After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
Welcome to Holy Week! We are seven days ways from Easter and our celebration of the Lord’s resurrection. Lent is nearly ended, and with its close we hopefully find ourselves a little bit stronger, wiser, and maybe even more virtuous than we were before. We end Lent with the slow march to the cross, the terrible price of our salvation, the most dreaded and fearful day in human history – the day that God was killed by our own selfishness. However, before we get there, we see the darkness of the days to come illuminated for a single shining moment as Christ is given his full due as the Son of God and King of Kings. Jesus enters Jerusalem, a crowd gathers to welcome him, and all the town in abuzz.
Every Gospel tells this story a little differently, each focusing on a different part of what is going on as Jesus makes his way into Jerusalem. Mark keeps the story pretty barebones, John focuses on just how many people were involved in the event, while Matthew is more interested in how it aligns with prophecy. Luke tells his own version of the story, an almost perfect mixture of Mark and Matthew, but with his own distinct emphasis that tells us an awful lot about who Jesus was and what his work was really about.
Luke tells us about Jesus going to Jerusalem for the Passover. As he makes his way, he sends the disciples to find a colt for him to ride on. Unlike in Mark, we are not told whether or not they told the owner it would be sent back to him, only that it was “for the Lord.” Jesus rides into the town and the disciples begin making some noise, bringing together all those who were in Jerusalem for Passover and knew about Jesus. They began to cheer for him, calling for the salvation that he was supposed to bring. They bless him as a King sent from God, and they treat him like one. There are those in the crowd though, whether there to rain doubt on Jesus, or disillusioned former followers, who tell him to silence this loud, singing crowd.
The irony of Holy Week is that it plays backwards from how a typical story would be told. Rather than beginning with someone being down on their luck and ending with them being celebrated for all that they have done, it begins with celebration and ends in the silence of a sealed grave. From now till Holy Saturday we are watching the light of Christ slowly dim in the world, until it looks – for three terrible days – like it was completely snuffed out. Holy Week is a time where our rejoicing and waving of palm fronds becomes weeping and wiping away of tears. We know that Easter is coming, but the mountain we have to climb to get there is the most beautiful and terrible days of human history.
Our scripture shows us a side of Jesus’s ministry that we are not always able to see. Luke tells the story of the Triumphal Entry without much creative flourish, and so we get to see the events unfurl as distinct story beats. He is not afraid to show the slow cascade that leads to a large celebration along the road. It begins with just Jesus and the disciples, then when the disciples start making noise other people begin to join in. The massive crowd which gathers outside the city is not something that just exists, it is created by the enthusiasm of the disciples as they bring Jesus into the city. The shouts of “Hosanna,” get louder and louder as more and more people join in, this is spontaneous, and Spirit filled worship.
Luke presents the chant which the crowd sings slightly differently than the other Gospels. While other Gospels see the crowd yelling out, “Blessed is the one [ὁ] who comes in the name of the Lord,” Luke is intentional in saying the crowd called Jesus the “King,” who comes in the name of the Lord. This makes the implicit message of Jesus’s procession into the city clear for anyone to see. This reenactment of 1 Kings 1: 32-49, in which Solomon enters Jerusalem on a mule and takes his rightful place on the throne over and against his brother, referenced elsewhere in Zechariah 9, is a clear statement that Christ is the rightful King over Caesar or any Herod.
The explicit nature of this cheering from the crowd is probably what makes the pharisees in the crowd tell Jesus to stop them from yelling. The Passover brought a lot of people into Jerusalem and those people were from many different religious and political groups. Rome had ruled over Judea for about seventy years at this point, and there was never a moment of peace between Rome and Jerusalem. The current governor, Pontius Pilate, had previously put down rebellion in the territory, and had bungled his response to it so badly that he was essentially on probation as a governor. Gathering together such a massive amount of people, in the place that was the symbol of what all this conflict was about, was a risk in itself, it certainly did not need someone riding in and claiming they were the rightful king.
The conflict of Holy Week is established in this one story. There is Jesus, riding in to fulfill the long-prophesied work he has been brought into this world to do. There are the crowds of people ready to proclaim that salvation. In opposition there are the religious authorities who see him as a threat and a provocateur and the Roman authorities who are trying to suppress even the smallest hints of dissent. These would all coalesce into the drama of that week, the conclusion of one story and the beginning of another. In one event, small compared to the rest of the celebrations happening that week, the entire story could be seen unfurling bit by bit.
As particular as the first Palm Sunday was to its own context, it still teaches us things about our own world today. There are still authorities that push against the work of the Church, there are still religious people who are more concerned with appearances than doing what is right, and there are still crowds of people that need ministered to. The players may have changed over time, but the central conflicts are largely unchanged. We simply have to look at where we fit into it all, and how we can carry the wonder of that day long ago into our own lives.
There is an anti-authoritarian streak in the Church today that is sometimes very helpful, but oftentimes just causes trouble. Two plus years of mask protests show that some people just want to get into fight without actually caring about whether it is worth it or even good to start the fight. Yet, there are powers in this world that need someone to oppose them. There are people who have actively worked to make the world more unsafe for other people, to make it legal to plow cars into groups of people, to forbid people from living their fullest lives, to actively sue people just for teaching hard truths about history. Even here in West Virginia we have seen such legislation argued in the legislature, sometimes passing and sometimes being defeated only because time ran out to pass it. With all the problems in the world, love for others was chosen as a crime. When that sort of thing happens, the church has no recourse but to oppose authority.
Yet, we often find ourselves like the pharisees in this story. We see the need to change the world around us for the better, but to really change would be to give up our comfort or our power. To change the world would me changing ourselves – shifting our viewpoints, changing the way we worship to be more inviting, maybe even mixing up the music we use to be something other than “what we’ve always done,” or “used to do.” We would rather have the models of ministry that worked twenty years ago than imagine what the world needs for us today, accepting that when Jesus comes to us and gives us a mission to fulfill, we cannot dictate what he is going to ask of us.
Finally, we must see in this story the way that a movement can grow. It is not effective marketing that made the Church burst to life in the first century, it was simple enthusiasm. People came to welcome Jesus into the city because the disciples were excited about him coming to save them. The people did not know this new song the disciples sang, but they joined in anyway. It was not the old standards, it was the outpouring of their heart and soul into what they had been handed. The song itself meant very little, as long as the people were pouring themselves into it.
Something lost on us today is that when this crowd that gathered around Jesus is described, they are called an “ochlos,” which might be better called a “rabble.” This term is often used in Greek to refer to the unwashed masses. This is not just a group of people, these are the sort of people that angry opinion pieces are written about. If Jerusalem had a version of the Exponent Telegram, you could picture the sorts of things they would have written. “Homeless Crowd gathers outside of town: Backwater Populist Leads the Mob.” Other Gospels describe the people inside Jerusalem being afraid of this group outside the city, the well-to-do inside the walls terrified of this rural mob.
Jesus brought together people who were enthusiastic about the coming Kingdom of God. The most enthusiastic people were those who had nothing to lose and everything to gain from this Kingdom. These were the poor, the oppressed, the downtrodden and the rejected. These were the sex workers, the drug dealers, and the drug users. These were the backpackers riding around town on their bicycles, the people who slept with chains in their hand in case they needed to defend themselves. These were the people whose tents were bulldozed in the middle of the night without warning, these are the wretched and the uncounted. These are God’s Children, and these were the people who came together to welcome Jesus in.
Today we stand as the disciples, ready to bring together people who can be as enthusiastic as we are about Christ’s coming. Yet, where is our cheering, where is our loud singing? Is it lost in the sea of what was or what we would like to be? We must begin to be enthusiastic about our salvation, because it is coming to be among us – not with loud trumpets and pomp – but with a poor, homeless man, riding a donkey surrounded by others like him. – Amen.