top of page

Palm Sunday B Gospel

I recently came across a film called American Jesus. It’s a documentary made in 2013 by a guy named Aram Garriga. His goal was to provide a kaleidoscopic view of Evangelical Christianity in America. The film ranges from Cowboys, snake-handlers, surfers, a recovered junky turned Pentecostal pastor, televangelists, a pastor in Nashville who meets with metal-heads and homeless folks under a bridge, to those who are absolutely done with Evangelicalism. Even for those who are relatively aware of the varieties of Evangelical subcultures in America, when you see them all lined up it’s quite surreal. The one lingering insight I had after watching this film was the reaffirmation that we are very confused about Jesus.

Palm Sunday is, no doubt, the perfect Sunday to consider what we think we know about Jesus. Of course, ever since chapter 8, Mark’s been pushing us towards this question of who do we say that he is. With the stage set that the Messiah must suffer, be rejected, and killed, Jesus makes his move by riding into Jerusalem.

I’d like to juxtapose two of Jesus’ entries into the city in the gospel of Mark. The first is the one we’ve come to regard as the (so-called) Triumphal entry. The last is the one he makes after he’s arrested in Gethsemane and brought into the city.

The scene opens with Jesus and the disciples approaching Jerusalem but stopping just short of it at the Mount of Olives. This was an important place in the Scripture. According Zechariah 14:4 the Mount of Olives was the location from which God would arrive and fight for his people and restore all things and be Lord over the whole creation. In the first century Roman world is was customary for a king or ruler to enter the city he had just conquered, go to the temple, and make a sacrifice to his god, symbolizing their victory over the other god. Sharyn Dowd says Mark’s audience would have recognized Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem as “the processional entry of a warrior-king.”[1] It looks like Jesus is about to make his move on the city the way a zealous Messiah was supposed to. Mark’s gospel makes a parody of this warrior-king pattern. The subversion begins with his ride. He enter’s Jerusalem on a colt, which is a young male horse, hardly befitting the nobility of a king. Furthermore, rather than make the sacrifice of victory in the temple, Jesus goes into the temple, looks around, and then leaves. He leaves the city. He actually goes back to where he came from, to the area of Bethany near the Mount of Olives. He’s there until they leave for Gethsemane, which is close to the temple where he’s arrested. In this way the real triumphal entry into Jerusalem happens in Mark 14 and is more appropriate for one who is to be rejected, suffer, and die — A perp walk into the city to face his accusers.

Jesus doesn’t ride into Jerusalem the way we want him to. Everything about what the crowd does when he rides in on the colt speaks to their expectations of him. It says the crowds put their coats on the ground and waved branches at him. The Jews did this for King Jehu once (2 Kings 9), a gesture of his royal status and of their allegiance to him as their king. I’ve heard, as well, that removing your coat in that moment is sign that you consider that person capable when it comes to your well-being. Having a coat in the desert could be life or death. It kept you warm at night, dry from the rain, and protected against sunlight and dust. To take it off for someone was a gesture that you trust them. It also says they shouted “Hosanna” and “blessed is he who comes in the name of the lord.” This language is drawn from Psalm 118, the last of the Hallel Psalms that the Jews would recite along the way as they travelled to Jerusalem for the major feasts.[2] “Hosanna” means “please, save us”, perhaps a phrase worn out of any real meaning after so many years of crying out to God. Perhaps a meaningless platitude void of any energy. Likewise, by the first century the phrase “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” had become a benign greeting priests would say in reference to people coming to worship.[3] But when Jesus rides into Jerusalem, these words become charged with meaning, as he is the Christ/Messiah who comes to save them and he is the one, like David, blessed of God to rule over his people (2 Samuel 7:14). even as he rides into Jerusalem the firs time, they see something in him, even if they see it blurry.

The response of the crowd becomes ironic, though, given what Jesus does (or, rather, does not do) in the temple. However, their response to him is still appropriate, but more so when enters Jerusalem the second time. William Stringfellow says, ”Palm Sunday is a day of dramatic temptation for Christ. It is a day of profound frustration for the disciples and one on which the apprehensions about Christ on the part of the ruling authorities of Israel and Rome are exposed.”[4] It’s a temptation for Christ to be the Messiah they expect him to be. It’s frustrating for the disciples and the crowds because he’s not who they expected him to be. The real question for a