by Billy Roper
Palm Sunday, one week before Easter, is the day we commemorate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The day is described in all four Gospels, particularly in Matthew 21:1-9, as when palm branches were placed in His path, before his arrest on Holy Thursday and his crucifixion on Good Friday. It thus marks the beginning of Holy Week, the final week of Lent. He had come to the city to celebrate the Passover, as well as to fulfill God’s promise through prophecy that His son would be killed and triumph over death in order to offer us a pathway to salvation from our sins.
The evening before, Jesus and His disciples had spent the night in Bethany, a suburb of Jerusalem outside its walls, in the house of Lazarus (his friend whom he had previously raised from the dead) and Martha and Mary. Preparing to enter the city, which was under Roman rule and divided about whether He was the Messiah promised to come and free them, as well as about exactly what that meant, Jesus ordered two of his disciples to go and find a donkey and colt tied outside a certain house. They were to bring it to Him so he could ride the colt, fulfilling Zechariah 9:9 about how the King of the Jews would enter the city. To some readers, this incident may sound like some pragmatic thievery or divine provenance, but in reality it seems that the animal had been left there on purpose in an arrangement made with the woman who owned it through the Zealots, an anti-Roman faction which supported Jesus in hopes that He would help them rile up the people to rebel against Roman rule. At least two of Jesus’ disciples, Judas Thaddeus Iscariot and Simon Cananeus, were Nationalists; anti-government Zealot radicals. The split between them, as Judeans, and the other disciples, who were Galileeans and thought (correctly) of Jesus as being the divine son of God who would establish not a secular or Earthly but a Heavenly kingdom, was clear. In fact, Judas may have betrayed Jesus in order to try and force His hand at the trial, hoping for a mass uprising against the Romans, but we can’t be entirely sure of how he justified his actions to himself, or whether they were inspired by human or demonic motivations. All that we know, from our two thousand year along perspective, is that he had his role to play, as did the donkey’s colt.
On the first Palm Sunday, the crowd was on Jesus’ side. Oh, how fickle can the crowd be, right? They love you one moment, and turn away from you the next, in their shallow, fleeting human weakness. They lined the road into Jerusalem to shout out “Hosanna!”, meaning “Save us!”, wanting Jesus to free them from the Romans, and placed palm fronds on the ground in his path, giving the day its name. This was a traditional Israelite manner of greeting a King, or a conqueror.
“The tradition of palm branches on Palm Sunday actually originates with the Jewish festival of Sukkoth, also called the Festival of the Tabernacles or Booths, which was probably the most popular holiday among the Jews in the first century. In the observance of Sukkoth, worshippers processed through Jerusalem and in the Temple, waving in their right hands something called a lulab, which was a bunch of leafy branches made of willow, myrtle and palm. As they waved these branches in that procession, the worshippers recited words from Psalm 118, the psalm normally used at Sukkoth. Among these words were “Save us, we beseech you, O Lord.” Save us in Hebrew is ‘hosianna’ or ‘hosanna’. This is typically followed by “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. (Ps 118:25-6).”
John Shelby Spong, in Jesus for the NonReligious, page 113, says that Mark transferred the Sukkoth traditions from autumn to the Passover season and adapted them to the Palm Sunday story. Mark 11:8-9 tells us:
Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields. Those preceding him as well as those following kept crying out: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
The author of Matthew omitted the word ‘leafy’, perhaps a sign that he was aware that this was the wrong season for leafy branches (excepts palms), and the King James Bible also omits the word in Mark’s Gospel. Which brings us to John’s Gospel. Its author, aware that just before the Passover was too early for the leafy branches of Sukkoth, John 12:12-13 clearly states that they cut down palm branches, creating the basis for the Palm Sunday tradition.” Later, palm fronds would become the symbol of Christian martyrs.
Just a few days later, after his second violent, raging cleansing of the temple, where were all of these people? They had all abandoned Him. Remember that even Peter denied knowing Him three times during Jesus’ first trial.
Think about the White Nationalist movement, today. How many people first become racially conscious and get involved, all enthusiastic and excited, only to quickly burn out and disappear? I know from personal experience that it’s easier to get people to attend a single event, even a rally or a protest, than to get them to endure for the long haul, on extended term activism. Just like the citizens of Jerusalem who welcomed Jesus with palm fronds, they think that since THEY are now involved, why, we should have victory over our enemies immediately. We can take the White House and Congress back, just because we should, and probably clean out the last Jews from the news and entertainment and banking industries inside of a month. That’s how much they believe that the world revolves around them, literally, and the universe is subjective and perspectival to their interests and whims. When they don’t get instant gratification, we all know what happens.
Really, of course, it isn’t that easy. The crowd, though, well…when they saw that Jesus wasn’t just going to call down 10,000 angels to destroy the Roman empire, they lost interest, and worse…they lost faith. How many times do we, with every setback or disappointment, lose interest, or lose faith? We are doing God’s work, for His people, to advance His kingdom. He did not promise us that victory would come overnight, only that it will come. When He asks us to be ready, will He find us like the disciples who failed Him and slept in Gethsemane while they were supposed to be on guard while He prayed? Will He find us fruitless, like the fig tree He passed along the way into Jerusalem when He had need of it, and so cursed it to never bear fruit again?
Or, will we prove ourselves good and faithful servants, never losing interest, and never losing faith? In this week before Easter, let us think about what Jesus sacrificed for us, and how little in comparison we are asked to give. Let us endure, let us stay awakened, and let us do our duty to occupy, until He returns.