The video accompanying this blog is in the form of a short service including prayers and a blessing as well as this reflection.
The Palm Gospel: Matthew 21:1-11
Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem
1 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 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. 3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.” And he will send them immediately.’ 4 This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
5 ‘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.’
6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 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!’
10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ 11 The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’
This is the gospel of the Lord.
Palm Sunday Reflection – Who is this?
In the spring of 2009, we went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with a church group. The final high point of the trip – and there were many – was joining the Palm Sunday procession. There were thousands of people, robed priests, church groups, uniformed organisations, youth groups; all accompanied by marching bands and even bagpipes, all waving banners and palm leaves, winding their way down the Mount of Olives and then up the hill on the other side of the valley and through the Lion’s gate into the walled city of old Jerusalem. We were towards the end of the procession and as we entered the city a group behind us started to sing ‘All glory, laud and honour to thee Redeemer King. We joined in and passed through the gate singing at the top of our voices and waving our palms. Above us on the city wall – and we passed right beneath them, were two Israeli soldiers with machine guns.
Palm Sunday – the day of proclamation. Hosanna to the King of Kings! Yet the picture wasn’t entirely joyful. The undercurrents were there.
Which meant is was an authentic Palm Sunday – for those undercurrents were also there the day Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. Jesus was feted by the crowd. They cried Hosanna. They were excited, welcoming, noisy. But from the side-lines the authorities looked on disquieted and uncomfortable. In this same story in Luke’s gospel we’re told some Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Teacher tell your disciples to stop. And he answered ‘I tell you if these were silent, the stones would shout out!’’
The triumphal entry into Jerusalem is the moment of acclamation, the stones of the very pavement on which Jesus walks would rejoice if that were needed, and Jesus receives that acclamation and affirmation for they are rightly his. But Palm Sunday prefigures Good Friday. One leads to the other. That joyous procession will a few days later, become a tragic procession headed towards Golgotha.
And the question that lies behind that sad trajectory is the question that we heard asked in the passage from Matthew’s gospel as the noisy crowd enters the city. ‘Who is this?’ the onlookers ask. Who is this? This is the Palm Sunday question. This is the question which causes the trouble.
Jesus enters Jerusalem with all the symbolism of a king, a ruler.
He rides a donkey as Solomon did as he went to be anointed king (1 Kings 1:32-33).
He is welcomed with cut branches and palm fronds. This was how the people welcomed the Maccabean rebel leaders 150 years earlier when they brought Jewish worship back to the temple in Jerusalem.
And we heard how Zechariah’s prophecy is being fulfilled right before the eyes of the crowd.
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.
So, Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem echoes and brings into being Israel’s history and stirs the expectations and hopes of the people. And with him comes with the stories of his healings and miracles, the rumours of what he has said and what he has done, even the raising of Lazarus, the dead man. All of this is playing out in people’s minds and hearts.
Who is this Jesus? There were three different perspectives on Palm Sunday.
Firstly, the perspective of the crowd. The crowd cry Hosanna- which means save please or save us we pray. From their perspective this is who they want – a saviour. And this looks like the man who will do just that. They want to be saved from living under an occupying force in the shape of the Roman empire, with Roman rule and Roman taxes. They want to be saved from practicing their faith only under tolerance. They want one who will lead a revolution in the same way as Judas Maccabeus and restore Israel to its people. They acclaim Jesus – but with what end in mind?
Then there is the perspective of the authorities. The Jewish authorities – not the Roman ones at this point. They are watching with concern. Very uneasy indeed. Not condemning yet but seeing in Jesus all the potential of one who could cause a lot of trouble. They are conflicted. Some recognise in Jesus a man of God. Most are puzzled – how can he say and do what he says and does. Is he truly from God? And of course, there is a concern about their own position. Is he going to upset the relationship they have worked out and worked hard to maintain with their Roman rulers? If this Jesus puts Jerusalem into riot where will it leave them as priests and where will it leave the Jewish cause and Jewish people.
Lastly there is the perspective of Jesus himself. He deliberately enters Jerusalem in a demonstrative way and he chooses to fulfil Zechariah’s prophecy. He accepts the joyous welcome. He accepts the title of Son of David, Saviour and King. They are his right. Jesus inhabits who he is. This proclamation had to be. Yet it is a bitter sweet moment. Jesus knows the destiny to which he walks. He walks forward nevertheless.
Who is this Jesus? This is the question repeated down the years. This is the question of every generation. I have been struck by how little importance or relevance has been given to faith during the current coronavirus crisis. This is historically a Christian country yet is Jesus seen as in any way relevant today? Does Jesus have anything to say to us in the face of the impact of the coronavirus and our worsening world tragedy? As we walk through Holy week let’s lay aside our assumptions and preconceptions about Jesus and seek the answer to that question for ourselves.
Let us pray
God our Father as we enter into Holy Week, open our hearts and minds to encounter Jesus once again, to see him as he truly is and not just who we want him to be. Amen