How do you imagine Palm Sunday? Were there crowds of people welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem or just the disciples and a few extras? Is this an act of celebration of the coming King, and act of defiance or both? Is it just symbolic, adopting the images portrayed in the prophets or is it to be taken seriously? Is this the act that historically clinched the fate of Jesus on Good Friday? Perhaps you have become so familiar with this account – and others – that you don’t think about it at all; it was an event in the life of Jesus, but let’s get down to the real business of salvation. Or perhaps it reminds you of embarrassing re-enactments that won’t be happening this year, and don’t quite cut it.
The questions I raised are ones that have been asked, are asked and continue to be asked as people reflect on and think about the life and mission of Jesus. It is a significant event in the gospel accounts and in Mark Jesus has been preparing the disciples for the entry into Jerusalem by telling them that
“We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the
chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him
over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.” Mark 10:32-34
He told them three times this would happen in chapters 8,9 and 10. On the first occasion it comes after Peter has made the confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. The other two occasions come just before the disciples dispute about who is the greatest and who is going to be in positions of authority in the Kingdom. Notice the placement Mark has made. Jesus is declared to be the Christ and then he says that he will be mocked, flogged and killed. Jesus tells them again that he will suffer and the disciples dispute over who is the greatest. There is irony here and the disciples have missed the point – as do we I think, on many occasions.
The significance of our passage is made greater when we read on and don’t just stop at the look around the temple. This morning I am going to link the entry into Jerusalem with Jesus overturning the tables in the temple courts. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem – if we are to fully understand it – is linked to what happens following that celebration. Mark tells us of the events that follow in the temple courts and up to chapter 13:2 it is a series of confrontations and ending in Jesus foretelling the destruction of the temple. The actions of Palm Sunday and immediately following, foreshadow the bringing of the new Kingdom in the New Covenant, as we shall see.
Jesus instigated the events of Palm Sunday by sending his disciples off to get the donkey. Clearly there is a sense of occasion, because the disciples throw their cloaks over the donkey and others spread theirs on the road, as if laying down a red carpet. But the real symbolism begins when they reach the road going down from the Mount of Olives. This place had messianic associations. From here the people looked for the coming one who would bring salvation to the nation. In Zechariah 14 the prophet talks about a day of the Lord, when he will fight against the nations that are oppressing Israel and his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives. It talks of a time when the Lord will be king over all the earth; there will be one Lord and his name the only name that is worshipped.
Jesus reaches the path descending from the Mount of Olives and the disciples praise and worship him. There is a sense of history, a hint at prophecy fulfilment. Everyone is confident and they feel secure in what they are doing. But there is also a contrast here with the prophecy from Zechariah. In the prophecy the Lord comes and goes out in battle; goes out in strength; goes out to defeat and be victorious. Here we have Jesus setting out on his messianic path on a colt. This is not a warrior coming to do battle, but someone coming in peace, represented by the donkey. Again there is the background of prophecy from Zechariah. In Zech. 9:9, it talks about the king coming, righteous and having salvation, but gentle and riding on a donkey, bringing peace to the nations. It talks about his rule over the earth, the fulfilment of the covenant, prisoners being set free and restoration.
There is also a Davidic reference with Jesus riding on a donkey. Solomon, when he was anointed king, was placed on David’s mule. As he rode along the people shouted, ‘Long live King Solomon!’ and there was celebration. This is a significant act that Jesus has chosen to do, and its symbolism and meaning would not have been lost. To add to the sense of occasion, the disciples take up the traditional pilgrim greeting, drawn from Psalm 118:26, 27. They are going up to Jerusalem, to the temple. There is a sense of expectation and excitement. To the Jews, the word ‘Kyrios’ or ‘Lord’ would have meant coming in the name of YHWH.
As Jesus approaches Jerusalem the tone changes, and this is where I think we look upon this story with rose tinted glasses and so are left with a sense of an exciting, happy occasion that is unblemished in any way. It is only Luke who records Jesus weeping over Jerusalem and prophesying its downfall. Jesus, the one we recognise as Messiah, descends from the messianic mountain in a prophetic way, but he will be rejected by the city to which he came. Jesus weeps and pronounces judgement on the city of David: God’s holy city. The celebration will come to an end in a few days with the crucifixion and the celebrations of the temple will come to an end forever.
The judgement Jesus pronounces is the judgement of covenantal unfaithfulness and echoes Isaiah and Jeremiah. The curses and blessings of the covenant are spelled out in Deuteronomy 28-32.
• In Isaiah 29 we see the description Jesus uses concerning the destruction of Jerusalem.
• In Jeremiah 21, where the prophet brings the word of God to Zedekiah, there is graphic description of the destruction that will come at the hand of a foreign nation.
This changes the tenor of the story. Yes the Messiah is coming, but it is not good news for those who reject him.
It goes further when Jesus returns to the temple on the following day. The temple was more than a place of worship. It had nationalistic significance; it marked out the people of Israel as being different from the surrounding nations. It stated that God the Lord of all was present here and here it was where people could encounter God. It was a place to be defended from the invader, from the Gentile, from violation. It represented the means by which people could know atonement for sin and it was necessary for the system of sacrifices to continue daily, and the special sacrifices on particular occasions. It was necessary for this to be serviced, to be facilitated and enabled. And the system brought power and wealth to those who controlled it.
How do you envisage the actions of Jesus in the temple, over turning the tables? When Jesus overturned the tables it wasn’t a gentle affair and it disrupted the worship of the temple. This incident has often been reduced to debates about whether churches should have shops on their premises or not; whether they should be selling things on a Sunday or not. It wasn’t the buying and the selling that Jesus was objecting to, but the whole system which would be replaced by the once for all sacrifice he would be making on Good Friday. This wasn’t about moving the stalls outside because they got in the way or were a distraction. This was an attack on the system that had become corrupt and broken, that was about to be superseded in his body; in his death and resurrection.
The robbers Jesus was referring to were not necessarily the stall holders – how else could the people get sacrifices and they needed to change currency in order to be able to buy the sacrifices? Jesus was referring to the religious authorities who benefitted from this system, which ended up ostracising and preventing people coming before God. Mark records that the people were amazed or astonished at his actions and teaching. This was because it struck at the root of the system. How else were they supposed to worship YHWH and atone for sin?
Think back to the beginning of Luke’s gospel and the announcement Jesus’ made that he had come to
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. Luke 4: 18-19
These were the people for whom the house of prayer existed, but found obstacles. They were to experience the freedom of God, but ran into obstacles and rejection, because of the extra rules put in place and the financial cost. Jesus was going to open up the way; did open up the way so that all nations, all people regardless of ability or disability; gender or ethnicity; socially acceptable or otherwise, could come before God and be accepted, forgiven and receive new life. The sacrifice of Jesus enabled this to happen once for all. If you have been following Daily Prayer we have just finished going through Hebrews which addresses this very issue of the New Covenant superseding the covenant with Moses, because Jesus’ sacrifice was and is once for all and is there for all to benefit from if they come in repentance.
Ok so these were events in the life of Jesus. What is their importance for us now? We do need to go beyond the historical and examine ourselves in the light of the actions of Jesus. Let’s try to think practically.
• The people praised Jesus as he rode into the city, declaring him king. We regularly sing songs that declare Jesus as King. What does that mean? To what extent do we consider the path of suffering that Jesus followed, which was part and parcel of him being declared King? How do we respond when suffering comes?
Jesus empowers us by the Holy Spirit to follow him as King over our lives, but that doesn’t necessarily mean things will go in the way we envisaged or planned. This was certainly the experience of Israel. Is Jesus the King we turn to for strength and endurance in those times?
• The temple had become a national and a nationalistic symbol. The Wailing Wall still is a national and nationalistic symbol for Jewish people. The Temple Mount is probably the most disputed piece of ground in history. The temple stated ‘God is on our side’ and one of the reasons the Mount is disputed is because it still makes that statement. How do we overcome and challenge the sentiment that God is tied to a particular social or political position, particularly when injustice is perpetrated as a result?
• Jesus saw the practices of the temple as an obstacle to people entering the presence of God. As an institution, what do we need to change that we are comfortable with, because we can negotiate the system, but we need to change to enable others to encounter God? And how comfortable are we with change?
• Jesus declared the temple a place for all nations and people. His Kingdom is a place for all nations and people. His body the church is a place for all nations and all people. Whom do we exclude deliberately, by our attitudes or just because we have become familiar with the way things are?
The events of Jesus’ life are recorded to introduce us to the Son of God who loved us and died for us so that we could know forgiveness and acceptance in the Kingdom. They are recorded to speak into our lives as followers of Jesus and into the lives of those who come seeking Jesus. We can become over familiar the longer we have been Christians or coming to church. As we enter what is known as Holy Week, consider the accounts in the light of some of those questions I have raised. Use the time to re-examine personal commitment to Christ as we declare him the risen Lord and Saviour.