“Look, your king is coming to you”: A Palm Sunday Meditation

While Holy Week is often a time when I write more devotionally than academically, I don’t think I’ve ever reflected on Palm Sunday. But our pastor’s sermon this morning — part of a wonderfully rich service — got me thinking about this day in new ways.

Preaching on Matthew’s account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (21:1-11), Sara focused on the second-to-last verse: “When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?'” She noted that other English translations replace “in turmoil” with “in an uproar” (NLT), “moved” (KJV), “excited” (CEV), “shaken” (The Message), or “stirred” (NIV). I’d just add that the Greek word here appears only once more — six chapters later in the same gospel, when Matthew describes the aftermath of Jesus’ crucifixion: “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split” (27:51).

Early Christian (3rd/4th c.) relief showing Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem – Vanderbilt Divinity Library

The effect of Jesus’ entry, in other words, was seismic. Seeing Jesus ride into Jerusalem caused strong emotions to erupt.

Emotions, plural, Sara pointed out. Of course, there was unmitigated joy, for those who recognized Jesus as the prophesied messiah, finally come “in the name of the Lord!” But there was also a more complicated feeling in the hearts of those eager for liberation from Roman occupation; when such zealots shouted their hosannas “to the Son of David!”, their joy seethed with indignant anger.

So I also imagine some bored Roman soldiers looking on, likely more indifferent than concerned, or snickering at a Jewish ritual that must have seemed to them like a ridiculous imitation of their own, more extravagant triumphal processions (cf. 2 Cor 2:14). And even if no Romans were present, Jesus’ enemies were there, suspicious and conniving in the midst of the elation.

Then — in the vast middle of spectrum between those who knew who Jesus was and loved him for it and those who knew and hated him — there were many others. The cynical, who had seen false messiahs come and go… and perhaps sensed a chance to make money. The busy, just trying to get on with the basic tasks of their difficult lives. The bored, happy for any distraction from the tedium of those lives. And, likely most common of all, the confused: caught up in the collective feeling of a sudden gathering without knowing really what was happening or how to respond. (John’s account mentions that even the disciples didn’t understand until much later.)

And all that should sound familiar. Aren’t all of those emotions present — at least latent — in our own churches? Joy, cynicism, boredom… anger from those who want the church to do more to protest the political status quo, or the opposite. Confusion, still above all. (“Why are we waving palms? What does Hosanna mean?” “What do you mean Jesus was riding a colt and a donkey? That’s not in the other gospels!”)

Giotto’s version of Jesus’s triumphal entry (1306) – Vanderbilt Divinity Library

Truly, the whole city of God was “in turmoil” — and it still is, two thousand years later. There’s never been a single, uncomplicated response to “the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”

But there is one unalloyed, unchanging truth here: “Look, your king is coming to you…”

Whether you respond with the joyous shouting of Zechariah’s prophecy, or something darker, more muted, or more confused, your king is coming to you.

Whether you’re looking forward to reliving the journey of Holy Week yet again or are new to the faith, whether you think it’s all a farce or celebrate an Easter that’s as secular as Christmas, your king is coming to you.

All you need to do is look. For Jesus is coming to you: whoever you are, wherever you are, however you respond to the religion that has grown up in his name.