8 min. to read.
Today is the 40th day of Lent, Palm Sunday, and the beginning of Holy Week. I’m reading Brian Zahnd’s Lent devotional, The Unvarnished Jesus. I journal on the scripture he’s selected and his reflection, then I post daily (or near-daily) meditations in response.
Luke 19:28-44 is the selected scripture today, Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem to crowds of hopeful and adoring fans.
On Sunday, at the beginning of the week that would end with his death, Jesus entered Jerusalem in a grand fashion. He asked his disciples to go into a nearby village to find a young donkey colt. Then, at the head of a growing procession, he rode into Jerusalem.
As he neared the city, the crowds grew. People knew Jesus from his teaching and numerous stories of miraculous food and healings. Folks thought he might be the long-awaited Messiah. As he approached the city gates, people threw their cloaks onto the ground, creating an impromptu “red carpet” of welcome. Others waved palm branches like victory banners. Some began shouting, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” and “Blesses is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” Others shouted, “Hosanna!”
The atmosphere was electric. It was Passover in Jerusalem, one of the pilgrim festivals. The city was bursting with visitors who had come to celebrate Passover from all around the Mediterranean. This was also the time of year when the people’s nationalism ran hottest. Passover, of course, marked God’s liberation of the Hebrew slaves from Egyptian oppression. The current arrangement in Judea of puppet kings appointed by the Roman Empire, excessive taxes for the privilege of being a Roman province, and constant supervision by Roman legions made the story of God’s liberation of slaves from bondage feel especially relevant. The provincial governor, Pilate, was concerned that altogether too many people were thinking about liberation instead of being productive, peaceful citizens. In response, he moved his personal legion from Caesarea into Jerusalem for the Passover season, just in case.
The people lining the streets, waving palm branches, and shouting “Hosanna!” were not welcoming a hot new celebrity teacher to town. They were receiving a king. Their shout of “Hosanna” is significant. It’s just a weird, old churchy word to us, one we take to mean some kind of generic praise and adoration. But the word we find in our English Bibles is actually a translation of a Hebrew phrase that means, “Save us, we pray.” Hosanna! Save us. Hosanna! Save us.
Are you catching on to what was happening? People are crowding the streets, giving Jesus the kind of welcome due to a liberating hero. They are shouting, “Save us.” They are doing this the same weekend that they all observe the memory of God’s miraculous liberation of their ancestors from slavery. Any Roman official watching this unfold was pushing the panic button. Rome did not abide popular freedom movements. The religious leaders in Jerusalem watching this unfold knew that if they did not solve the problem themselves, Rome would solve it for them and relieve them of their positions for failing to do their job.
Jesus knew all of this. Jesus chose to enter Jerusalem in this way. He asked his disciples to find the donkey colt. He knew this would bring to mind the prophecy of Zechariah. (Zechariah 9:9-10) “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. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.”
Jesus was coming to establish a kingdom. He’d been telling his followers all along that the Kingdom of Heaven had already arrived. But people were expecting him to be a different kind of king than he was.
Think about the people standing at the gate, lining the streets. The ones laying down cloaks and waving palm branches and shouting, “Save us!” They were cheering for Jesus. That makes them “the good guys,” right? They wanted Jesus to be king. They wanted their world to fall into line with Jesus’ rulership. But, what did they think that meant?
I think they imagined a powerful, independent nation. I think they were recalling stories of King David and King Solomon, back when things were great, when Judah was a power unto itself. They wanted the hated foreigners out of control. They wanted to stop paying taxes to the empire. They wanted Rome out of their decisions. I imagine they wanted to feel pride in their nation again.
The people lining the streets shouting praise at Jesus had particular expectations. He was going to turn the tables. He was coming in power to evict the powerful. This was a king on THEIR side, on the side of Israel as a nation, on the side of Jerusalem as the seat of power, on the side of his people, his countrymen, THEM. They weren’t cheering for Jesus at all; they were cheering for the idea that they would finally be the ones in power.
Looking back at church history, it seems this parade has never stopped. Even today, it marches on. People shout praises of Jesus, wave Jesus’ banners, and identify themselves as Jesus’ fans and followers. In reality, when they say they are elevating Jesus or Christianity, what’s truly happening is that they have an idea of what the world ought to look like, and Jesus or Christianity is the avatar of their expectations.
Jesus knew this risk. He had been talking about a new kingdom the whole time. But he knew that many people, maybe most people, didn’t understand what he meant. Remember his words: (Matthew 7:21) “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”
The streets of Jerusalem were lined with people shouting, “Lord, Lord,” but they didn’t understand what the Kingdom of Heaven brought. I think this is why the crowd so easily flipped against Jesus and demanded the release of Barabbas. Jesus had failed to live up to their expectations. He hadn’t thrown out the corrupt religious leaders or the Roman occupiers. He hadn’t performed a single miracle between his Triumphant entry and his arrest. He hadn’t changed anything. From their perspective, he was a failed messiah.
The question when we follow Jesus is always this: Are we following Jesus and Jesus’ way? Or are we making Jesus into a sacred mascot for our team and the commitments we already have?
When we shout that Jesus is Lord, are we saying that we have submitted ourselves to His leadership, that we will obey Jesus no matter what? Or do we mean for the world to submit to us because Jesus is Lord, and we represent Jesus?
When we commit to following Jesus, do we mean that we are giving ourselves to the radical life of neighbor-love, and serving the least of these, and dying to self? Or are we simply using Jesus to bless our own ideas of what culture and society ought to look like?
When we shout, “Hosanna! Lord, Save us?” are we asking Jesus to give us power so that we can protect ourselves? To save us from discomfort and pain? Or are we asking Jesus to include us on his path of other-centered co-suffering love where we give ourselves away? To save us from unending vortex of self?
The people lining the streets of Jerusalem were expecting a coronation. They just didn’t realize that Jesus’ royal procession would be as a prisoner, and his crown would be bloody, and his throne would be a cross. And they certainly didn’t understand that following Jesus meant walking that same path.
But it was Jesus who said, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Lent invites us to reject forms of Christianity focused on winning and being powerful. This way is life.