Triumphant entry by He Qi

(He Qi)

The problem with the Palm Sunday story is that we think we know it.  We find it hard to pay attention, because we’re familiar with it.  We’ve heard it at least once a year throughout our Christian lives.  We’ve still got last year’s palm cross on the dressing table.  But what is really going on here?

The pilgrims who have come up to Jerusalem from Galilee are at fever pitch, full of enthusiasm.  Unlike the residents of Jerusalem, who are asking “Who is this?” (Matthew 21:10), they’ve seen Jesus in action in Galilee and along the road through Jericho.  He’s been demonstrating his credentials and their expectations are high.  Is this the time when Jesus is going to confront the Romans and liberate Israel like a Messiah is expected to do?

Jesus initially indulges their enthusiasm.  He arranges a donkey to ride on.  Why?  Jesus usually walks everywhere (sometimes even on water!) but on this occasion he’s deliberately stoking their anticipation.  They all know Zechariah’s prophecy which Matthew quotes:

Say to the daughter of Zion ‘Behold, your King is coming, gentle, and mounted on a donkey.’ (Matthew 21:5)

Triumph

(Unknown artist)

Jesus is making a visual demonstration of his identity.  He is answering the question they had asked him on his last visit – “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly” (John 20:24).  They recognise his answer as such, and treat him accordingly, throwing their coats on the ground in front of him and forming a cheering honour guard as if he were a homecoming king.  Luke even reports that they changed the wording of the traditional greeting ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’ to ‘Blessed is the King…’ (Luke 19:38).  Mark points out that they expect the kingdom of David to be restored (Mark 11:10).  No wonder the Pharisees told him to shut them up – they knew that the Romans would not tolerate sentiments such as that (John 11:48).

So this ‘King’ rides triumphantly up into Jerusalem at the head of a rejoicing multitude… and then confounds them.  He goes through the gate and turns left.  He doesn’t head straight for the Roman fortress to force a confrontation with the occupying army.  He goes to the temple.  His priorities are different.  He’s already answering the question that Pilate will ask him a few days later: “My Kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).  And in doing so, he disappoints thousands of followers, one of whom was Judas, who was probably hoping for great things from Jesus, but felt he had been let down.  Those thousands were not there to support him when he was on trial for his life.  As far as they were concerned, he was already just another failed pretender.

(Sadao Watanabe)

(Sadao Watanabe)

With 2000 years of perspective, we can see that Jesus was right.  He stuck to his mission and did not let the crowds divert him.  But it would have been hard for those in his enthusiastic following to have appreciated that.  Even his own disciples do not appear to have understood what was going on even though he had spoken to them plainly about his imminent death (Matthew 16:21).

What do we do when Jesus appears to let us down?  Those of us involved in world mission know only too well how wrong things can go.  We find our visas revoked with only 48 hours to leave the country.  A colleague is killed in a car crash.  A loved one is kidnapped.  A pastor swindles money from the church.  Our children lose their faith.  We are constantly ill, or stressed with overwork.  The ministry ends in defeat.  Did Jesus fail us?  It can feel like that at times, and we can be very tempted to respond like the crowds in Jerusalem.  All deserted him.  One betrayed him.  Another denied knowing him.  Others fled for their lives.

Yet, a few days later, Jesus returns (John 20).  Not to the religious leaders, nor to his own family.  Not to his best friend, or to the men who would lead the Jerusalem church.  He comes to a grieving and confused woman.  A woman who remained faithful, even though he had not turned out to be the Messiah she expected him to be.

Jesus doesn’t mind our confusion and grief.  He isn’t upset by our lack of understanding.  He seeks our faithfulness.  Even when all appears to have gone very badly wrong, he is still there for those who trust him.  In the midst of our pain, sorrow, trauma and confusion, let us hold on tightly to the one person who is constant, Jesus Christ – the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8).

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