A Triumphal Approach Leads to an Anti-climax
Time and again throughout his ministry Jesus has demonstrated insight that others do not and even cannot possess. Often he knows what others are thinking without them speaking those thoughts out loud. All the way along he has recognised where his mission leads and what the conclusion of his ministry will be. Once again he demonstrates that insight. As they come over the hill, the Mount of Olives, and approach the last two villages before the city of Jerusalem itself, Jesus calls two of his closest followers from the large crowd which is following him, and says to them:
“Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it you will find there a colt that has never been ridden, untie it and bring it.”
As predictions go perhaps this is not all that remarkable. A young donkey tied up outside a house after all is not a scene that is going to make anyone gasp with amazement. Such a sight lies very much within the bounds of the everyday and unremarkable. What is remarkable perhaps is that what Jesus needs is available precisely in the time and the place which he needs it. His followers are left to wonder: Is this some special insight which Jesus possesses? Or does this speak of some larger network of support for Jesus, of which even the disciples closest to him on the road know nothing? Either one of those circumstances is hardly less remarkable than the other. And both would speak to the degree of control which Jesus has over the course of event that are now taking place. It is he who is in charge and it is Jesus who is determining what, and how and when events are taking place.
Of course Jesus’ disciple do as they are told. And they find things exactly as Jesus has described them. As they come into the village, there, tied up in the street is a colt. It is young enough never to have be used for riding This will mark out Jesus’ use of it as his means to enter the Holy City as special, unique. The animal which he rides has been set apart, to ready for just this purpose. It is an ordinary animal though, and it has an owner, and its owner has neighbours. As the disciples untie the animal a number of those in the street challenge what they are doing:
“Why are you dong this?”
This is neither surprising nor unpredictable, villages are close knit communities where everyone knows everyone else’s business, and they certainly know whose beast of burden is whose. But forewarned is forearmed. Jesus’ control is such that he has already anticipated this situation for his disciples. They respond to this challenge in exactly way Jesus had instructed them:
“The Lord needs it, and will send it back here immediately.”
Requisition is a common experience. The powers that be, the power of this world, will always take what it needs to accomplish its own ends. The Empire does just that, often. The Romans take their taxes and when they have taken those they take whatever else they decide they need or want. A group of soldiers could just as easily have turned up that day and removed the colt. The words of Jesus possess authority. His words command even when they are spoken only by his followers. Jesus shows that his voice possesses at least as much authority in the world and its ordinary affairs as does the voice of Empire. The passers-by in the street hear that authority, and they allow the disciples to take the colt. But there is one critical difference between the call of Jesus and the demand of Empire. Jesus’ request is accompanied by the promise the restore everything to their proper condition after his mission is complete. Which will be very soon now!
Jesus has very carefully and deliberately set all of this up. He is directing this drama. He has has set up a living parable, a demonstration for everyone to see, of who he is and what his mission has been about from the start.
“Then they brought the colt to Jesus and they threw their cloaks on it and he sat on it.”
Pilgrims enter the Jerusalem on foot, rulers ride. Victorious generals though enter a captured capital on their war horse, or in their chariot of iron. Jesus does so on an untried beast of burden. He somehow manages to make the exalted claim to rule in this place, whilst at the same time remaining humble. He is both the victorious king and the simple servant of God from Galilee. The crowd very quickly catch on to what Jesus is showing them. Their mood is already excited by the proximity of the Holy City and by the nearness of that great festival of liberation, Passover. They respond to Jesus’ actions, as Jesus knew they would, by forming a celebratory procession. They create a carpet for Jesus’ colt to walk on, they lay their coats and the leafy branches they have cut from the roadside in front of him. Everyone loves a procession, and this is no exception. In their excitement the crowd begins to sing.
They mingle pilgrim psalms with those which look forward to God’s messianic ruler:
“Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Somewhere lurking at the back of their minds are half remembered ancient prophecies which tell them that this is exactly what they should expect on the day of the Lord. On that day he will place his feet on this hillside, the Mount of Olives overlooking Mount Zion, from where you can look into the heart of Jerusalem, you can see into the temple itself. They recall that when God’s chosen one comes he will come to them humble and riding on a donkey. This is exactly what Jesus has set up. He has deliberately prompted this response. Jesus has given the crowd the opportunity and reminded them of the resources which they have, that enables them to express their hope that the future will be different from the present. Jesus has allowed them to speak out their longing for a world in which there is peace and in which there is justice. And he has helped them to recognise that he is the one who will give fulfilment to those longings. All of this is just as Jesus has intended it.
But what did the crowd think would happen next? What did they think they would see when they had passed through the gates of Jerusalem and had entered the Temple itself? Did they expect to see a demonstration of God’s power? Did they expect to see Jesus standing on that mountaintop transfigured by the power of God which resided there? Did they expect to see reality of God more visible in the man Jesus? Did they expect to witness the dramatic intervention of God to bring about the fulfilment of their people’s longings? Did they expect the people of Jerusalem to welcome them and welcome Jesus, did they expect them to rise up with this crowd and acclaim Jesus the one who God has sent?
If they did they were going to be disappointed. The most striking thing about this story is its anti-climax. Calling the events of the first Palm a “triumphal entry” seems to be something of a misnomer. It is at best a “triumphal approach.” By the time they get into the city and into the temple, the excitement and the energy seems to have dissipated. The kingdom of God does not appear there and then, at least not in the way that any of them were expecting it to be. Almost immediately the crowd lose sight of Jesus, so that for once he can continue with his own activities undisturbed.
This too is exactly as Jesus has anticipated. Jesus has already lamented over Jerusalem. He knows that this is the place which rejects those who are sent to it and which kills the prophets of God. It is enough to make him weep! He also knows that the crowd is fickle. People cannot be relied upon. Just before he began this final journey towards Jerusalem he had questioned his disciples:
“Who do people say that I am?”
The disciples had answered that people were full of praise for him, and associated his name with those of the heroes of the past. Jesus knows that as long as he fulfils their wishes the crowd will be ready to make him king. So long as he is feeding them bread and fish from nothing at all they will keep following him. So long as he performs wonders for them they will remain excited and form great crowds him wherever he goes. But he also knows that the moment he shows them how difficult the road to the kingdom really is, they soon disappear.
People very quickly become disillusioned with God, when God doesn’t give them exactly what they want and precisely when they want it. He knows that the joyful expectation for God’s salvation that welcomed him as he approached the city will leave him abandoned on the cross by the end of the week. The anti-climax of Palm Sunday is the key to the story. The disillusionment of the crowd is the point. They, we are looking for a demonstration of God’s power. It is the expectation that develops when we make God in our own image. It is what we look for when we think God is our wish fulfilment Disillusionment from this false picture of God is the point of Jesus is trying to make. That is why he sets the Triumphal entry in the way he does. That is why he builds the crowd’s expectation up, only to leave them high and dry when they get into the Temple. He is in control. He will not be controlled by their or our wishfulness. He will not let us go from triumph to triumph. He will not let us go from and excited procession, directly to a celebration of new life. He will not let us go from Palm Sunday to Easter without taking us through Good Friday first. The crowd, and we, expect a demonstration of God’s power. The problem is neither we nor they know what to look for. Jesus gave us a small hint in the humility of his approach to the city. The disappointment that people experience when God turns out not to be what they expected leads directly to the real demonstration of God’s power. We are given a demonstration of God’s power. Because the crowd do not get what they want on Sunday, because Jerusalem fears and rejects what Jesus brings to them in the following week, Jesus hangs on the cross on Friday. But that is exactly as Jesus has anticipated and precisely as God had intended. That is the real demonstration of God’s power.
A Triumphal Approach Leads to an Anti-climax by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0