I decided I should spend some time this week (it being Holy Week), reading the Gospel accounts of the last week of Jesus’ earthly life. I had planned on reading quickly through the account of the “triumphal entry” (the pastor seemed to have covered it thoroughly in yesterday’s Palm Sunday sermon), and going on to his actions in the Temple. I don’t know whether it’s reasonable for me to feel a need to see something new in these passages (Christians often point out how each time you read the Bible, there is something new to see), but with such familiar passages, it’s difficult.
Even without reading it, I could tell you half a dozen sermon topics based on the Palm Sunday passage. I’m sure I’ve heard the story just about every Palm Sunday of my life. Even as a child, when we didn’t stay in church to listen to the sermon, I’m sure the children’s sermon always was about people – including children – waving palms and praising Jesus . I’ve always loved the Palm Sunday hymns, with their joyful songs of “Hosanna!”
I picked Mark’s Gospel to read, as it is generally the shortest and most straightforward. I discovered that what I hadn’t remembered about the passage was how much time Mark spends telling about the process of getting the donkey for Jesus to ride on. Of eleven verses on Palm Sunday, six are about the donkey! What is so important about this business of getting the donkey, that it gets more attention than Jesus’ actual entry into Jerusalem?
I looked around on the internet to see if I could find any discussions of the matter. (Finding the right search terms for a question like that is a challenge – I was somewhat surprised that I actually did find two pages that addressed the question directly.) I’m not sure I found a clear answer, but there were interesting points made on the subject.
Several pages pointed out that this was the one time Jesus seems to have actually sought out publicity. For three years of ministry, he was always withdrawing from the crowds, telling people not to go around telling about what he had done, and generally trying to keep a low profile. (Partly, it seems, this was to keep those who wanted to make trouble for him from following too closely, partly to keep the focus on what he really wanted to teach instead of the miracles that people were looking for.)
Now he seems to welcome the attention. People were already looking for him, wondering whether he would come to Jerusalem, and if so what would he do there. Now as he approaches the city, rather than simply walking on in, he stops and sends two disciples ahead to get the donkey. The circumstances in which they get the donkey certainly offered a chance for people to notice something happening, and perhaps follow the disciples and the donkey back to see what was going on.
All the pages I looked at stress that Jesus rode the donkey into Jerusalem in order to fulfill the prophecy by Zechariah.
Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. Zechariah 9:9
Some pointed out something I had learned about this passage several years ago, that the custom was for a king to enter the city on a horse if he came as a conqueror, on a donkey if he came in peace. As Son of God, Jesus could have demanded that people bow to him (as one day they will), but instead he came in humility. He presented himself to his people as the Messiah, and this required that he have the people’s attention. As usual, of course, the attention he got was mixed – fervent praise from many, but angry opposition from the religious leaders.
From a somewhat different perspective, one writer noted that this whole account shows that Jesus was in charge of the situation. He may or may not have pre-arranged to borrow the donkey from an acquaintance (this does seem the most likely scenario to me), but he certainly had a plan and carried it out. He wasn’t just letting events happen to him, he was choosing where to go and what to do. And, this writer points out, this would be the case throughout the week.
He came to Jerusalem intentionally, knowing how it would end. He wasn’t walking blindly into a trap, nor facing the inevitable as best he could. The entire week he was in charge of where he went and what he did, and prepared for the reactions – good and bad – of the people around him.