21 As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”
4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: 5 “Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”
6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?” 11 The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”
12 Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. 13 “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’[e] but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’”
What I'm about to say is a sad reflection on the churches I attended earlier in my Christian life. But I have to confess that I reached my fifties - even completing my training as a Lay Minister - without having more than a vague idea of what Palm Sunday is really about.
I knew the Bible story, of course: Jesus entering Jerusalem riding on a donkey, the crowds scattering palm fronds along the road and shouting 'Hosanna'. And I knew that by coming Jerusalem he was effectively sealing his own fate. But I never had a chance to think about what those events really meant for Jesus, for the Church, and for me.
Part of the problem was that the churches I went to wanted to safeguard a very supernatural view of OT prophecy. When we read a prophecy like Zechariah’s…
Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, your King comes unto you: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon a donkey…
...we wanted to be swept off our feet by its accuracy as a prediction of the future. We were closed to the idea that Jesus might have been savvy enough to read the OT for himself and deliberately model his actions on them – and in the process we closed our ears to the message Jesus wanted people to hear.
Prophecy is certainly God-breathed, but its relationship to Jesus' earthly ministry was nonetheless bi-directional in nature. In other words, the Old Testament prophets were inspired to reveal something of how God's plan would unfold. But when Jesus came he understood the old writings in a unique way, and he modelled his teaching and actions on them. And what becomes clear when we look at Jesus’ words and actions is the astonishing clarity, and the penetrating wit and intelligence, with which he communicated his agenda—by drawing on the stories and symbols and imagery in which his Hebrew listeners had been immersed since birth.
And what is startlingly clear from the story of the 'triumphal entry' to Jerusalem is that Jesus was setting up a crisis in the lives of all who saw and heard him – especially the self-styled men in authority.
First, everyone would have recognised the message wrapped up in the donkey procession: Jesus was declaring himself as a scriptural king, entering to take possession of the city that was his by right. It was a brilliant, subversive statement about the illegitimacy of the political and religious elite who governed the holy city.
But then, what was his first action after the triumphal entry? No one could fail to grasp the point of his physical and verbal assault on the corrupt Temple establishment. The overturning of the tables is an integral part of the Palm Sunday story. It’s almost always left out of our seasonal pattern of readings. But to separate the two halves of the story is to miss the meaning of the whole narrative.
Jesus is presenting the leaders and people with a stark two-way choice: Accept me or kill me. And in that ultra-sensitive political environment, we can be sure there was no third alternative. In short, he was challenging the political and religious establishment head-on. And as I’m sure he expected, the authorities clung to their rarefied, privileged status. They inevitably took what seemed the easy way out and sought his death.
In so doing, they sidelined themselves from God’s plan for humanity. But unwittingly, they also aided and abetted Jesus’ master plan. For in the years following his death, we see the Temple itself – the supreme pre-Christian symbol of God’s presence in the world – become an irrelevance. The vessel for God’s presence on earth is no longer to be seen as a building of wood, metal and stone, but a living body: initially Jesus’ own, then after Pentecost the entire spirit-filled people of Christ.
Stepping forward two thousand years to the present day, Jesus presents the world with the same two-way choice. In five days’ time, on Good Friday, we mournfully reflect on the consequence for Jesus: his agonising death on the Cross. Then, two days later, we celebrate the victory and vindication of those who made and who continue to make the right choice – accepting Jesus as king and joining him in his exaltation to eternal life.
And the deep message of Palm Sunday is a challenge to accept him as king. For let us make no mistake, the choice confronting the world now is as stark as that which faced the people of Jesus’ own time. Now, as then, he comes to us as our rightful king, and no less a king for all that he presents himself in humility. And the choice is the same: to accept him as king, or to be accessories in his unjust suffering and death.
This year, as every year, we’re likely to see new faces in church over Easter. For some of those new faces, this will be a one-off event; others may start to come regularly. And all will receive a warm welcome. But let us not forget what is going on in the lives of these visitors. They are being brought to a place in their lives where the road ahead of them divides. There is no third way ahead: they are faced with a choice of accepting the rule of Christ or rejecting him.
Of course, everyone travels at their own pace, and some who walk away from Jesus this year may embrace him next year or next decade. But let us think solemnly of the crisis of identity that looms over everyone of those visitors. And let us commit ourselves to two goals:
1. To reaffirm our own acceptance of Christ as Lord and King.
2. To live up to his teaching, so that no one hovering on the brink of turning to Christ may be put off at the last minute by our un-Christ-like behaviour.