The scandal of Palm Sunday


‘Christ on the Ass’, c. 1480. Limewood and pine, painted and gilded. Southern Germany. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

There’s a little study on ‘The Scandal of Palm Sunday’ (based on Hebrews 2.18) in William Stringfellow’s Free in Obedience where he argues that Palm Sunday is not a day of triumph but of dramatic temptation for Christ, and ‘profound frustration’ for the disciples. Moreover, it is for us moderns a ‘symbol of the terrific confusion which burdens the Church as to the meaning and manner of the Christian witness in society … If only Palm Sunday were the outcome of Christ’s ministry, Christians would be rid of the gospel and free from all that distinguishes them as Christians from the rest of the world’ (p. 34). If Christ’s ministry ended here among palm branches and civic celebration, we could be spared the embarrassment of Judas’ betrayal, the apathy and cowardice of the remaining eleven, the mystery of the Last Supper, Gethsemane’s sweat and agony, the accusations of the authorities, the ridicule of the crowd, the cross and the descent into hell, the embarrassment of the resurrection and the ‘awful gift of Pentecost’ (p. 35). ‘Palm Sunday’, Stringfellow insists, ‘is no day of triumph; for Christians it is a day of profound humiliation’ (p. 37).


  1. No, the only temptation is to sponsor a contest for the best Palm Sunday sermon that is actually about the God-man on the donkey– and why even the stones would have acclaimed him, and what that meant– rather than an annual disparagement of congregations ancient and modern. The same preachers who on Palm Sunday scold believers for any joy they might possibly feel at a public expression of faith with some civic resonance will scold them again on Good Friday for not standing with their Lord in his confrontation with civic power. This seems a safe, evasive displacement. The priest of my youth who dressed like Fidel and drove a jeep up the aisle to the altar was an unfortunately ambiguous sign. So, wonderfully engaged as it was, is Stringfellow’s righteous but individualistic confrontation with the powers of this world. So also, but in a way more helpful now, are the Greek villagers who will circle their villages three times with tapers lit from the Paschal fire. Tonight, I will just read Tom Wright.


  2. I agree, Bowmanwalton, that Jesus did not reject the praises. In fact at one level the praise is necessary (the rocks will cry out) even if the crowd (like the rocks) do not understand the meaning of their praises. However, this does not eliminate the profound ambiguity of his situation when faced with a parade which is so reminiscent of those of the Maccabean revolt, nor does it eliminate the ambiguity present in Jesus weeping for the city that didn’t know what makes for peace (indeed that killed the prophets). However, do you not think that the disciples should have stood with their Lord, indeed taken up their own crosses? Did they not fail, like the city, to know the cost of peace? In what sense to you see Stringfellow’s cause indivualistic?


  3. Thomas Smith– Yes, I’ve found many excellent things in Jason Goroncy’s posts.

    Bruce Hamill– Yes, your treatment of the Entry into Jerusalem (at the link below) is about Jesus the Christ, and as such it is much better for Palm Sunday than a sort of preaching that seems to expound, not the scriptures, but Charles Mackay’s “Memoirs of Extraordinary Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” (link below). If you have not heard lazy “individuals = true prophets, crowds = faithless sinners” homilies during Holy Week when you expect reflection on the Lord, then you have been blessed.

    Personally, I am intrigued by William Stringfellow’s discussion of Jesus’s “adventus,” but would not hold it to the standard of a homily for Holy Week. Stringfellow took care to do the work of a preacher, but he also understood that sermons must address their context. A book is a book, and I am not the student of his books that Jason Goroncy has been.

    How does Stringfellow focus on the individual? In a way analogous to Jacques Ellul, Stringfellow recognizes that modern institutions and mass movements can be seen as “principalities and powers,” and criticizes their hold on the individual conscience. In this, both of them baptized Max Weber’s view that modern society would eventually become a vast crystal of institutional atoms, each an “iron cage” of bureaucratic rationality for the individuals that it empowered for its own purposes yet regimented against their natures as persons. This view of institutions as inevitably both powerful and dehumanizing is most persuasive when Stringfellow is on the attack against social evils that he believes that he can attribute to just such a bureaucratic logic, including what he saw as the evils in churches. Wherever one can make an analogy from Jesus’s critique of cruel Pharasaical legalism to the “iron cage” of cruel bureaucratic consistency (or later, to the “discipline” of Michel Foucault), this seems persuasive. A closer reader of Stringfellow than I am may see how he reconciled this analogy with St Paul’s concern that Christians live out their callings within the orders of society as they find them. It is, anyway, the banner of liberal, egalitarian churchmanship.

    However, the main way in which Stringfellow focuses on the individual is that even the church’s inner life is just that of another oppressive institution, and not the Body in which the whole person finds an organic place among others. Like his friend Thomas Merton, Stringfellow indeed experienced church as an institution where the wholeness of persons was not always blessed. But unlike Merton, Stringfellow seems not to have persevered to explore the nurturing of persons by the Word in community, or to explain how the agape of the Church’s inner life overflows as its witness to the world. Indeed, Stringfellow’s methodological suspicion of corporate life was long taken to suggest that the church is so purely about prophets scolding or celebrating the society around them that the church herself has– and should have– no gravitas of her own. In a famous 1966 article in the Christian Century, Stringfellow writes, “The only reason Christians gather now and then in sanctuaries is not because God is there, but rather to celebrate and proclaim God’s presence and action outside the sanctuaries – in the common life of the world.” No daylight shines between that low view of the church and The Episcopal Church’s crisis of order today. Cause and effect.

    The Eisenhower ’50s treated “religion” as a private matter for individuals, and Stringfellow rightly reacted hard against this to insist on the public, if religionless, character of gospel faith. But the result sometimes sounds as though he read to Chapter V of the Epistle to Diognetus but stopped short of Chapter VI (below). He missed a third option that many have embraced in the decades since– faith in Christ is manifest in the Body of Christ. If (and only if) faith is lived in community, then (and only then) it can have some credible, visible consequences for a public that first sees (and perhaps respects) what some of it may come to understand. Stringfellow knew models of such “life together” in the lives of Merton and perhaps Bonhoeffer, but he must have seen them as a variation on the institutionalized privatization of religion he was concerned to uproot. Today, William Stringfellow and Stanley Hauerwas share many admirers, but the “peaceable kingdom” of the latter has a particular ethos that it cannot share with a world that will not share its narrative, and it is not clear that Stringfellow’s ethics makes adequate room for it.

    Some still admire the church of schwärmerei that they find in many writings of the ’60s, including Stringfellow’s, but others have been responding to two realities of our own condition– Weber’s modernity (which never fully happened) became postmodern flux, setting individuals loose from institutions once again; and Christ brings, not a disembodied prophecy for the world, but a presencing Body of persons whose deeds will not be ignored. Still, William Stringfellow is a fascinating figure, and Jason Goroncy or another close reader may yet show that he has an unexpected relevance to our condition.


  4. Thanks for your full response. I am not one of those close readers of Stringfellow Whois in a position to take up your challenge. But your point about a third way in community is good… Although Im not sure about the notion that the true life of the church should be thought of as the inner life of an institution. I prefer to think of the institutions as epiphenomenon of true ecclesiality. I have argued something along these lines in a recent article in IJST last year.


  5. Bruce Hamill– I look forward to the pleasure of reading your article! No, within Max Weber’s social ontology a church cannot be an “institution” (though he thought otherwise) because, so long as it preaches the gospel in all conditions, it does not have a “definite competence,” and the service of that gospel cannot be a mere “iron cage.” (A: “But since X is not a religious matter, the church has no competence to speak about it. All X are the sole responsibility of the Department of X!” B: “Nevertheless, X is a creature, and God raised Jesus from the dead as the firstfruit of the new creation, and it seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us…”) So yes, it would indeed be grotesque to think of “the true life of the church… as the inner life of an institution,” just as it would also be grotesque to think of the true gospel of the church as the outer propaganda of an institution to its society. We still struggle, as Stringfellow, Ellul, and their contemporaries did, with a social ontology that poorly represents the ecclesial embodiment of the Word in time. Thank you for engaging this struggle yourself, both here and elsewhere.


Comments welcome here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.