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.
Mobile, Alabama lays claim to being the place were Mardi Gas was first celebrated in America, even though New Orleans has the greater reputation. Everybody seems to love a good parade. Almost everyone loves event-crowds. Something happens to people when they come together in large crowds. The crowd can start acting like a swarm. And a parade, even more than a crowd at a ball game, is eager to be swept up in the moment.
Parades and “TAZ”s
Parade time may be one of those “Temporary Autonomous Zones” in which normal social barriers are suspended. People lose some of their inhibitions in crowds. In a crowd at a Mardi Gras parade you find yourself doing what you would never otherwise do, like getting excited again and again about catching another gaudy-colored plastic-beaded necklace.
There is something carnivalesque in the parade that Jesus enacted. There seemed to be a lot of advance planning, even covert preparations – a donkey
colt in a village, a password, no proper names used, “just tell them ‘the Master needs it.’
How should we picture it? We don’t know what the ancient city of Jerusalem looked like – it has been built up and destroyed so many times! But if it was like almost any other ancient city the streets would have been narrow. If you have ever had to drive in Europe were streets were made long before cars or trucks were invented, you know that the width of a donkey cart seemed to be the universal standard the civil engineers of their day were using.
So picture it: narrow, twisting lanes, full of people in normal times – people selling produce and animals, clothing and tools. People shopping, haggling over prices, looking for better deals. But this was Passover time, the great annual remembrance of liberation from slavery in Egypt, so there were thousands of pilgrims who had come to the city from all over the place. It’s a national holiday. Spirits are high.
The First Ride
So on the hill facing the city, here comes Jesus, riding a donkey colt. He is its first rider. In my experience as a kid in Kansas, animals do not like people sitting on them. At least not at first. That’s why cowboys talk about “breaking” a horse; breaking it of its normal displeasure at having to carry somebody.
Animals do not come with an understanding of steering either. That has to be taught as well. Picture trying to get a donkey to carry an adult person for the first time. It could not have been cooperative. It must have been almost comical. Maybe that was part of the well-planned plan – a comic mockery; a send up of a triumphal entry of the king, fresh back from conquering some foreign land.
The crowds are in the mood for a good parade, and all the more so if it’s political satire. Maybe if they treat it like comedy they will be able to get away with things in the crowd that they could never otherwise do. Maybe if they ham it up, exaggerate it for effect, start throwing coats on the road and waving branches, it will be taken as street-theater. Even with all the extra Roman troops in town for this most potentially explosive of all national holidays, watching nervously, they can get away with a mocking salute to a king other than Caesar.
It works. They start chanting together things the Romans might crucify them for saying in a serious speech:
9 “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
It’s all in good humor, and, amazingly no one gets arrested. The point has been made, the actors in the drama get to the end, the temple, and call it a day. As Mark recounts,
11 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late”
“Already late.” Late for whom? We will soon find out.
Why, at this “late” moment in the story, would Jesus decide to organize a play in which he takes the lead role as chief jester? This is not a time for jokes. Three times already he has told his disciples that going to Jerusalem is where he is going to die. This must be more than simple gallows humor.
The King has Returned
It is more. There are some things, some very serious things, that only a jester can say. And now, at this late hour, this one thing needed to be said, publicly and clearly. Jesus did indeed understand himself as the long-awaited king, returning at last to Zion. This carefully constructed scene was the best way to send out the message: the King has come!
But will he be swept up in the swarm’s common agenda? Will he start the great Jewish war with Rome, the one that ends in the triumphal parade given for Roman General Titus? No! Someone else will do that, a bit later.
Jesus did understand himself as king, and he did understand that he had a battle of liberation to fight, but he did not identify the enemy as Rome; for Jesus, the enemy was evil itself. And very soon, it would be a battle to the death.
The very next day is the day he returned back into the city, not with an army to confront Roman soldiers, but with a whip to drive animals out of the temple and with the intention of shutting the whole place down, at least for one symbolic moment. The battle against evil was on.
We all know the story; we know that Jesus will stay in that area for several more days, teaching publicly in the temple. We know that opposition will grow and that finally he will be arrested, tried, condemned for being what the crowd wanted him to be, but what he refused to be: a nationalist freedom-fighting kind of king.
We know as well that Easter is coming. We know that in resurrection, God vindicated Jesus and validated his message.
What Kind of King?
Palm Sunday, which begins with a carnivalesque parade, presents us with a serious question: Why did the crowd not want the kind of king that Jesus actually was?
A psychologist might tell us that we all want to project the evil within us onto some external subject whom we can then blame and hold responsible for our own darkness. It’s easier to hate Romans than to deal with the evil in my own heart.
Where does that leave us, today? What kind of king are we looking for? What if Jesus refuses to be my personal Superman, available to get me off the hook of every bad situation? What if Jesus doesn’t want to be my Captain America or my personal E. F. Hutton?
The King’s Agenda
What if the kind of King he is means that he wants instead to take on the evil in me: my arrogance, my stinginess, my refusal to forgive, my apathy, my cynicism, my materialism and my self-centeredness?
What if the kind of King he is means that he wants to disguise himself as the poor, the hungry, the ill housed, the sick, the wrongfully imprisoned, and see how I treat him?
What if, in his kingdom, the values held in highest esteem are poverty of spirit, mourning over the destructive effects of evil, humble meekness, hunger and thirst for justice, purity of heart, peacemaking, and willingness to suffer for what is right and good?
What if that is the kind of king he came to be? Would that be enough to make me want to turn my “Hosanna” in to a cry of “Crucify him?” It was enough for some.