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The Revolutionary Message of Palm Sunday

March 22, 2012


The texts that Christians typically read on Palm Sunday have become so familiar to them that they probably don’t sense their properly revolutionary power. But no first-century Jew would have missed the excitement and danger implicit in the coded language of the accounts describing Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem just a few days before his death.

In Mark’s Gospel we hear that Jesus and his disciples “drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany on the Mount of Olives.” A bit of trivial geographical detail, we might be tempted to conclude. But we have to remember that pious Jews of Jesus’ time were immersed in the infinitely complex world of the Hebrew Scriptures and stubbornly read everything through the lens provided by those writings.

About five hundred years before Jesus’ time, the prophet Ezekiel had relayed a vision of the “Shekinah” (the glory) of Yahweh leaving the temple, due to its corruption: “The glory of the Lord went out from the threshold of the house (the temple) and stopped above the cherubim. The cherubim . . . rose from the earth in my sight as they went out . . . They stopped at the entrance of the east gate of the house of the Lord; and the glory of the God of Israel was above them” (Ezek. 10:18-19). This was one of the most devastating texts in the Old Testament. The temple of the Lord was seen as, in almost a literal sense, the dwelling place of God, the meeting-place of heaven and earth. Thus even to imagine that the glory of the Lord had quit his temple was shocking in the extreme. However, Ezekiel also prophesied that one day the glory of God would return to the temple, and precisely from the same direction in which it had left: “Then he brought me to the gate, the gate facing east. And there, the glory of the God of Israel was coming from the east; the sound was like the sound of mighty waters; and the earth shone with his glory” (Ez. 43:1-2). Furthermore, upon the return of the Lord’s glory, Ezekiel predicted, the corrupt temple would be cleansed, restored, rebuilt.

Now, let’s return to Jesus who, during his public ministry, consistently spoke and acted in the very person of God, and who said in reference to himself, “You have a greater than the temple here.” As they saw him approaching Jerusalem from the east, they would have remembered Ezekiel’s vision and would have begun to entertain the wild but thrilling idea that perhaps this Jesus was, in person, the glory of Yahweh returning to his dwelling place on earth. And in light of this, they would have understood the bewildering acts that Jesus performed in the temple. He was, in fact, another Ezekiel, pronouncing judgment on the old temple and then announcing a magnificent rebuilding campaign: “I will tear down this place and in three days rebuild it.” Jesus, they came to understand, was the new and definitive temple, the meeting-place of heaven and earth.

And there is even more to see in the drama of Jesus’ arrival in the Holy City. As the rabbi from Nazareth entered Jerusalem on a donkey, no one could have missed the reference to a passage in the book of the prophet Zechariah: “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” (Zech. 9:9). A thousand years before the time of Jesus, David had taken possession of Jerusalem, dancing before the Ark of the Covenant. David’s son Solomon built the great temple in David’s city in order to house the Ark, and therefore, for that brief, shining moment, Israel was ruled by righteous kings. But then Solomon himself and a whole slew of his descendants fell into corruption, and the prophets felt obligated to criticize the kings as thoroughly as they criticized the temple. The people began to long for the return of the king, for the appearance of the true David, the one who would deal with the enemies of the nation and rule as king of the world. They expected this new David to be, of course, a human figure, but something else rather surprising colored their expectation—namely, that through this human being, God would actually come to rule the nation. Here are just two passages, chosen from dozens, that express this hope: “For I am a great king says Yahweh of hosts, and my name is reverenced among the nations” (Malachi 1:14); and “I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever . . . Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations” (Psalm 145). So to draw these various strands together, we might say that the biblical authors expected Yahweh to become king, precisely through a son of David, who would enter the holy city—not as a conquering hero riding a stately Arabian charger, but as a humble figure riding a young donkey. Could anyone have missed that this was exactly what they were seeing on Palm Sunday? Jesus was not only the glory of Yahweh returning to his temple; he was also the new David, indeed Yahweh himself, reclaiming his city and preparing to deal with the enemies of Israel.

He fought, of course, not in the conventional manner. Instead, he took all of the dysfunction of the world upon himself and swallowed it up in the ocean of the divine mercy and forgiveness. He thereby dealt with the enemies of the nation and emerged as the properly constituted king of the world. And this is why Pontius Pilate, placing over the cross a sign in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew announcing that this crucified Jesus is King of the Jews, became, despite himself, the first great evangelist!

And so the message, delivered in the wonderfully coded and ironic language of the Gospel writers, still resonates today: heaven and earth have come together; God is victorious; Jesus is Lord.