Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem looked and sounded like a celebration. Even today, when we hold Palm Sunday worship, we cannot help but look and sound like a celebration, too, waving palm fronds and shouting “Hosanna!”
It was at best a party of mixed emotions, however, and the man at the center of it all must have been deeply disturbed at what was to come. I wonder if he was able to enjoy the moment at all.
As Jesus passed through the gate into Jerusalem, all sorts of conflicting interests would have come together to watch the raucous scene. Some studies estimate Jerusalem’s normal population of 30,000 certainly doubled and possibly even tripled during this highest and holiest of Jewish holidays, the Passover. The formal city limits had to be temporarily extended, so travelers could say, “I was in Jerusalem for Passover this year.”
And in the midst of all of this, along came Jesus, riding on a donkey. It was a deliberate, overt act, one any good Jew would have recognized from prophecy. In particular, there were the words in Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of 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.”
The miracle man, the one who had already impressed so many with healings and feedings, was declaring himself king. The common people who gathered in the streets partially understood this sign, reacting by rolling out a palm-and-cloak carpet and shouting, “Hosanna!” Literally they were crying, “Save us,” although by this time “hosanna” was more a shout than words with real meaning.
We should pause here and acknowledge that the people weren’t fully understanding Jesus’ declaration. They failed to remember his teachings in the Sermon on the Mount—blessed are the peacemakers, turn the other cheek, love your enemies. In particular, they missed the significance of the donkey, something a king would ride only if he came in peace. Their failure to understand what it truly means for Jesus to be the king of peace would become evident as the week progressed.
And of course, there were others watching Jesus strike a match near what they considered a political powder keg.
There were the Sadducees, the Jewish faction in control of temple worship. They were fine with the system as it was, and they kept one nervous eye toward the Roman occupiers, hoping they weren’t picking up on the symbolism of Jesus’ ride.
There were the Pharisees, like Jesus reformers, but reformers deeply annoyed by Jesus’ constant criticism of their highly refined legalism and jealous of his miracles and popularity.
There were the Zealots, revolutionaries carrying sharp blades beneath their cloaks, hoping Jesus’ rousing of the crowd would lead to Roman blood in the streets.
And there were the Roman politicians and soldiers, fully armed and on high alert because of the crowds, determined to keep this backwater province under control.
Jesus knew what he was doing. He already had foretold his death and resurrection three times before riding into Jerusalem. And as he rode into the city, he must have looked around and thought, “This will get messy.”
We used to debate in seminary whether Jesus had to be crucified to save the world. Was it possible for people to fully acknowledge who he was, and then salvation to occur without his holy blood being shed?
The question is largely unanswerable in this life. I do like Clarence Jordan’s attempt, though: To be in “mortal combat” with the world, Jesus had to be in what Jordan called a “crucifiable situation.”
Palm Sunday marks Jesus’ willing entry into the valley of the shadow of death, a place where worldly factions fall on you with little warning, and where those who cheer you on may call for your death just a few days later. And he entered it for us, to free us from the power of sin and death.
Here’s the sobering part: As Christ’s followers, we’re called to walk through this broken world in the same way. Philippians 2:5-8:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.
“Let the same mind be in you,” in whatever we do. In politics, we are to be little kings of peace, remembering the Sermon on the Mount. And where there is a thin understanding of Jesus Christ and his role as Savior, it may require deep sacrifices on our part to give that truth weight.
When we consider Jesus on the cross, our following his example almost seems like a losing proposition. It would be, except for what we celebrate next Sunday.
But that’s a story for next week. This week, remember the boldness, and the all-important death that cleanses us.