11When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 2and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. 3If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” 4They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” 6They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. 7Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. 8Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. 9Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
10Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
11Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
What I am Learning
We have a tendency to interpret biblical passages such as this in a magical way and miss the point of it entirely.
I have heard many people wonder how he knew the donkey was available for him to use. They seemed to be operating out of a magical perspective that Jesus is either able to read minds, knew the future, or is simply acting out a pre-planned script written by God.
But none of these are necessary for us to interpret this text. Jesus was just a good leader. He was able to gather an audience and some followers. He was able to select, train and lead 12 disciples. He had another group of close followers including people from all social strata. He gathered a large group of followers who formed a nation-wide movement of resistance to the Roman Empire and hope for all people including Romans.
I think if Jesus is a good enough leader to do all that, then he would be a good enough leader to secretly pre-arrange some symbolic transportation into Jerusalem.
Jesus was a public leader and you don’t lead a large movement of people without the use of public symbols. Gandhi went on several well publicized fasts to apply pressure to the leaders in his country. He organized and led the “salt march” in which he protested the British monopoly on this ingredient of life. This was a public protest designed to apply public pressure for the British to stop oppressing the poor with high salt prices. The reaction of violence by the British troops, observed by the press and thus by the whole world, began to break the yoke of English rule in India.
We recently saw the fifty year anniversary of the march at Selma Alabama. We heard stories of congressman John Lewis who on Bloody Sunday was struck in the head by Alabama State Police until his head was fractured.
Both of these were carefully planned public events whose intent was to expose an unjust status quo and create the possibility for positive change.
Jesus’ march into Jerusalem was just such an event.
About 200 years before another army occupied Jerusalem. Antiochus Epiphanes became ruler of the Selucid Empire in 175 BCE. A Hebrew leader named Jason bribed Antiochus to make him the high priest. But this enraged many of the Hebrew people ending in riots and all sorts of unrest. Antiochus then plundered the Temple and tried to outlaw most Jewish practices including temple sacrifice, circumcision and the reading of the Torah.
Eventually the Maccabees family led a revolt, mostly using guerrilla tactics. Eventually they won. They led a march into Jerusalem with palm branches and entered the temple and cleansed it to be used once again in the worship of God.
So when Jesus entered the city in a march of palms, he was drawing a comparison between what the Maccabees did and what Jesus was doing. He was also drawing a comparison between what was happening to the People of Israel in the Maccabean days and in his day. Among these similarities were:
- Occupation by a foreign power
- The occupiers choosing the high priest
- People forgetting the heart of the Torah (love of God and neighbor)
- Economic oppression
- Violent suppression of dissent
But here is where there is a difference between Jesus and the Maccabees. In the ancient Middle East, if a conquering king rode into town on a war horse that meant that the army was free to loot, take women as wives (or worse) and that men could be killed if soldiers wished.
But a conquering king who rode into town on a donkey sent a very different signal. This meant that the city and its people, while now ruled by the king, would be basically left untouched. It meant the king was now going to begin his rule in peace.
There was not one Jewish person in Jerusalem who did not understand the meaning of a march with palms. Everyone understood the meaning of a king arriving on a donkey or colt.
They may not have understood why Jesus was putting these two together. They may not have understood the power of nonviolent social change. They might have preferred him to fulfill their messianic expectation of a military general who would, like the Maccabees, kick the occupiers out and establish a just society.
Now it would be easy to say that Jesus failed in his attempt. Except that would be hard for a Christian to say. So what we most often do is to reduce Jesus work to that of a “spiritual savior” who manages to get a hard-hearted God to forgive us after Jesus’ torturous death.
But maybe Jesus was trying to bring change and very real change to the people of his day.
Maybe he did.
For out of his death and resurrection a movement of hope was born. For while it is possible to kill one messiah who led a march of palms on a bloody Friday, it is not really possible to stop a movement of people who each take up their cross. It is not really possible to stop thousands, millions and billions who each take on a symbol and system of oppression (for that is what crucifixion was) and empty it of its power.
We might prefer to see in Jesus’ Palm March a magical Jesus who is playing out the script written by God. We might prefer to see Jesus on a donkey as leader who cares about people’s internal and eternal salvation and forgets or only regrets their day to day lives.
Either way we view it, our job of following Jesus is much easier than what Jesus proposed.
But if Jesus was intent on evoking and provoking a movement which would be his body on the earth to make change through nonviolent public leadership then we all have our work cut out for us.
But here is the deal: our work to participate with Jesus in the healing and creation of the world is one way that God is bringing healing and creation to us. Just because Jesus’ ministry had larger social implications does not mean that it leaves out the personal, spiritual and interpersonal.
Adam and Eve refused the gift of caring for each other and the garden. But the whole story of salvation includes God’s invitation for people to take up this blessed and blessing work.
The healing salvation that God is bringing in Jesus is addressed to every person, to every part of every person, and to the institution and structures that impact all of us and the planet we are a part of.
This healing does not just benefit us on that far-off day when all things are made new. We are held in God’s love every step of our collective and individual journeys.
Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.
Amen. Come Lord Jesus! And come among us!