There’s an old familiar Robert Frost poem that speaks about diverging roads. You are probably familiar with its most famous line about taking the road less traveled and that making all the difference. Yet the poem is not titled “the road less traveled.” No, it is titled “The Road Not Taken.” As if the author is not focused on the road he took, but more on the road not taken.
And if, in fact, you read the poem, it is focused on the road NOT taken. Listen.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Frost wrote this poem as a joke for a fellow poet, Thomas Edwards. They would walk through the woods together and Edwards was always so indecisive about which direction they should go, that Frost wrote this poem to sort of poke fun at him…especially because Edwards would often lament afterwards that they should have gone the other way.
Obviously the poem has become quite famous. Most folks read it and take it pretty seriously….recognizing that the poem insists that a single decision can transform a life.
Though, as I said, Frost wrote it as a a joke, he admitted that he was never more serious than when he joked.
When roads diverge you have a choice to make. And whichever path you choice will change you, it will make a difference.
Palm Sunday, believe it or not, it about divergence, just like Frost’s poem. And there is both humor and seriousness in the Story of Palms.
Most of us know pretty well the story of Jesus processing into Jerusalem on a donkey…or was it a colt (actually it was both, and don’t ask me how Jesus rode both a donkey and a colt at the same time!). Listen to the scripture again:
When they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus gave two disciples a task. He said to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter, you will find a donkey tied up and a colt with it. Untie them and bring them to me. If anybody says anything to you, say that the Lord needs it.”
He sent them off right away. Now this happened to fulfill what the prophet said,
Say to Daughter Zion, “Look, your king is coming to you, humble and riding on a donkey, and on a colt the donkey’s offspring.”
The disciples went and did just as Jesus had ordered them. They brought the donkey and the colt and laid their clothes on them. Then he sat on them.
Now a large crowd spread their clothes on the road. Others cut palm branches off the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds in front of him and behind him shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
And when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up. “Who is this?” they asked. The crowds answered, “It’s the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Now in our scripture is recorded one particular path. The path of Jesus. Yet there was another path present in this day just as there are other paths present in our time, paths that are not the way of Jesus, but are about other values and different ethics and competing beliefs.
Two theologians, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan have put together pieces of history from other writings during the time of Jesus and written about the other way, the other path, the other road that was traveled that day long ago. In their book, The Last Week, they imagine the story this way:
Two processions entered Jerusalem on a spring day in the year 30. It was the beginning of the week of Passover, the most sacred week of the Jewish year.
One was a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession.
From the east, Jesus rode a donkey down the Mount of Olives, cheered by his followers. Jesus was from the peasant village of Nazareth, his message was about the kingdom of God, and his followers came from the peasant class. They were journeying from Galilee to the sacred city of Jerusalem, about a hundred miles to the south.
Imagine this scene: As Jesus approaches the city, he tells two of his disciples to go to the next village and get him a donkey and colt. They do so, and Jesus rides the animals down the Mount of Olives to the city surrounded by a crowd of enthusiastic followers and sympathizers, who spread their cloaks, strew leafy branches on the road, and shout, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Any pomp and circumstance is more like street theater, improvisation with the meager things that poor people had right around them. Simple, not lavish. Quaint, not conventional. Populist, not privileged. Centered on a God-king, not a human king.
From the west, on the opposite side of the city, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Idumea, Judea, and Samaria. He entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers proclaiming the empire of Rome.
Imagine the imperial procession’s arrival in the city. A visual demonstration of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.
Such an imperial, military procession was well known in the Jewish homeland in the first century. It was not done out of empathetic reverence for the religious devotion of their Jewish subjects. (quoted and paraphrased from Last Week, Ch. 1)
It was a procession to maintain the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome.
And it had two goals: display power and assert authority.
First, it was a procession to demonstrate the power and magnificence of Rome during a festival which celebrated the liberation of Israel from the Egyptian Empire. In other word, this imperial procession was about putting Israel in its place within the Roman Empire lest they get aspirations of liberation during this festival. This procession was about the military coming in to be present in the city in case there was trouble.
Second, the imperial procession was about proclaiming true divine authority. That is, the Roman emperor was Son of God, Lord, And Savior who had brought peace on earth. (Sound familiar?) lest any religious group get some notion that competed with the divine authority of Caesar, the Roman military came to town to ensure the priority of Rome’s divine mandate to ensure peace through the leadership of the emperor.
Two roads lead to the sacred place, the holy city of Jerusalem. They diverge. One is the road taken by a peasant procession celebrating the messiah, Jesus, the one who comes in the name of the Lord to proclaim the kingdom of God. The other road is taken by a military procession celebrating a different messiah, the Roman emperor, who is proclaimed by the empire to be the son of god come to ensure peace under the divine mandate of Roman rule.
Jesus’s procession deliberately countered what was happening on the other side of the city. Pilate’s procession embodied the power, glory, and violence of the empire that ruled the world. Jesus’s procession embodied an alternative vision, the kingdom of God. This contrast—between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar—is central the entire bible. From the story of Exodus to the words of the prophets to the life, ministry and teaching of Jesus.
And Jesus has by this time already given teachings that are quite applicable to these two diverging roads:
- No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other.
- Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. (And when you hear this teaching, keep before you the question: does anything really belong to Caesar? Because that is the question implied in Jesus words. If everything belongs to God, then there is nothing left to give Caesar.)
God’s ways are not the ways of the world. god’s ways are marked by the things of the procession of the palms: Simplicity, humility, servanthood, gentleness. God’s ways are marked by the teachings of Jesus love, Grace, mercy, self-giving acts of generosity.
The ways of the world are all too often other than these. They are the ways of the imperial procession marked by instilling fear, displaying power through opulence and military might, by asserting rule, judgement and punishment over people. And so on…
Two processions entered Jerusalem on that day. The same question, the same alternative, faces those who would be faithful to Jesus today. Which procession are we in? Which procession do we want to be in?
Traditionally, on Palm Sunday, we carry the palms we say aloud, Hosanna, Hosanna. Which means simply: Save Us!
Which path we choose leads us down a path towards one who will save us. One path leads to Jesus. Another leads to the rulers powers and leaders of this world. One path leads to love and grace. The other leads to fear, judgement and authoritarianism. One path leads to the mercy of God. The other leads to the mercy of human power and authority. One leads to forgiveness. The other leads to retribution and revenge.
Which path will you choose? Your choice, in the joking words of Robert Frost, may just make all the difference.