(This article first appeared on TGC Australia: https://au.thegospelcoalition.org/article/smart-storytelling-five-reactions-to-palm-sunday/)

It’s one thing to have a COVID vaccine available. It’s another matter to convince people to get one. That’s why governments around the world have launched million-dollar ad campaigns to encourage their citizens to get vaccinated. As a former copywriter, I’ve been fascinated by how campaigns around the world have spun slightly different stories:

  • US: “It’s up to you”–an empathetic appeal to freedom-loving Americans (“it’s up to you if you get a vaccine”), but with a clever double meaning (“it’s up to you to get back to the moments you miss and enjoy”).
  • UK: “I’m still standing”–featuring Elton John and Michael Caine. A tongue-in-cheek appeal with the backing of trusted celebrities from the most at-risk age groups.
  • Singapore: “It starts with you”–a multilingual call to “rally the nation’s forefathers to protect themselves and their loved ones,” complete with bucketloads of nostalgic family scenes.

If the Apostle John lived in the 21st century, perhaps he’d have traded his fishing nets for a job as a lead copywriter … he’s so good at the art of storytelling.

I think if the Apostle John lived in the 21st century, perhaps he’d have traded his fishing nets for a job as a lead copywriter for an ad agency. That’s because he’s so good at the art of storytelling. In his eyewitness account of the life and death of Jesus, he gives more than facts. He includes the personal details, the individual reactions, the colour. When the wine runs out at the wedding in Cana, you can almost see Mary’s wry smile as she tells the servants to “do whatever he tells you to” (John 2:5). When Nicodemus nervously steps forward to meet Jesus, it’s in the cloak of night (John 3:2).

In  chapters 12:1-25, John’s masterful telling of Jesus’ Palm Sunday story includes five different reactions to Jesus. And, as with any good story-driven ad campaign, the question to ask is this:  who should I relate most with?

Reaction 1: Costly Devotion

Then Jesus, six days before the Passover, went into Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus raised from the dead. So they held for him a banquet there, and Martha was serving, but Lazarus was one of those reclining at table with him. Then Mary–taking a pint of pure, precious, perfume–anointed Jesus’s feet and wiped them with her hair. Now the house was filled because of the smell of perfume. (John 12:1-3)

It’s a Saturday night. Mary of Bethany has wept for her dead brother Lazarus (see John 11), and had that grief replaced with shock and joy at his resurrection. Now she expresses that joy in an act of lavish worship–extravagantly “wasting” a pint of pure nard on the feet of an honoured guest. She’s even bold enough to wipe it with her hair–very unusual behaviour for a 1st century woman. And as the smell wafts through the whole house, it invites us to wonder about the broader meaning of this moment.

Mary is treating Jesus like royalty–think about how Samuel anoints King Saul with oil (1 Sam 10:1), for example. But Jesus makes an interesting comment in verse 7, and says: It was intended that she should keep this perfume for the day of my burial.” Like a clever ad campaign, there’s a double meaning behind Mary’s devotion. Jesus is God’s Anointed King–but also the one who must be buried. There are important things happening in the coming week, yet Mary is the first to respond with costly devotion.

Reaction 2: Selfish Deceit

At least one person disagreed with Mary’s extravagant worship though.

But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one about to betray him) said:
Why was this perfume not sold for 300 denarii (a year’s wages) and given to the poor?” (John 12:4-5)

Judas certainly wasn’t the only disciple who was upset about the “waste of money” (see Mark 14:4). But John singles him out so that we can compare and contrast him with Mary. He tells it straight: Judas is a thief (v5)–more interested in lining his pockets than loving the poor. His story doesn’t end well: in just a few days he’ll betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, yet die a ruined man.

Where your treasure is, there your heart is too–that’s why John invites us to compare. Mary thought Jesus was worth everything she owned. Judas saw him worth no more than what you’d pay for a slave (see Exodus 21:32). John poses an honest question: what is Jesus truly worth to you?

Reaction 3: Outright Hostility

John tells us that Jesus’s dinner party is about to get interrupted:

Then a large crowd from the Judeans knew that he was there, and they came–not because of Jesus only, but to also see Lazarus, whom he raised from the dead. But the chief priests took counsel so they might kill Lazarus too, because many were departing from the Jews because of him, and they were believing in Jesus. (John 12:9-11)

There will always be people who ignore the undeniable, who will refuse to believe

The religious elite of Judea were already plotting to take Jesus’s life (11:53). But here their hostility becomes a murder plot. John is honest–there will always be people who ignore the undeniable, who will refuse to believe in Jesus. Heated opposition has always accompanied Jesus the Messiah. We need to be prepared to live in a culture where more and more people aren’t just indifferent, but openly hostile about Christianity. Does that describe someone you know? Or even you?

Reaction 4: Confused Passion

Two more groups feature the day after. First, it’s the large crowd again:

The next day, a large crowd which was coming into the festival, after they heard that Jesus came into Jerusalem, took the branches of palm trees, and went out to welcome him (as a dignitary), and they kept shouting: Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord, and the King of Israel.” For Jesus, having found the donkey, sat upon it, just as it is written, “Do not fear, daughter of Zion! Behold your king is coming, sitting upon a colt of a donkey.” (John 12:12-15)

It’s the familiar Palm Sunday story: Jesus rides in on a donkey; the crowds roar with delight. Yet the crowd’s passion is misplaced. You see, they’re welcoming Jesus in as if he’ll Make Israel Great Again (palm branches are the Jewish equivalent of waving your national colours). Yet John draws our attention to how this King comes in–lowly, riding on a donkey. He comes as the Prince of Peace (Zech 9:10). Jesus is no political zealot, nor some kind of Jewish jihadist. His victory will come through something lowly, humble, shameful even: death on a cross for sinners.

Reaction 5: Sincere Curiosity

Now there were some Greeks who were from those who had come up to worship at the Festival. So they came to Philip from Bethesda of Galilee and asked him, saying: Lord, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip came and told Andrew, then went and they told Jesus. Then Jesus answered them, saying: The hour has now come, that the Son of Man might be glorified.” (John 12:20-23)

There’s a telling comment just beforehand from the Pharisees: Look how the whole world has gone after him!” (v19). It’s some clever writing from John: yes, Jesus has gone global! Here’s Exhibit A: some non-Jewish inquirers.

The curious Greeks point to a far greater reality: the time has come for Jesus to draw the nations to himself

But what’s striking is that when these curious Greeks approach Philip with their request, John drops them out of the story entirely, and the camera points squarely to Jesus to give the tagline: The hour has now come, that the Son of Man might be glorified.” (v23)

John says the curious Greeks point to a far greater reality: the time has come for Jesus to draw the nations to himself (v32). Just like a seed must be buried in the ground to bring life-giving fruit to the world, Jesus’s death is what brings true life and hope to this world.

So if you’ve ever been curious about Jesus, you’re not alone. But how you respond matters. Perhaps you have vaccine-like questions. Is He safe? Is He good? Is He worthy of my trust? Can I encourage you to make this year not just the year of the vaccine, but the year you turn from self-interest, confusion, or hostility, and towards a life-giving relationship with Jesus.

He could be History or Hoax. He could be loser or Lord of all. Yet for John, Mary and countless others around the world, Jesus is the King who is worthy, because His death brings victory. What about you?

24 “Truly truly I say to you, unless a seed of grain falls into the earth to die, it remains alone. But if it dies, it bears a great crop. 25 The one who loves his life loses it, and the one who hates his life in this world will guard it for eternal life.