The False Joy of Earthly Triumph
“As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road. When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!’ Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples!’ ‘I tell you,’ he replied, ‘if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.’ As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes.'”
This passage is saturated with metaphors pointing to a longing and expectation for peace: the mount is covered with a grove of olive trees, palm branches, a multitude proclaiming “peace in heaven,” and a man in lament, who truly knew the path to peace. The rejoicing multitude made a path and received what they expected to be their coming king, who would usher in a golden, earthly reign. The promise of peace produced a joyful response from the multitude. However, the text closes with a lingering doubt that the multitude’s expectations will be met the way they imagined. Jesus’s lament indicates the path to peace and true joy was much more difficult to perceive and pursue. In all truth, Jesus trod a lonely path, the one alone who knew the cost to be paid in coming days.
Having a sense of peace is a basic human desire because peace is the fertile field upon which the fruit of joy is produced. The path to peace and true joy is often not what we expect. We envision that peace and true joy can be achieved by earthly kingdoms and triumphs. Perhaps we can attain it from a career or civic involvement? Maybe the simple achievements of our children will distract our families from our next possible conflict? There are innumerable wells from which to draw the water of earthly triumphs. Nonetheless, whatever peace and joy gained through these means is fleeting and ultimately lets us down. Just as earthly kings are succeeded by lesser statesmen, and earthly kingdoms fall into the hands of cruel conquerors, our own triumphs too are short-lived. Earthly triumph is an unreliable means to joy.
Martin Luther understood the danger of placing hope in earthly triumph. When he reflected late in his life upon the success of the German Reformation, he understood the kind of loneliness Christ experienced as he trod towards the trial of his death. In the preface to his Latin Works, Luther recounted how he stood seemingly alone against the corrupt papacy. “At first I was all alone and certainly very inept and unskilled in conducting such great affairs.” Later he wished for his audience to sympathize with him for his “puny” works and the “confused” manner in which his writings developed. “I relate these things, good reader, so that, if you are a reader of my puny works, you may keep in mind, that, as I said above, I was all alone and one of those who . . . have become proficient by writing and teaching.” When his Latin Works published in 1545, Luther recognized he had once put his faith in promises of the world that could not hold. He had once been a “monk and a most enthusiastic papist.” Thus, his early works revealed these lingering sympathies and expectations that the Church in Rome might indeed reform itself. Time and various trials brought Luther to the point where he understood earthly rulers’ fleeting promises of peace. He turned from the papacy to German princes who put him in compromising circumstances, such as when he was forced to recognize Philip of Hesse’s bigamous marriage. Ultimately, Luther put his hope in the Word of God, which is why he so self-deprecatingly referred to his own works as puny. What concerned him and what inspired his hope was that “the Holy Bible itself can now be had in nearly every language.” The Word of God alone had the power to bring both peace and joy. Luther put his hope in God’s forever kingdom, which was grounded in his truthful Word. Life, earthly goods, and even kin might be forsaken for the promise of peace found alone in the one who trod the deadly and lonely path to the cross.1
“Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still, his kingdom is forever.”Martin Luther, “A Mighty Fortress,” vs. 4
King of Heaven, I am prone to put my hope in earthly kings, kingdoms, and triumphs. I have frequently sought this from my own earthly triumphs as well. To these earthly triumphs I have looked for both peace and joy, believing that they might give me lasting rest and delight. However, I have been repeatedly disappointed. I confess that this passage is another reminder that the pathway to joy through earthly triumph runs wild and leaves me lost in the wilderness. Would you show me the path to true joy this week? Amen.
Joey Cochran is the Social Media Coordinator at the Conference on Faith and History and a graduate student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He has published articles in Jonathan Edwards Studies and Bulletin of Ecclesial Theology.
1 Martin Luther, Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, edited by John Dillenberger (New York: Anchor Books, 1962), 3–12.