…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 others 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.” (Matt 21:7-11)
After weeks of quarantine, even the introvert in me thrills to read a Bible story that features “a very large crowd.” If there’s ever a day when Christians shouldn’t be physically or socially distant from each other, it’s Palm Sunday.
But the cynic in me always reads this passage with suspicion of that big crowd. After all, how many of those shouting “Hosanna!” in this passage will days later scream, “Let him be crucified!”?
And even those who do not turn around and deny Jesus… just what are they celebrating in this procession? As commentators Ben Witherington and Darlene Hyatt point out, the last verse of this passage shows that “the crowds do not quite get the picture, for they only identify him as a prophet from Nazareth, not as the all-wise king from the lineage of David.”
Or those who shout their hosannas “to the Son of David,” what would they have thought, later that week, when Jesus questioned the Pharisees for identifying the Messiah simply as “son of David”? Will tongues that praised Jesus for coming “in the name of the Lord” as easily “confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father” (Phi 2:11)?
As my Anxious Bench colleague Philip Jenkins pointed out on Friday, Jesus is literally enacting the prophecy of Zechariah: both in making the Mount of Olives so central to his passion, and in the nature of his triumphal entry.
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
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.
He 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. (Zech 9:9-10)
Those in the crowd who knew their Scriptures well would have recognized that they were watching a royal parade, however odd their king must have looked straddling two not-especially regal animals. But I wonder if they chose to forget Zechariah’s promise of peace and instead to think of the language that brackets these verses. Wouldn’t years of brutal Roman occupation have tested their faith in the promise that “no oppressor shall again overrun them” (v 8), to the point that the sight of a king coming on donkey and colt would have heralded the long-awaited violent judgment destined for Israel’s enemies (vv 1-7)? Wouldn’t the coming of a savior descended from David — who had made his own triumphal entry to Jerusalem after victory in battle — have made them think that Zechariah meant something even grander than the Maccabean revolt of two centuries before: “I will arouse your sons, O Zion, against your sons, O Greece, and wield you like a warrior’s sword” (v 13).
Is it joy behind those hosannas, or something older and darker: the yearning to “devour and tread down the slingers… [to] drink their blood like wine” (v 15)?
But instead, we drink wine like blood, that of a Messiah who came as a different kind of king.
For what we reenact on Palm Sunday is a different kind of parade, more like the one Paul alludes to in 2 Corinthians:
But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. (2:14-16)
As commentator Scott Hafemann explains, the apostle alludes to the parade given a victorious Roman general, which ends with the celebratory execution of prisoners of war.
But we are the latter, not the former. Jesus is not a general, leading his victorious centurions. He is the defeated, leading those in chains to their death.
Or so it seems to those in power. (I always imagine the Roman soldiers lurking off to the sides of Matthew’s account: on guard, but sneering and ultimately unconcerned.) After all, the palms we waved last year were burned into the ashes we wore forty days ago. But acrid as they smelled, the aroma of Christ is “a fragrance from life to life.”
So while we can’t gather in our own crowds this year, we have still come to “the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it” (Ps 118:20). For while we might not understand all that’s happening, while we might bring to the procession our own confusion, our own misinterpretations of what it means that the “stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone,” this is still “the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes” (vv 22-23).
This is still “the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (v 24).