Great Lent is over, my children, and now we enter into Holy Week, the most sacred and holy time of the Church’s liturgical year. Today, we see Jesus making His triumphal entry into the Holy City of Jerusalem in preparation for His Passion, Death, and Resurrection.
During Passover time, Jerusalem was crowded with visitors. Every Jewish adult within a twenty mile radius was obligated to attend the celebrations, and this number was added to by many, many more who would crowd into the city from towns and villages great distances beyond Jerusalem. Historians tell us that in Jesus’ time, Jerusalem would be teeming with more than 2.5 million pilgrims who flocked to the Holy City. They were there to commemorate Passover, an event that had taken place fifteen hundred years earlier, when God delivered His people from the land of bondage in order to lead them to the Promised Land.
The Triumphal Entry, as it is called, occurred on Sunday of Passion Week or Holy Week. It is one of the events that all four Gospels record, giving the occasion great significance and importance. Jesus, the Passover Lamb, heads into Jerusalem for the last time, where He initiates a massive public demonstration as He offers Himself to be the King of Israel. Keep in mind now that normally Jesus moved quietly and preferred obscurity, many times charging those He healed to “tell no man” (Matthew 8:4). Here, however, He sets in motion a huge crusade. Why? It probably was so the Jews would never be able to say, “If we only had the opportunity to embrace You as our King, we certainly would have done so.” He stripped away that excuse from the Jewish nation when He rode into Jerusalem and publicly offered Himself to them as their Messiah.
The triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem emphasizes that He is the King of Glory; the King who comes in peace. This event is the public acclamation of the Prince of Peace as King of Kings. It is also a climax for which anticipation has been building. Ever since the disciples had identified Jesus as ‘the Christ, the Son of the Living God’ at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus can then state that, ‘He must go to Jerusalem.’ Now He arrives. Not only is the place itself significant, but His arrival at the time of the Passover festival is significant, for the Passover was itself a clear foreshadowing of His own death as the Passover Lamb.
John the Baptist introduced Jesus to the world as, ‘the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29). It is significant that Jesus Christ was proclaimed to the world as God’s Passover Lamb by God’s chosen herald. John set the stage for what would be unparalleled world changing events that would forever impact the life and history of humankind. For Christ was no mere mortal man but the very Son of God, a revelation made by God Himself when Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River. “And behold, a voice out of the heavens said, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.’” (Matthew 3:16-17).
In today’s Gospel reading, we find Jesus visiting the house of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Martha is preparing supper, Lazarus is sitting at the table with Jesus and Mary is on the floor at Jesus’ feet. She takes a jar of ointment and rubs it all over Jesus’ feet and then wipes His feet dry with her hair. Judas protests this because the ointment was very expensive and he thought it should be sold for money and the money given to the poor rather than being wasted on such a frivolous and nonsensical act. We hear Christ reprimand Judas, saying, “Let her alone, for she is preparing my body for burial. For the poor you will always have with you, but You shall not always have Me.”
In reality, Judas didn’t care one bit for the poor. He was upset because he was the one who took care of the purse and he was a thief. If the ointment was sold, it would have meant more money for him to steal. Judas wasn’t kidding anybody, especially Jesus, who knew what was really in Judas’ heart. Judas feigned loyalty and love for Christ, but in truth He only cared about himself. To Judas, Jesus was a disappointment because He did not provide for or meet Judas’ needs and desires for power and personal gain. But we saw the price Judas ultimately paid for betraying not only a dear friend but the Son of God. Mary, on the other hand, understood and recognized Jesus for who and what He was. That is why she anointed His feet. She knew she was serving and ministering to her Lord and Savior, the very Messiah Himself.
Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet was not only symbolical of preparing His body for burial, but was also a foreshadowing of the anointing of a king. Precious oil was always used in the anointing and setting apart of princes and kings. We read many accounts of this in the Old Testament. So, Mary’s humble anointing can also be seen as a preparation of the King for His accession to His throne.
According to Biblical scholars, it appears that Jesus stayed with Lazarus, Martha and Mary in Bethany for several days, including the Sabbath. St. John tells us this was “six days before the Passover.” The day after the Sabbath, on Sunday, Jesus initiates His final week by making preparations for His return to Jerusalem, the celebration of Passover, and His Passion, Death and Resurrection.
In Matthew’s account of the Triumphal Entry, for example, Jesus sends two disciples ahead of Him to accomplish this task. “When they approached Jerusalem and had come to Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied there, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to Me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord has need of them,’ and he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, behold your King is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
Though all four Gospels include accounts of the Triumphal Entry, only St. Matthew’s Gospel mentions a donkey with a colt. A simple explanation of what some call a contradiction is that Matthew’s Gospel invariably always provides more details than those of the other Synoptic Gospels. Each of the four Evangelists wrote to specific groups of people and each had their own emphasis or area of interest in Christ’s ministry and works. We must not look at one or another Gospel as being more accurate or correct but, rather, we must consider them all in the same light. Considered together, they provide much detail into the public ministry and life of Jesus.
Jesus told His disciples to bring the animals to Him. If there was any question as to what the disciples were doing they were to say it was for “the Lord.” The use of the title Lord indicates that the one who was sent was the servant of one who was greater, in this case the greater being the Messiah Himself. As Messiah He had the right to request whatever He needed. The blessing of His followers is to supply out of what we have already received from the Father’s hand. That should be our greatest joy, to serve the Lord only and to do whatever He asks.
In seems clear that our Lord arranged to ride the young donkey into Jerusalem as an intentional fulfillment of the prophecy, “Behold your King is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zechariah 9:9). This prophecy referenced in Zechariah foretold the coming of Israel’s King in a “gentle,” not forceful, manner riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey. A donkey colt would be the symbol for humility and peace. Jesus was not only proclaiming He is the Messiah with the fulfilling of Scripture but also demonstrating that He did not come to conquer by imposing His will over the nations. Note that the Messiah is referred to by the use of the term “King.” Such a lowly entrance was not the normal way that kings arrived. Rulers usually came as conquerors riding on a prancing stallion. Jesus entered Jerusalem not on a white charger, but on a lowly beast of burden; not on a horse as a symbol of power, but on a colt of a donkey as a symbol of humility. He is the peaceful King of the people of God, not a revolutionary with political interest.
Can you just hear the Roman soldiers garrisoned in Jerusalem snickering as they saw Jesus ride into the city on a donkey? When a Roman leader came into a city, you can be sure it was not on a donkey. No, Roman rulers rode white or black stallions followed by chariots and thousands of soldiers marching in step with shields gleaming. But I wonder what the Romans of this world will say when Jesus comes again? Will they be snickering and laughing then? Or will they cower in fear and disbelief when the King of Heaven comes riding on the clouds with hundreds of thousands of angels with Him? No, the next time Jesus comes, He will not be on a donkey. In the imagery of the Book of Revelation, the Messiah appears again as a conqueror flying down on a white stallion followed by thousands upon thousands of His saints. You see, the first time Jesus came, He came as the Suffering Servant. But the next time He comes, it will be as the conquering King.
Matthews Gospel tells us that “the disciples went and did just as Jesus instructed them, and brought the donkey and colt, and laid their coats on them; and He sat upon the coats.” Notice that the disciples did exactly as Jesus instructed them. This is what all disciples of Jesus are to do. The disciples got the animals, then threw their garments on them to make saddles. When Jesus mounted the donkey, the disciples and the entire crowd present then recognized the prophetic allusion, and turned the approach into a Triumphal Entry or processional. Having no magnificent carpets to spread on the road over which the King was to ride, people in the large crowd spread their cloaks and tree branches on the road. Let me add here that this spreading of palm branches five days before Good Friday and seven days before the Resurrection is where we extract our celebration of Palm Sunday.
Most of the people that greeted and acclaimed Jesus were pilgrims from Galilee on their way to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. They were familiar with Jesus and the many miracles He had performed in Galilee. The crowd’s spreading garments and palm branches on the road, as was often done in triumphal processions, is a hopeful acknowledgment of Jesus’ kingship. Many were anticipating that Jesus was coming to set up His reign in Israel’s capital. Obviously, with the treatment of Jesus that occurs later in the week most of the crowd’s real hope was to cash in on this prophet who fed the multitudes and performed miracles of healing. The same thing happens today, for there can be a tendency within the heart of each of us to cash in and take advantage of Jesus’ many blessings and gifts. If you are expecting Jesus to be a “good luck charm” for you, if you expect Him to help you financially, physically, socially or professionally, you will be disappointed when things do not turn out the way you thought they would.
When we will finally realize and understand that Jesus Christ came to die for our sins and pay the price for our iniquity? If He never does anything else in this present life, His forgiveness is more than enough to merit our loyalty, our love, and our eternal devotion. If He never does another thing for you or me, if He never gives us another blessing, we owe Him our lives because of what He did for us on Calvary. How selfish many of us are when it comes to Jesus. We simply do not have the time for Him. Yet, here is a man who is going to His death for us. Here is a man who, in just a few short days, will be mercilessly beaten and tortured because of us. And, to add insult to injury, He will experience the excruciating pain and agony of crucifixion. Would any of you willingly offer yourself up to some cruel sadistic brute so that he could drive iron nails into your hands and feet and fix you securely to a wooden cross? Would you go through all that for someone you love?
Now, let us go back to that Sunday morning around 33 A.D. The city is Jerusalem. Jesus rides into the Holy City on a colt, gladly receiving the acclaim of the crowd. But those who shout “Hosanna!” are accepting Him for what they think He will give them, not for who He is and what He came to do. They want an earthly Messiah who will provide for their material welfare, not a suffering Messiah whose death on the cross will expose their sin, provide forgiveness, and call for a life commitment.
Jesus didn’t promise release from all the suffering in the world. But He did offer forgiveness, peace, eternal life, and a cross. Anything less than taking up that cross in serving Him is shallow allegiance, nothing more than empty lip service. If you think you can have a relationship with Christ without the cross in your life, you are solely mistaken.
The crowds going ahead of Jesus, and those who followed, were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” The word “Hosanna” comes from the Hebrew word “hosiahna.” Which means “Save-deliver us, we pray. It was an acknowledgment of power as well as petition. It was a prayer for deliverance though their thinking was probably deliverance from the Romans instead of deliverance from their slavery to sin.
As Jesus entered Jerusalem, the entire city was moved and asked, “Who is this?” Since Jesus had usually avoided the city, its inhabitants did not know Him. This was a very delicate moment. The city was building to its great celebration of Passover and the extent of Jesus’ influence is spreading.
Sadly, the excitement of the crowd was not matched by a faithful commitment to Jesus. Their confession that Jesus was a prophet turned out to be inadequate to sway the crowd to the true belief that comes from repentance.
The Gospel accounts of the Triumphal Entry record the emotional impact this event had on Jesus. We know from reading the Gospel of St. Luke (Luke 19:41) that Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem and that He told the religious leaders that the day was a significant time for the nation of Israel: “Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:42). Jesus may well have had in mind the significant prophecy of Daniel concerning the time of Messiah’s coming and what it meant for the people of Israel. The Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday marked the official presentation of Jesus Christ to the nation of Israel as the rightful Son of David.
Before He could come as a King to reign, He had to come as a Savior to die. Throughout His life on earth, Jesus was a man of striking contrasts, reflecting both His genuine humanity and His full deity. It is no different in His Triumphant Entry. A conquering king parades triumphantly into a city with all the trappings of glory and power. But there is something very strange about this Triumphal Entry. The King was clothed plainly, not in royal robes or in full military splendor. He rode an unpretentious young donkey, not a dashing war horse. He was meek, not militaristic. His entry sent mixed signals, and it is no wonder that all Jerusalem was perplexed about His identity.
Paradoxically, Jesus’ entry combined the trappings of power and glory with the imagery of humility. Throughout His ministry, His teaching and example had exalted humility and downplayed pride. The “Triumphal” Entry epitomizes the upside-down values of the Kingdom of God. Jesus radically shifted the world’s pattern and understanding of greatness, showing greatness to be found in humble service, not arrogant rule, the like of which we find in many politicians, government officials, and church leaders today.
It was once written of Jesus, “He who is the Bread of Life began His ministry hungering. He who is the Life-giving Water ended His ministry thirsting. Christ hungered as a man, yet fed the hungry as God. He was weary, yet He is our rest and the comfort of all. He paid tax, yet He is the King. He was called a devil, but He cast out demons. He prayed to God but He hears and answers prayers. He wept but He dries our tears. He was sold for thirty pieces of silver, yet He redeems sinners. He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, yet He is the Good Shepherd. He gave His life, and by dying He destroyed death.” What better description is there of the One Who is both God and man?
The lowly carpenter of Nazareth is also the mighty architect of the universe. We would expect to find such contrasts in the life of One who was fully God and fully man. Jesus, the sovereign Lord of the universe became man to provide for our redemption. But one day, and none of us knows the exact day or hour, He will return as King of kings. On that day, we shall see Him as He truly is.
Jesus finally approached the ultimate destination of His trip from Galilee, the city where He had predicted again and again He would be crucified. One wonders how many of those who enthusiastically cried, “Hosanna!” on Palm Sunday were shouting “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” a few days later on Friday. Some people must have been disappointed, even resentful, that Christ did not overthrow the Romans and set up an earthly kingdom. After all, had He Himself not created a golden opportunity to rally support as He rode into Jerusalem? In contrast to His other actions, He did not try to dampen this jubilant demonstration. Yet, neither did He capitalize on the fervor of the crowd and issue a call to arms. No wonder those who longed only for release from foreign domination were disillusioned! The Messiah had not fulfilled their expectations. How many of you here today feel that Jesus has not fulfilled your expectations? How many of you feel that Jesus has disappointed and let you down? What, in fact, are your expectations of Christ? What do you expect from Him?
What Jesus’ contemporaries failed to recognize was that before He could assert His outward sovereignty, He had to rule the inner quarters of man’s heart. The greatest need of the Jews in the time of Christ was not freedom from Caesar and his legions but release from the chains of their own sin. The same holds true for us today. The key to Jesus’s kingdom was not revolution but repentance, a turning from following the world, one’s own ego, greed and pride, or the devil, and following Jesus.
Down through the centuries, the issue has not changed. If we follow Christ solely because we think He will shield us and protect us from life’s hardships, heal all our sicknesses and guarantee prosperity, we are headed for some big disappointments and frequent disillusionment. But if we renounce sin, take up our cross, and live for Him because He is our Lord and King, our Creator and Redeemer, we will never be disappointed in Him.
So the question of that day is still the question of our day. “Who is this man?” It is a question that all of us need to answer individually. Will our shouts of “Hosanna!” today become shouts of “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” on Friday? In which group of Jesus’s followers are you?