xii] Matthew 26:35.
[xiii] Luke 9:24.
[xiv] Luke 9:23.