When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, ”Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
All four gospels take pains to demonstrate that Jesus not only stands in continuity with the promises of God to Israel recorded in the Old Testament but also fulfills those promises. When we look for Old Testament parallels to Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, however, they are surprisingly few.
Perhaps the most clear is Zechariah’s promise that the promised Messiah will come “riding humbly on a colt” (9:9) to usher in an era of peace after Israel’s enemies have been vanquished. Similarly, Zechariah’s promise that the Lord will stand with his feet on the Mount of Olives and face Jerusalem may lie behind the route Mark suggests Jesus took into the city.
Absent, however, is any strong connection to the coats and palms people laid down to greet him. Taken together, they suggest something of a “red carpet” to welcome the king coming to town. There is, however, a stronger connection between the use of palms and the books of 1st and 2nd Maccabees. These books, which are not part of the Protestant Old Testament but rather were written in between the Old and New Testaments, depict the revolt by Judas Maccabeus and his followers against their Greek rulers and the establishment of an independent Jewish state in the second century B.C.
There are two references in these books to welcoming a victorious ruler with palms (1 Macc. 13:49-52, 2 Macc. 10:1-8). In each case the returning hero has trampled Israel’s opponents into the dust. It may be that Mark, undoubtedly aware of the Maccabean revolt, has these scenes in mind as we records this scene. Combined with the allusions to Zechariah, it seems possible that Mark believes the people not only hailed Jesus as the promised Messiah but also anticipated that he would “save us” (Hosanna) by casting out the Romans. If so, they were bitterly disappointed.
They were not alone. As we’ve seen, Jesus’ own disciples were also shocked and disappointed by the manner through which he anticipated redeeming his people. Mark’s picture at this point is relentlessly consistent. Jesus comes to save, but in a manner no one expects or, quite frankly, wants. Why? Because the “anti-kingdom” he ushers in cannot be established by violence, the means and method preferred by this world’s rulers. Rather, it will be characterized by sacrificial love, one person giving his life for many.
All of this sounds good. But I wonder how different we really are from Jesus’ first followers and contemporaries. Would we, that is, not often prefer a superhero to a suffering servant? Do we understand – and if we understand, want – a crucified messiah who invites us into a kingdom that is ruled by vulnerability rather than strength, mercy rather than power, and love rather than might?
Prayer: Dear God, transform our hearts that we might look for you in the weakness of divine love and encounter you in the need of our neighbor. In Jesus’ name, Amen.