Palm Sunday has never been the same for me since I saw the film Parable in 1964.
Actually, I was never comfortable with Palm Sunday. The holiday commemorates Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem at the time when great crowds were gathered in the City for the celebration of the Jewish Passover. As Luke tells the story,
Jesus went up toward Jerusalem, and on the way, near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a young donkey that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 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!” (Luke 19:29-38)
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem never sounded triumphal to me, first, because he was riding on a donkey, and second, because, before the week was over, the same crowds were crying, “Crucify him!” Luke’s description of the event always seemed to have an undertone of irony, even sarcasm.
Parable was produced by filmmaker Rolf Forsberg for the Protestant Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Even before it was completed, some Christian leaders were condemning it because it presented Jesus as a circus clown. I went to a showing as a curious skeptic, and the film knocked me over. Here is a very crude reproduction on Youtube.*
The opening scene shows a circus parade coming into a small, rural town. You can hear its eerie music in the distance, then drawing closer and finally passing by. There at the very rear of the parade is the sad, wistful clown riding on a small donkey, with his legs almost touching the ground. To me, this unlocked the meaning of Jesus’ so-called Triumphal Entry. It explained why the usual interpretations left me unsatisfied.
Along the circus parade route, the clown pauses several times to help somebody who has a burden or a problem. As the parade enters the city, the crowd is jubilant to see the elephants, the gymnasts, the jugglers. The clown has the same melancholy look on his face.
Inside the tent, only one act is portrayed. A weird puppet master pulls the strings of three actual human marionettes, forcing them to bully and hit each other repeatedly, until they are slumped over in defeat. The clown enters. He lovingly takes the strings from one marionette’s arms and puts them on his own. The puppet master sneers and lifts his new victim into the air. All of his evil intentions are now focused on this one victim, and he yanks hard on the strings, causing the clown to be twisted in one direction after another. A dramatic closeup shows the clown with his arms outstretched, as if they were nailed to a cross. He lifts his eyes to heaven and gives one long, loud final cry.
The movie ends with the circus parade leaving town. The clown on his donkey brings up the rear. I picture them arriving at another town – perhaps MY town 2,000 years later. There will be another “triumphal entry,” and this time the clown will stretch out his arms for ME.
— Pastor George Van Alstine
*I purchased a DVD copy of the restored movie. I loaned it to someone and can’t remember who. Anyone want to fess up?