I have a colleague in ministry who has a complaint about the way most Christians observe Holy Week. My friend says that most go from the pomp of the Triumphal Entry of Palm Sunday to the victory of Easter without ever passing through the agony of Gethsemane, the horror of Good Friday, or the desolating grief of Saturday. I believe my friend has a valid point. However, I believe we could perhaps overcome that problem if we could reconsider the event we call the Triumphal Entry of Palm Sunday.
During the time of Jesus, Jerusalem had a population of 40,000-70,000 with a garrison of Roman soldiers stationed in the city to keep order. (An exact determination of Jerusalem’s population in Jesus’ day is very difficult to determine. The ranges go from hundreds of thousands to 18,000.) During Passover, pilgrims came to Jerusalem from all over and the number of people within the holy city was much larger than its usual population. To cope with the crowds the Romans were compelled to reinforce their relatively small garrison of soldiers. During the time of the procurators and prefects (Roman administrators given the task of governing Judea and Samaria and collecting taxes), the capital of Palestine was Caesarea, not Jerusalem. But each Passover the procurator or prefect (Pontius Pilate in the time of Jesus) journeyed to Jerusalem with his troops to maintain order and to impress and intimidate the Jews with the might of Rome. This was crucial to the Roman control of Palestine since Passover was a festival celebrating the liberation of the Hebrews slaves from the Egyptians. Such a time would naturally kindle the fires of nationalism and inspire the Jews to think of independence from the hated Romans. Passover would be a good time for the Messiah to come and liberate the Jews from the Roman yoke of oppression. So, Rome chose to maintain a visible and strong presence during this festival time.
Shortly before Passover, Pontius Pilate arrived in Jerusalem from the west at the head of an impressive array of Roman troops and with all the trappings of imperial power. Meanwhile Jesus and his followers arrived from the east (perhaps on the same day). He rode a donkey over the Mount of Olives, across the Kidron, and up to the Temple mount. This specific path was associated in the Jewish mind all the way back to David with the route taken by royalty as they entered the Holy City.
The intended contrast between these two processionals was profound. Compared to the splendor of Pilate on his war horse, Jesus on his little donkey must have been a ludicrous sight. We can wonder if his feet dragged the ground as he entered the city. In a world accustomed to triumphal entries by emperors, generals, and kings, the sight of Jesus entering the city by way of the royal path on a donkey must have seemed out of place. But as New Testament scholar Alan Culpepper points out, in the Gospels something is always out of place–the rich fool dies; the neighbor who does good is a half-breed Samaritan; the publican goes down from the Temple justified; the meek inherit the earth; the first are last and the last are first; the greatest become servants. And now the king enters the Holy City on a borrowed donkey. And his entourage must have raised some eyebrows as well–fishermen, tax collectors, harlots, blind men, demoniacs, and cripples. Around him was not the blare of trumpets but the shouts of the poor who understood him so deficiently. Jesus came to Jerusalem as a king, but as a king never witnessed in this world–a king of sinners and outcasts, of the poor and oppressed.
But what happened that day has far more meaning than even that observation. What Jesus did that day was a symbolic action. He was acting out a prophecy from Zechariah 9. His entry into Jerusalem was scripted by this Old Testament passage. These verses promised a king of peace coming on a donkey (the symbol of peace in contrast to the war horse). And we are told that this coming king will banish the war horse and other instruments of warfare from Jerusalem. And he will bring peace to all the nations from one end of the earth the other. So, when Jesus entered Jerusalem, he was confronting the powers of Rome and the Jewish aristocratic priests who controlled the Temple and collaborated with the Romans with the message he had been proclaiming in Galilee. His message of peace and sharing, of compassion and forgiveness was to clash with the hard political, religious, and economic realities of Roman ruled Palestine. But he was also confronting his followers and the crowds of poor around him with this same message. He knew that violent revolt was simmering among the Jews. They were sorely tempted to choose the way of the sword to rid themselves of their Roman oppressors. Jesus was keenly aware that this way could only lead to a bloodbath in which hundreds of thousands of Jews would surely perish. And Jesus was also convinced that the way of the sword was not the way of the God he called Abba.
I believe Jesus entered Jerusalem that day with a fragile hope that all groups within Jerusalem would recognize that their last hope was riding on that borrowed donkey. To confront Pilate the prefect, Caiaphas the high priest, and all the other power brokers of Jerusalem plus all the poor who equally misunderstood the ways of God had to be a moment of passion, danger, and isolation. His message of God’s Upside Down Kingdom personified in his little pony ride was his last plea to his people to choose a better way. Understood this way, we see that the “Triumphal Entry” of Palm Sunday was in fact the beginning of Jesus’ passion. And only he knew it. Even his closest disciples still did not comprehend the nature of this Peaceable Kingdom.
The events of that first Palm Sunday set in motion the agony and suffering of Holy Week. Neither Pilate, Caiaphas, the crowds, nor the disciples understood what was happening that day or what was possible if they would but seize the moment. You see, my friend is right. We are not free to jump from the pomp of Palm Sunday to the victory of Easter. Palm Sunday is the first step toward Calvary. And in our greedy and violent world, if we can truly understand Palm Sunday, then maybe we can understand Jesus–maybe we can understand the Kingdom–maybe we can understand the ways of God–and maybe we can understand the nature of our salvation, for what Jesus was saying that day and what he is still saying to us today as we stand among the spectators and watch his little pony ride is that there is no other way than his way of peace, justice, and sharing in our kind of world.
Prayer of Confession
Gracious God who continuously comes to us with new offers of salvation, life, and community, we acknowledge with gratitude your great love for us as we begin this Holy Week. We join the multitudes this day as we sing our Hosannas and offer our worship. Help us to feel the breadth of a joy which flows from knowing you as our God, and grant that we will praise you with a committed understanding of what it means to name you Lord of our lives and of our world.
Keep us from praise which knows not the cost of love or the price of your peace.
Deliver us from a communion which trivializes your presence in our midst and treats lightly the holy potential you bring in the broken bread and the new wine of Jesus.
Save us from dishonest prayer, indifferent devotion, hopeless resignation.
Rescue us from the betrayals and the denials of Jesus we are prone to commit in word, deed, and attitude as we seek everything but your Kingdom and its righteousness.
Grant, O God, that this week as we remember our Lord’s faithfulness and love and acknowledge the failures and fears of his disciples and ourselves, we may experience afresh your forgiveness, your solidarity with us, your committed love which will not let go.
Above all, may we not gaze upon your holy sacrifice for this world without it transforming us into new creations centered on your will and marked by your love.”
Finally, we pray, O Lord, that you will prepare us to meet the King as he comes to us in peace and humility, in broken bread and new wine, in sacrificial love and in the hope of eternal life. Hear our prayer in the name of Jesus, our Rock and our salvation. Amen.
The One who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey of humility and peace, who washed the dirty feet of proud men, and who offered his life in love for God and this world is the same one who is in our midst today. On this Palm Sunday as we partake of this bread and wine, may we comprehend more fully who he is and whom he calls us to be as we follow him in the ways of peace, justice, and sharing.
Jesus came into Jerusalem that last week of his life offering our world’s only hope. And today two thousand years nothing has changed. The power brokers still choose greed and violence to solve their perceptions of the world’s problems. And for the most part, the masses would choose the same path if they could. But what about us–those who call Jesus Lord? Do we understand? And as we enter our own Jerusalem, are we willing to follow him who is the way, the truth, and the life?
Depart now to walk the holiest path of the year.
May the Bread and Wine nourish you for the journey.
May the Towel and Basin guide you in the steps of humility and service.
May the Cross bind your heart to God as you are embraced by Her unfathomable love.
And may the Empty Tomb inspire you to a life of courage, hope, and compassion as you journey into the dawn of God’s New Creation.
9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!NRSV
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
10 He[a] will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war-horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
28 After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37 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, 38 saying,
“Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!”
39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout outNRSV