When Jesus entered the holy city of Jerusalem, it was on a donkey, with palm branches spread before him. We now call this occasion Palm Sunday, aka Passion Sunday. Tomorrow, if you attend church, you will hear about a donkey and palm branches. You wonder, “Hey, what’s up with that?” You would not be alone.
That first Palm Sunday, the true significance of riding a donkey and waving palm branches was lost on the crowds who wished to coronate him as their king. The parade route that day would not lead to some crowning achievement. Yes, the people sing. “Hosanna to God in the highest!” and “long live the king!” But by week’s end, with no royal hoopla, the crowds turn on Jesus and demand he be crucified.
Who is this Jesus? What’s with the donkey and the palm branches? Why is Palm Sunday such a celebrated event in the church calendar? Perhaps these are your questions, too.
If Jesus is the long-anticipated Messiah who came to deliver his people from the Roman oppressors, why not a warhorse leading the way? Why not a chariot? The donkey ride is not some “Plan B” or back-up solution for lack of other transport. Jesus riding on the donkey went above and beyond the immediate or practical need to make a splashy entrance. This donkey, as it turns out, was part of God’s larger plan. This donkey specifically fulfills ancient prophecy: “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zechariah 9:9).
While such a lowly animal can represent true humility, ironically, by riding on this donkey, Jesus is also saying that he’s the true king! While its significance is mostly lost on us today, the first-century Jews gathering in Jerusalem for the Passover feast would have known this telltale Old Testament prophecy.
As with the donkey, so also with the palm branches—there’s more to the story than meets the eye. The crowd waved palm branches, a traditional symbol of victory, much as we do today. You know the drill, as when we bend low at the waist, extend arms out straight, head bowed in honor—thus signaling our reverence for some athletic feat or hero. Tossing palm branches along the parade route of Jesus also served the same purpose as a ticker tape, confetti-showering parade that we give for returning war heroes and Super Bowl champs. Finally, their Messiah—their champion—had come home. Finally, Jesus was going to kick butt and overthrow their Roman oppressors and set up the perfect kingdom for the Jews. Right?
Uh… no. The crowd would soon discover, by week’s end, that this King was not what they expected; he would not set up some earthly, political kingdom. Rome would continue to oppress the Jewish people. Rather, the victory that Jesus won that week—a victory over sin and death—would do more than free them from their current oppression. It would restore all of creation; death would be cheated; the oppressor of their souls defeated, a right relationship with God restored.
That’s the way it was that first Palm Sunday, some 2,000 years ago. Palm Sunday 2019 still has Jesus entering our cities and towns, our sanctuaries and streets… our economic chaos, our political divisions, our overcrowded prisons and hospitals to restore broken people. As Jesus entered Jerusalem that fateful day to great fanfare, so also Jesus enters all the places and people in turmoil who so desperately need him … the Prince of Peace with peace for the world’s hot spots … the High Priest with the power to heal … the Prophet who brings God’s justice … and the King who rules both heaven and earth.
The message of Palm Sunday may have been lost on those who lined the parade route in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. Religious pilgrims still retrace this route, as well as the more notable Via Dolorosa of Good Friday. Myself included. As you read this, I will have just completed an 11-day pilgrimage in Israel. I went there to imagine being among palm-waving crowds traveling with Jesus—and to walk where he walked.
But there’s a difference between those merely “traveling with” Jesus to Jerusalem and true “followers of” this Jesus. Pilgrims to Jerusalem are fascinated with all the sites and stones they see. But this Jesus is also a stumbling block to many, especially those waving palm branches on Sunday but crucifying him by Friday. May the Risen Lord surprise you along the Road to Emmaus, or Columbus, or wherever you happen to be on pilgrimage.
Rev. Dietrich Gruen, of Madison, is Bridge Pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Columbus.