When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken though the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and other cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Today is Palm Sunday; churches around the world will celebrate by sharing the gospels’ message of Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem. The week which follows is the most important season in the Christian calendar; it’s the time of year that we celebrate our Saviour’s death, burial and resurrection from the dead and during this week we celebrate the gift of salvation and redemption that God has given us.
But there is important background information that the Gospels don’t give us but which can be discerned from contemporary records and which should help us to understand better the events of this day and the days to come.
It was standard practice for Roman governors to be present in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival: not out of religious sensitivity but to be in the city in case there was trouble – and there often was at Passover, a festival that celebrated the Jewish people's liberation from an earlier empire, the empire of Egypt. Pilate's military presence was a demonstration of both Roman imperial power and Roman imperial theology because according to Roman imperial theology the Emperor was not simply ruler of Rome, but the Son of God.
So, two processions entered Jerusalem on that spring day in the year 30 at the beginning of the week of Passover. One was a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession. From the east Jesus rode a donkey down the Mount of Olives. His message was about the Kingdom of God and his followers came from the peasant class. On the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate the Roman governor entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers. Pilate's procession proclaimed the power of empire. These two processions embodied the central conflict of the week that would lead to Jesus' Crucifixion.
Jesus' procession deliberately countered what was happening on the other side of the city. Pilate's procession embodied the power, glory and violence of the empire that ruled the world. Jesus's procession embodied an alternative vision, the Kingdom of God. The confrontation between these two kingdoms would continue through the last week of Jesus life.
The Gospels make it absolutely clear that the ruling Jewish authorities worked through the approval of the Roman authorities and were therefore collaborators. The local people were oppressed not just by the Romans and their taxes but by the puppet authorities - which included the Temple Authorities whose primary obligation to Rome was loyalty - and their taxes.
This was the Jerusalem Jesus entered on Palm Sunday. His message was deeply critical of the temple and the role it had come to play as a tool of empire and Jesus pronounces forgiveness apart from temple sacrifice. Jesus' message and activity put him in conflict with the temple authorities from the moment he arrived in Jerusalem.
As we consider Palm Sunday we need to be clear that the conflict which led to Jesus' crucifixion was not Jesus against Judaism. Jesus was part of Judaism not apart from it. Jesus' is a Jewish voice arguing about what loyalty to the God of Judaism meant. He was arguing against a religious system fatally compromised by collaboration with Rome.
We need also to remember that the long hoped for Messiah was generally expected to be a warrior King who would drive out any occupying force. The Jews loved Passover because of the hope it offered. It was a national day of Jewish pride. At Passover the Jews remembered the freedom of God’s people from the Egyptians. It also looked forward to the future freedom of the Jews. The people of God had been oppressed for hundreds of years. Under the Assyrians, under the Babylonians, under The Persians, under Alexander the Great and the Greeks, under corrupt Jewish leaders and now under the harsh rule of the Romans.
It was this expectation of military might that Jesus subverted in his humble arrival: an arrival which those who knew their scriptures might recognise as a fulfilment of Zechariah’s prophecy, “Be full of joy, O people of Zion! Call out in a loud voice, O people of Jerusalem! See, your King is coming to you. He is fair and good and has the power to save. He is not proud and sits on a donkey, on the son of a female donkey.”
No self-respecting king would ride a donkey. If you wanted to make an impact, you would come in on a white war-horse surrounded by soldiers, but that wasn’t the way of Jesus, nor of the Kingdom he sought to usher in.
What, we might ask ourselves, does it feel like to have less than a week to live?
That’s the situation in which Jesus finds himself when he makes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The crowds don’t know what’s coming. The disciples have been given hints and overt predictions from Jesus that the Son of Man will be betrayed into the hands of sinners and killed, but they haven’t fully understood the implications.
To the disciples and the crowds, this is a moment of incredible potential and excitement. Those who travelled with him have seen the miracles Jesus is capable of – and word has spread of his approach, so who knew what that power might do if they could convince him to turn it against Rome?
What a lonely moment this must be for Jesus, to be surrounded by screaming supporters but burdened by the knowledge that this is the point of no return. By entering Jerusalem on a colt with the crowds laying down their cloaks before him and shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David!” he has triggered one prophetic tripwire too many. The Roman rulers and the Jewish religious authorities can no longer pretend that he is insignificant, that he is not dangerous. Jesus was deliberately provoking the crisis that would end with him on the cross.
And our immersion in these scriptures this week, moving from the palm procession to the Passion, is deliberately designed to provoke a crisis within ourselves. The transition in Jesus’ fortunes in less than a week from adulation and joyful allegiance to rage-filled demands for him to be crucified; the disciples moving from proudly walking at his side through the streets of Jerusalem to slinking away in stomach-clenching fear, insisting they don’t know who he is, should give us pause for thought because it reflects, in brief, our own lifelong journeys with Jesus.
Holy Week, which begins today, is our opportunity to immerse ourselves in this move from the false joy of Palm Sunday, a joy that is centred around expectations of power and reward, through the pain of finding that our faith is often so weak when Jesus needs us the most, finally to the deep and profound joy of the day of Resurrection, the day of forgiveness and new life. We have the opportunity to walk with Jesus in real time as the hourglass runs out, as he struggles with the knowledge that he has less than a week to live.
Today we make a choice. We can choose to be present with Jesus as his disciples throughout this week, confronting the ways in which we betray him and loving him as we see him struggle for the courage to endure his death or we can let the meaning of these events pass us by.
The only tools we need to be present with him are the scriptures and open hearts to make this journey with Jesus.
Two processions entered Jerusalem that day. Which procession are we in? Which do we yearn to be in? This is the question of Palm Sunday and of the week that is about to unfold. Let’s spend that week with Jesus.