When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 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.”
When Jesus entered into Jerusalem long ago it made a stir. What is confounding to us looking back on his entry into the city is that so much of that day has become sacrosanct. We have images in our head, built up from years of church liturgy and sermons, from passion plays and movies, that make us think of very particular things when Palm Sunday comes around. It is a day of waving palm fronds, of joining with the crowd who welcomed Jesus into the city. It is our last outright celebration that precedes the solemnity of Holy Week.
The text we have read today speaks to a difficult reality within our reading of the scripture. Namely that we are looking back at people who lived lives that were quite different to our own. More than that, in the crowds of people who lived differently than us there was a multiplicity of voices and opinions. There was no one Jewish opinion or one Roman opinion in the ancient world. In the same way that we live in a divided and diverse world, the people of scripture encountered various people with thoughts, viewpoints, and practices different than their own.
We know of first-century Judaism that in Jerusalem alone there was something like five factions working with or against one another. Zealots wandered the streets staging assassinations of Roman forces. Pharisees lived in every town in the region offering moral teachings to anyone who needed them. Sadducees controlled the Temple, holding sacrificial authority over all the region. Meanwhile, the Greek-speaking Jews lived on the margins, and the new movement of the Nazarene was gaining traction.
All these diverse parties came together around the Passover to celebrate as Moses commanded them. They gathered together in Jerusalem and greatly expanded the population of the city. It was a time when the Jews united in their commonality, but also a time when their differences threatened to bubble up into open conflict. The first century saw several Jewish revolts against Rome and oftentimes these revolts were motivated by intrasectarian disagreements as much as they were motivated by Jewish liberationists.
For Jesus to enter the city as he did, with the crowd going before him and shouting he was a Son of David and rightful king of Jerusalem was to court disaster. If the Romans decided that a significant threat was posed by Jesus and his followers then every one of them, and much of the unaffiliated Jews who were in the city, would be killed as dissenters and rebels. The arrival of someone claiming to be King, that would certainly cause a stir for the people in the city. Fear and worry hung thick over the people within the city as they saw Jesus approaching on the colt, would he and his band of followers be enough to finally stir up the wrath of Rome.
Add to their concerns the reality that Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea – unpopular in Rome and he was in Jerusalem – had just arrived to hold court for a period of time. Pilate was known for his cruelty – in shutting down rebellions and dissent in the past he had aired on the side of bloodshed. This upset the population of Judea who saw him as a tyrant, and it upset Rome who saw him as causing more problems than he had fixed. Pilate was desperate for good press and killing a rebellion before it started could give him some clout back home in Rome.
The people of the city, here called the Πολις (Polis,) are described as, “Trembling,” as the crowd arrives. While many throughout history have taken this to mean that there was excitement at Jesus’ arrival, to read this into the text is to assume that the people of Jerusalem were reacting as we hope we would when Jesus arrived. We project onto them the joy we feel in Christ’s arrival and attempt to clean up an otherwise complex narrative. If Jesus is universally loved upon his arrival, then we do not have to question which group of people we would be in.
When we read the text as though Jesus entering the city caused universal joy instead of anxiety then we can easily picture ourselves among those crying out, “Hosanna!” When we see Jesus triumphantly entering and imagine that he came upon a happy church service waving fronds, then we do not have to think about whether or not we would be among the Crowd he entered with or the anxious city. When we project a uniform image of Sunday School simplicity, we are not asked to evaluate our lives.
When Jesus enters into a situation, Jesus always enters as the rightful King. Jesus is not relegated to any position other than Lordship except for when Jesus does so himself, as we will remember on Maundy Thursday. Jesus comes into divided cities, nations, even sanctuaries, and all people are made to look at him in that moment and ask whether they will celebrate his coming or be terrified by it. When we speak like this, we are not talking about the end of time, not the final coming of Christ in judgment, but in the day to day moments when Jesus appears to us and we either accept or reject his entrance.
When Jesus came into Jerusalem he had an entourage with him of people who were already convinced of his kingship and his status as Messiah. Among this group were members of all the major Jewish sects. He gathered followers who were Pharisees and even members of the High Council. He gathered Zealots who threw down their weapons to follow the prince of peace. He gathered Greek-born Jews and Hebraic Jews and had them come together as one family. His triumph in coming into Jerusalem was not that he had gotten a unified force together that all agreed on every issue, but that he had gathered together a great multitude of people who had nothing in common except their desire to be with Christ and to follow Christ into his kingdom. They learned to be united because Christ called them to be so, not as a monolithic structure of uniform ideas, but of uniform conviction and desire to see good done in the world.
The reality of the crowd we are presented within Jesus’ triumphal entry is that they were not a large group of people. Elsewhere Matthew uses the term, “Great crowd,” “multiple crowds,” or some other formulation to say when a large group of people is gathered together. Here though, here we see a rowdy band gathered together to welcome Jesus into the city. There are enough there to constitute a gathering, but they are almost lost in the vastness of the city. They are big enough to cause a noise, to put everyone on edge, but they are still a drop of water into a very large bucket.
When we gather together as the Church universal we do so as the Jews did in Jerusalem. We earnestly come together to worship God, we gather to celebrate a feast just like our ancestors did. However, like them, we gather as people of diverse opinions, desires, and worldviews. We come as people who are worried about the powers that exist in our world and whether or not we can stand against them. There is fear, there is prayer and praise, there is uncertainty.
Jesus enters into the church every day. Each morning when we wake up we all face the triumphal entry head-on. Christ presents himself in our lives and we decide every day whether that is an attractive or terrifying prospect. Do we see the arrival of our king and quake in fear that he will disrupt our lives? Or do we cry out to be saved and follow him into a world that has yet to wake up to his light?
The answer is different every day. Somedays we fail to hail our King, some days we choose to protect ourselves from disruption and curl up in resignation about how things are. Sometimes Pilate, the power of the status quo, seems more attractive than Christ, the meek and the revolutionary. The reality of sin is that we will choose one over the other throughout our life, but the promise of Christ is that we never sell out completely to the status quo, not unless we choose to.
Christ came into Jerusalem on a colt only once. Yet, as we have said, Christ comes to us every day, multiple times a day. We never are left unable to join the crowd shouting loud Hosanna! Yet, we must make the choice to follow Christ into the city. Yet we must choose discomfort over comfort, to choose what is right over what is convenient. When Jesus entered the city, the people in it expected a riot, and honestly, perhaps the church should be more like that.
The church should be a group that is excited to do the work of Christ. Organized together out of every rejected class of person in society. Those who have been told time and time again that they are not good enough, that they do not deserve what they have, that they should be treated poorly because of circumstances of birth, position, or happenstance. The church should be a ragamuffin rabble, it should be made up of ne’er-do-well on the path to redemption.
What marks the church as separate from other gatherings of the marginalized is its intent. While the past few years have shown us white supremacists, anti-semites, and other hate groups gathering people who feel disenfranchised to commit evil, we see the Church gathering to scattered people of the earth for good. The Church gathers all the poor and powerless of the world, all those who have been treated cruelly by power, all people of all races and creeds, not because it desires to become bigger or stronger or more powerful, but because it wants to eliminate all these words of domination from our vocabulary.
Jesus comes to us, Jesus calls us daily, not so we can triumphally raze the world to the ground in holy fire. Jesus comes to us meekly, on a colt instead of a chariot, seated on robes and not on fine linens. Jesus models for us what our triumph in life truly is. A riotous group of people, loudly praising God, worshipping a king whose revolution is one of peace, and whose greatest weapon is not the sword but is love large enough to die even for those who hate you. Let us all follow the lead of Christ, let us join the procession of the righteous, and let us all put aside our many differences in the name of truth, the name of love, and ultimately the name of Christ who saves us, the Son of David for all eternity. – Amen.