I like Palm Sunday, because I like waving palms. Tactile worship is a lot of fun and we should probably figure out more ways to include props in worship. But Palm Sunday is about more than just fun worship props. Palm Sunday is important, not just because it marks the last Sunday of Lent and the entry into Holy Week. Palm Sunday is crucial because the Triumphal Entry teaches us a lot about who Jesus is and what his ministry was all about—and therefore framing the context for how we follow him.
The Triumphal Entry does two things: first, it points us back to Jesus’ “deeds of power” that defined his ministry. I was struck by the phrasing in v. 37: “the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen.” These deeds of power show us what Jesus was concerned with—and what we as his followers should be concerned with too. Second, the Triumphal Entry points us to Jesus’ role as King—a provocative notion in both his day and our own. For followers of Jesus, calling Jesus “King” turns the world’s understanding of allegiance and citizenship upside down, causing us to question our relationship to the society that we live in. Really, what the Triumphal Entry shows us is that the gospel has spiritual, political, and social implications.
Jesus and the Deeds of Power
In the first book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, we meet young Harry when he has no clue that he is a wizard. He lives a miserable life with his aunt, uncle, and ghastly cousin Dudley, sleeping in a cupboard under the stairs. On his 11th birthday, Harry learns that he—and his dead parents—were wizards and he has been given admission to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The magical world knows very well who Harry is and what he has done, but Harry and the extended family around him have no clue that he is famous.
The infant Harry is believed to have done a deed of power, temporarily vanquishing the evil wizard you-know-who, I mean, Voldemort. Though he’s been ridiculed as a no-good loser by his family, Harry quickly learns of this deed of power and begins to have an important role in the battle between the forces of good and evil.
There are some surprising parallels (but definitely also contrasts) between Harry’s story and Jesus’, in how they understand their identity and purpose in relation to their deeds of power. For Jesus, there is a miraculous conception and a virgin birth; we see angels, shepherds, Magi, and an angry murderous King out to kill an infant. Jesus’ family learn early on how special he is—Jesus Immanuel, God with Us—but they learn this before he actually does anything special. As Jesus grows up, those outside of his immediate family seem generally clueless about who Jesus really is.
In fact, most people around Jesus think that he is so ordinary that when he starts his ministry, they scoff. “Is this really Joseph’s son, from Galilee?” Or, “Nazareth, can anything good really come from there?” But then the power of Jesus’ ministry becomes apparent: “the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” Jesus enacts deeds of power that draw crowds and disciples to his side, and eventually convince his disciples so much that they proclaim him King while marching down to Jerusalem.
On the journey to Jerusalem, in the sections immediately before the Triumphal Entry, we see several of these deeds of power that define what Jesus’ message and ministry are about. Going back a chapter in Luke, we see Jesus and his disciples walking toward a city called Jericho, amidst the crowds of pilgrims. A blind man is sitting by the side of the road panhandling. He hears a commotion, and lots of people going by, and asks, “What’s going on?” A person replies, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” Clearly, word about Jesus has spread around. The blind man starts yelling, “Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me!” People grumble and try to shush him but the blind man keeps yelling, “Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me!” Jesus stops in his tracks, and asks those around him to bring the man over. Jesus asks the blind man, “What do you want me to do for you?” And the man says, “Lord, let me see again.” Jesus heals the man, and the man joins the crowd of disciples, praising God. Luke says that everyone around them sees what happens, and they praise God! And continue on the journey to Jerusalem.
Jesus and his disciples arrive at Jericho, and as they are passing through the city, word gets out that Jesus is coming through with all the other pilgrims. A man named Zacchaeus, not tall in stature, really wants to see this person that everyone has been talking about but the crowds are too deep around Jesus. Zacchaeus improvises, runs ahead, and climbs up a sycamore tree.
As Jesus walks by, he looks up, calls out to Zacchaeus, saying, “I want to eat at your house today.” Zacchaeus is delighted to host Jesus and comes down from the tree but people complain and grumble because Zacchaeus is rich and his wealth is ill-gotten gain. As a chief tax collector, he’s been taking money on behalf of the enemy and likely was also forcing his fellow Jews to give him money beyond their taxes. Zacchaeus was involved in oppression and economic injustice—and was even doing it to his own people.
During the meal with Jesus, Zacchaeus repents. He says, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much” (Luke 19:9). This was more than beyond the restitution required by the Mosaic Law. Jesus responds, “Today is salvation day in this home! Here he is: Zacchaeus, son of Abraham! For the Son of Man has come to find and restore the lost” (vv. 9-10, the Message).
Two people, one poor and one rich, encounter Jesus on his way into Jerusalem, and both have their lives changed. You could say that Jesus transforms two blind people—the physically blind man and the spiritually blind man, Zacchaeus—enabling them to see by the power of God. These were two deeds of power that would have been on the minds of Jesus’ disciples and the crowds of pilgrims walking with them. Jesus’ deeds of power gave sight (and therefore power) to a marginalized man and released a man enslaved with materialistic greed. Both men are described as “saved.” Jesus’ deeds of power are not just something having to do with individual beliefs or spiritual healing: salvation that comes through Jesus is spiritual, and also social, economic, and physical.
Donkey-riding, coat-throwing, palm-waving king making
Beyond reminding us about Jesus’ deeds of power, the Triumphal Entry also, especially, emphasizes Jesus’ role as King—a provocative notion in both his day and our own. To understand why it was provocative, it’s helpful to get an overview of the sociohistorical context. Pilgrims are journeying from all over the land and making their way to Jerusalem for the Passover. Like all of what was called Judea, the area is occupied by the Roman Empire. Whenever there were Jewish feast days, the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, would come to Jerusalem from his outpost at Caesarea and bring with him extra military reinforcements.
So while Jesus and his disciples are making their way toward the city, Roman soldiers are also piling into the city, just “in case national fervor and religious fanaticism threaten the Roman peace” (Craddock, p. 223). The Jewish people, after all, had a history of uprisings and rebellions against their previous Greek and current Roman occupiers. In Jesus’ day, there were nationalist movements—zealots—who wanted to kick out Roman rule once and for all.
Jesus and the disciples pass through the last few towns before Jerusalem, Bethphage and Bethany, and they arrive at the Mount of Olives, the final stop before they would descend into the city itself. Jesus gives instructions for his disciples: “Go into the village ahead and bring back a donkey, a colt that had not been ridden before. If anyone asks what you are doing, just tell them, ‘The Lord needs it.’” This seems really strange to us, but this donkey request actually fits into a “common procedure of a ruler (or a rabbi) procuring transportation, using the royal right of impressment,” or the act of borrowing something for a specific purpose for an important person (Losie, p. 859). It also fulfills a prophecy in Zechariah 9:9.
The disciples go about their way, find a colt, give the appropriate response to the questioning owner, and make their way back to Jesus. Cloaks are placed on the donkey and then the disciples set Jesus on the donkey. The journey into Jerusalem then proceeds, down from the Mount of Olives. People place their cloaks along the road for the donkey bearing Jesus to walk upon. In other gospel passages, they’re also throwing palms on the road and waving palms in the air. Luke describes that “The whole multitude of disciples” start praising God joyfully and loudly, “for all the deeds of power that they had seen” Jesus do (v. 37). They don’t say, “What a wonderful teacher!” and they don’t say, “What a great and kind prophet!” Instead, the multitude cries out, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” (v. 38). Jesus is no longer just a rabbi or a teacher, not just a prophet—but a king.
This makes the Pharisees nervous and they cry, “Teacher, get your disciples under control!” Jesus answers back, “If they were quiet, the rocks themselves would shout out what they are saying.” Why exactly were the Pharisees nervous? What exactly does the donkey-riding and coat-throwing and palm-waving mean?
The processional entry had cultural significance for people in Jesus’ day. Roman and Jewish history each had a background of emperors or rebel military leaders entering cities in triumph. After they’d completed victories in battle, they’d come into the city on horseback, together with their soldiers.
With this history in mind, the Triumphal Entry procession would have been seen as subversive, as a challenge to the existing rule and authority of Rome—potentially as one of those scenarios that Pontius Pilate was in town to subdue. If someone’s followers are declaring them to be King and all the signs and symbols point to kingship, thoughts of a coup or a revolt are inevitable. And yet at the same time, Jesus is not a military ruler returning after a military victory; the animal he rides is not a war horse but a donkey, a symbol of a ruler coming in peace. He’s not coming to lord things over subdued inhabitants, but offering his message of God’s Kingdom for people to either accept or reject.
The cloaks on the road also serve as important symbols – harkening back to another King-making time in the Old Testament. In 2 Kings 9, a man named Jehu is anointed King of Israel by a prophet under Elisha’s orders. When Jehu’s followers hear about the anointing, they enthusiastically proclaim him King, blow trumpets, and spread their cloaks down before him.
While there are parallels, Jesus’ story actually differs from Jehu’s. After Jehu is celebrated as King, Jehu and his followers go and kill the existing king and wipe out his whole family line. Jesus doesn’t head into the city to slaughter the existing ruler; instead, Jesus himself is the one who is sentenced to death and dies, without a fight, after coming in peace to heal the sick and save the lost.
While it’s called Jesus’ Triumphal Entry, Jesus’ triumph actually comes after the procession. The victory involves nonviolence and self-sacrifice. While Jesus’ followers declare him King on the way into Jerusalem, they don’t fully understand that it is only after Jesus is willing to die—and dies a real physical death—that God vindicates Jesus and raises him to life in victory.
Salvation and Allegiance
I said at the beginning that the Triumphal Entry does two things: first, it points us back to Jesus’ “deeds of power” that defined his ministry. This shows us what he was concerned with—and what we as his followers should be concerned with too. The Good News that Jesus preached was sight for the blind, repentance for the rich, freedom from the captive, healing for the sick. The salvation that Jesus brought affected peoples’ hearts, brought them freedom from sin, and it brought them physical, social, and economic transformation.
The gospel that we celebrate in Holy Week is one that permeates our economic choices, our relationships with our friends, family, and neighbors, and all the ways that we interact with this world. What we preach and teach here is that Jesus came to deliver our souls and our bodies and our society and our earth.
I also said that the Triumphal Entry does a second thing: it points us to Jesus’ role as King, and I said it was a provocative notion in both his day and our own. In Jesus’ day, Jesus being King meant that his followers stood apart of the allegiances, protections, and statuses in their society. The early church was loyal to Jesus, instead of Caesar, and by saying that Jesus was Lord instead of Caesar is Lord, they were persecuted and marginalized. For followers of Jesus today, calling Jesus Lord or King should turn our understanding allegiance, citizenship, privilege, and status upside down, causing us to question our relationship and roles to the society that we live in.
As followers of Jesus, we commit to proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is at hand, to enacting the deeds of power that transform souls and wallets and bodies and relationships. We commit to proclaiming Jesus as King over our lives and circumstances—even when some leading rulers and authorities might say, “You’d better settle down. We don’t want any trouble. We don’t want to hear your talk about justice or mercy or peace.” Yet we are called to boldly and loudly proclaim how Jesus’ deeds of power can transform our hearts and relationships and economy and society.
We don’t know what lies ahead for our country: uncertainty, hatred, unrest, bigotry, and violence. But standing here on Palm Sunday, we know we have a humble, peaceful servant king whose gospel transforms us spiritually, politically, socially, and economically, and as we’ll see this week, this King walked through injustice, beatings, and death, that we might be empowered to proclaim God’s reign of love and justice in this world.
Sisters and brothers, let us proclaim King Jesus and his deeds of power as we move into Holy Week and beyond. AMEN.