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,
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.
Why Are You Doing This? Mark 11:1-11
This story of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem in the days leading up to the crucifixion is both important and familiar. It's a story important enough that it gets told in all for Gospels. Jesus' birth isn't even talked about in all four Gospels. Jesus' entry into Jerusalem is so special that it gets its own special day on the church calendar. If a story comes up four times, we should probably pay attention to it. Here are some details of the version in Mark that we would do well to remember. First, there is only one donkey. There are two donkeys in one of the other stories. Second, is that Jesus is borrowing the donkey, not taking it. Even though it's a strange request, the disciples are willing to go find someone to borrow a donkey from in order for Jesus to use it. And, the donkey's owner is willing to loan it out. Third, nobody talks about palm branches specifically in this story. Palm branches are associate with royalty during this era. This story only talks about regular branches. Fourth, when Jesus finally makes it into town, he goes to the temple and looks around quietly. He doesn't flip over any tables on this first day back in town. He simply checks things out, and leaves with his disciples to spend the night in Bethany.
And, a fifth thing we should remember: In every version of this story, Jesus is coming to Jerusalem alongside hundreds of other pilgrims. It is Passover. Of the many Jewish festivals each year, Passover has some of the strongest connections to revolution. It is one of the most important festivals and it centers on the delivery of the people from slavery. It is all about liberation. These big crowds and memorials to liberation would have made Rome nervous. Rome was the new Egypt... the new Babylon... the new worldly power subjugating the people of Israel. Rome was concerned enough during this holiday of liberation that they would send three times the regular amount of military presence to the city in order to handle any rabble-rousers. The military general himself, Pontius Pilate, went to the city to keep the so-called peace by any means necessary. Their dangerous presence would shadow all the talk of liberation and divine provision of the festival. We should pay attention to it in our interpretations, too.
This story is situated at an important time in the church year, too. It comes up the Sunday before Easter. As Jesus enters the city, we enter Holy Week... the time of prayer, faithfulness, betrayal, and crucifixion. If we are walking into this last week with Jesus, how does this story shape the way we approach the stories of the coming week? What does this story teach us about Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday? Does it help us anticipate Easter Sunday? Dr. Fred Craddock has a paradigm that he suggests as one way to understand Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. I find it compelling. I think you might, too. He said that you can read this story as a parade, a protest, and a funeral procession all at the same time. It sounds a little complicated, but Jesus is complicated. Life is complicated. I suppose you could simplify the reading a bit and concentrate on just one of these types of processions. But, I think you miss something important if you do so. So, let's sit with the complexity a bit and explore how a parade, a funeral procession, and a protest can be wrapped up in one story. I think it will help us get through the next week.
First the parade. It helps if you know something about ancient royal parades and the expectations for the coming of the Messiah. After reading the work of several different scholars, here are some things I've been able to piece together. The Mount of Olives, the place where this story starts, is associated with the Messiah. The use of this particular donkey as his primary conveyance into the city is a royal thing, too. Zechariah 9:9 tells of a humble king who rides into the city on a young donkey. Parts of Numbers, Deuteronomy, and 1 Samuel all talk about animals that have never been used before being set aside for religious purposes. Also, kings, not random roving teachers, have the right to commandeer an animal for a special purpose. It sure seems like Jesus commandeered this animal for special purpose.
The practice of laying branches and clothes down on the road was a way to smooth the way forward for royalty in 1 Kings and 1 Maccabees. The words the people shouted had royal connotations, too. Psalm 118 is a psalm used at times of enthronement. The shouts from the people and promises from the leader in this psalm remind those present of God's liberation and provision. This Psalm was also connected to the story of David, the great king of Israel, and the hopes that a leader from his line might return to help save the people. The words of Psalm 118, "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord"… these words are what you call out to a king or what you call out to the Messiah. This story sounds a little like a royal parade. It sounds like they are calling Jesus the anointed one who would save them.
The thing is, if this is a royal parade, it's a really weird one. Even with all of this ancient Jewish symbolism, it is missing the marks of the greatest ruling power in the area: Rome. Unlike, say, Pilate's own entry into the city, Jesus' entry into the city is not recognized as special by the Empire. None of the important, powerful people of the city rush out to meet Jesus or welcome him with long-winded speeches. In fact, in this version of the story, none of his own religious leaders even came out to meet him. The streets are not lined with soldiers in gleaming armor or aristocratic people in finery, wearing signs of their wealth and power. Instead, it's just regular people with the clothes of their backs and branches hastily cut from the fields. Even Jesus' entry into the temple is quiet. There is no mention of sacrifices made for his sake or prayers lifted up in his honor.
So, maybe it's not quite a parade, but a satire of a parade, a kind of protest against the presence of Rome. The protest may be clearer in Matthew where, immediately following the parade, Jesus flips over tables and hassles money changers. That takes a little bit longer to happen in Mark. Jesus spend the night somewhere else before flipping tables and saying the money changers have made the temple a den of robbers. But, in this version, there is just enough to remind the people present of how God invites them to welcome in their leaders and how Rome requires them to greet their oppressors. Rome has to show off its might, with soldiers and flashy parades, overcompensating in order to make the people fearful. What would it mean for the people to great a common, poor man with the welcome of a king? What would it mean for them to greet Jesus with the phrase "Hosanna," which means "save us?" Is this a protest, where they proclaim their trust not in Rome, but in Christ?
What if this is also a funeral procession? We know that Jesus will not finish the week lifted high on a throne. We know that he will instead be lifted high up on the cross. In fact, the author of Mark has already told us three times that Jesus' ministry will end in the cross. Even as regular people shout out "Save Us," the Romans seem to ignore this hullabaloo. They saw this little pageant and didn't seem to imagine it to be a threat. Had it been, someone would have dispatched soldiers to break it up. But, no one did. And, while this crowd is greeting him in so many ways like the Messiah, days later, at his trial, another crowd, spurred on by Jesus's enemies, will call for his death. That tension didn't just appear as Jesus came into the city on this particular Passover. The tension has been building for weeks. Every shout for joy would have been tempered by calls for destruction. Just a few short verses after this reading, we are told that the leaders have begun, in earnest, to plot his death because they were afraid of him. This parade is beginning to look more and more like it leads to a funeral.
A Messiah who will be crucified. A king who cannot save himself but might save the world. A celebration on the way to the tomb. Acclaim, protest, and mourning... this is a story of all three. We need to keep all of these things in mind as we make our way into Holy Week. Each part of this story will help us understand the shape of Christ's ministry. Where are you finding yourself today? Along the parade route, joyfully shouting out to the one who will bring you freedom? In a stance of protest, choosing a compassionate, just leadership unlike the powers and principalities that currently rule? Maybe you are in mourning, lamenting that which has been destroyed, and unsure about the promise of resurrection that has been proclaimed for our future? All three are faithful responses to this story and to the movement of the Spirit. But, we should also remember, the entry into the city isn't the end of the story. There is always one step further on this journey. May we be just as ready to take our next step on our journey as Jesus was on his.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
C. Clifton Black: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2587
C. Clifton Black: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1919
Paul S. Berge: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1240
Kathryn Matthews: http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_march_25_2018
Teresa Lockhart Stricklen, "Sixth Sunday in Lent (The Liturgy of the Palms)," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
Rob Browning: http://www.ethicsdaily.com/from-palm-branches-to-open-palms-cms-17792
Fred Craddock, "If Only We Didn't Know: Mark 11:1-11," The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002)
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.