In spending time meditating this past week on the story of what we commonly call the Triumphal Entry and the four varying accounts in the Gospels, I was struck by the significance of what this event communicated to the various characters in the story (By the way, no Gospel includes any mention of palm branch waving. John is the only one to specifically mention palm branches.). The wealthy and/or religious leaders, the crowds, the disciples and Jesus all have a different understanding of the significance of this event. All four understand that what is transpiring is highly significant.
Each Gospel (Matthew and Mark are about the same) describes the scene a bit differently but all agree that the scene is one of heightened anticipation. The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) describe a large crowd following Jesus up from Jericho where he has just healed a blind man and John pictures an excited crowd in the aftermath of Lazarus being raised from the dead. It is approaching Passover week, the week which commemorates God delivering them from Egyptian bondage, their July 4th. For several years now Jesus has been sending seemingly mixed messages. Is he Messiah or is he not? If he is finally going to act, what better time to do it? Jerusalem is swelled to overflowing with Jewish pilgrims. The timing could not be better.
With these events and expectations in the background Jesus creates a highly symbolic prophetic and public statement. He mounts a young donkey and begins riding down the Mount of Olives, across the Kidron Valley, up into Jerusalem to the Temple Mount. The crowds/disciples understand the significance and realize this is the act of a king entering his city and they begin to shout: Hosanna! (The Lord saves!) Blessed is he, the Son of David, the king, who comes in the name of the Lord! (The Gospels vary some on the exact wording but the significance is the same). They throw garments and branches onto the path (the red carpet treatment) and joyously accompany Jesus to the Temple. So was this really a Triumphal Entry? What was the opinion of the narrative’s participants?
The religious leaders are a combination of the wealthy and powerful elite centered primarily in Jerusalem. The wealthy among the religious leaders have settled into a comfortable relationship with Rome and life is good for them. They are afraid that Jesus means the end to their power and wealth. They are on edge because they fear that this is in fact a Triumphal Entry; Jesus is going to incite rebellion and no doubt the occupying Roman power will move quickly to suppress it. They no doubt envision losing control of the Temple, the political/religious heart of the Jews, and who knows what the fallout will be? They fear the comfortable positions of power and privilege they have enjoyed are in peril. The ironic truth is that they are right to fear Jesus, just not in the ways they imagined. The other aspect of their fear is that even though Jesus comes with no army as such, this vast crowd in Jerusalem for Passover, celebrating deliverance from a cruel oppressor, could easily be incited to mob action and their anger could turn not just on the Roman garrison but also the religious elite (i.e. compromisers with Rome).
The crowds in the story function as crowds often do. They are easily inspired and these crowds long to be free from the oppression of Rome. It is clear that the crowd understands this to be a Triumphal Entry. Throughout Jesus’ time with them they have viewed him primarily through a messianic lens, but this lens was a cultural one which is why they were often confused and/or offended by his teaching. John 2:23-25 makes an interesting observation about the crowds and their reaction to Jesus’ miracles: They believed in him but Jesus did not believe the crowds because he knew what was in their hearts (my paraphrase). In other words the crowd is a fickle group, believing but we’re never really sure if they truly believe. They may believe but is it belief in a messiah of their own understanding? The crowd is easily excited but they are also easily disappointed and angered. We wonder how many in this same crowd were caught up in the anger of those shouting “crucify” just a week later?
The disciples (this includes more than just the 12 although they are the focus) are part of the crowd but also distinct from it. Each Gospel to varying degrees pictures the disciples as confused but following. They, like the crowds assume “Messiah” comes with a certain agenda. This agenda may have various components but high on the list was defeat of Israel’s enemy and freedom at last. They try to make sense of Jesus teaching but much of it does not fit into their existing categories. For instance: “How will the meek ever inherit the earth, how can love ever overcome evil? That may sound nice but we don’t see how all this will help dealing with the reality of Roman oppression.” Again, confused but following. During the preceding months Jesus has been telling them he is going to Jerusalem to die so they have been made aware that this trip is fraught with danger. We get the sense the disciples have been hearing Jesus but not willing to accept this reality. On this day they are probably still hopeful that Jesus will finally “act.” So, was this a Triumphal Entry as far as the disciples were concerned? Yes and No, John’s Gospel tell us that all the events of this day left the disciples confused: At first his disciples did not understand all this but only after the resurrection did these things make sense (John 12:16). But for now, confused but following.
By Jesus’ actions it is clear that he knows exactly what he is doing. Yes, he is making a kingly entrance…just not in the way envisioned by the religious leaders and the crowds. With the benefit of hindsight we realize that for those with the eyes to see Jesus was acting with deliberate prophetic irony. His entrance was humble and on a donkey, in direct contrast to the usual arrogant conqueror riding into a city astride his magnificent stallion. He is coming to his city, his Temple, not as a conqueror but as a reluctant judge. He laments over the city that would not receive him and anticipates her doom (Luke 19:41-44, destroyed by Rome within about 30 years). He acts out a symbolic prophetic act of condemnation on the Temple when he throws out the moneychangers. Yet in some sense Jesus is entering as a king prepared to do battle with his enemies. Except that the enemies were not Rome or the religious elite; the enemies were sin and death and the only way to defeat those enemies was to be a sacrifice. The only way to bring about the future the crowds and his disciples desired was to do battle with the true enemy. So was this a Triumphal Entry for Jesus? Yes, but in a way no one could comprehend. Jesus will be King but on his terms.
In reading this biblical narrative it is helpful to ask not which of these groups surrounding Jesus do I specifically identify with but rather how do I see myself at times in all these groups? These groups are not designed to give us neat categories for labeling because truth be told there is an element of each in all of us. I identify with the wealthy religious leaders who are concerned about their power, their wealth, their status. Jesus says those are all a hindrance to me following. I can identify with the crowd because I understand how easy it is to flow along with the crowd, my American culture. I understand how easy it is for the Jesus I follow to inadvertently become a Jesus I have created out of my own desire of what I wish him to be. I identify with the disciples because I understand the confused but following nature of discipleship. Because following Jesus is more than a once and done decision; it is more than a salvation experience, more than a baptism, more than a confirmation, it is a series of ongoing decisions to follow the way of Jesus; live the way he lived and taught, a life that is paradoxically self-denying but life-giving. As one writer commented: we want the Jesus who saves us from sin but not so much the one who tells us how to live. To some extent all three groups in this narrative saw Jesus’ Triumphal Entry through the wrong lenses; this Palm Sunday ask for the eyes to see this Triumphal Entry through the right lenses.