Palm Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week, the most sacred portion of the Christian calendar and the culmination of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry. Before this scene, Jesus taught and worked outside the main metropolis of Jerusalem. He enters Jerusalem now at the height of his “fame” and reputation as a Jewish leader, which strongly influences the reception he receives.
Entry into Jerusalem
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.”
Jesus receives a hero’s welcome, but in just a few short days the same crowd of people calls for his execution. Why?
Two key concepts: The Maccabean Revolt and the Roman Triumph
Triumph: In this context, a Triumph is like a parade, a massive display of power and authority that a king or general orchestrates in order to establish themselves in the eyes of the population. This is Jesus’ triumphal entry, yet he enters on the back of a borrowed donkey wearing simply clothes and with only a small band of humble followers. He intentionally parodies the cultural expectations of an arriving king. Why?
Jesus is sending a message; he is a king, but not the kind of king that people have seen before. Cultural expectations thought of “kingship” in terms of military and political authority. Jesus implicitly reminds those who receive him that his kingship is rooted in the kingdom of God, not the earthly kingdoms they have come to know.
Maccabean Revolt: The crowds that welcome Jesus into Jerusalem are subjects of the foreign Roman empire, taxed and oppressed by outsiders with very different values. Just under 200 years prior, the people of Israel faced a similar situation under the rule of Antiochus Epiphanes IV and the Seleucid empire. The Jews were eventually able to overthrow the foreign rulers and re-establish Jewish rule under the revolt led by the Maccabees, a dramatic moment that remained central in cultural memory. How do you think this might influence the crowds’ reaction to this arriving Jewish king? (Hint: Hosanna means “save us,” which should give you a clue . . .)
Jesus enters Jerusalem and is greeted as a military hero and revolutionary leader, even though he has repeatedly made it clear that he is a very different sort of king ushering in a very different sort of kingdom. The crowds, however, see what they want to see, and their disappointment turns to rage when they realize that Jesus won’t behave in the way they expect. Palm Sunday is a powerful story that communicates how far people will go to project their desires onto Jesus rather than listen to him for himself.