“What do you think? That he will not come to the feast?” These are the last words of yesterday’s Gospel, and they act as a sort of cliffhanger as we enter into Holy Week. All last week we saw the tension between Jesus and the Jewish officials rise. On Friday Jesus declared openly that He is the Son of God, and so the Jews picked up rocks to stone Him for blasphemy. On Saturday the Sanhedrin began to plot His death, and so He could no longer walk about openly. The time of Passover was drawing near and the people wondered what would happen. Could He, would He go up to Jerusalem for the feast? And if He did…what then?
In today’s first Gospel the answer comes; Jesus does go up to Jerusalem, not only openly but in victorious procession! The tension has snapped, this is it! This is what the people have been waiting for as they’ve watched and wondered these past few years. He is the Messiah, the promised Son of David, the anointed King! He’s going to claim the throne!
Jesus rides into Jerusalem seated on a colt as the people spread their cloaks upon the road and shout for joy. They proclaim, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” Why the colt? This was how King David passed his kingship on to his son Solomon; having gone to Gihon to be anointed king, Solomon entered Jerusalem riding on David’s mule as the people cried, “Long live King Solomon!” When he had entered Jerusalem, Solomon took his place on the throne to reign in David’s place.
Did the people really understand what was happening? Did they understand this triumphal entry as a proclamation of His kingship? Look what they did; they spread their cloaks upon the ground in front of Him. What a strange thing that would seem to be, except that it is exactly what happened when Jehu was abruptly anointed king. It is the only other time such an event is mentioned in the Bible. When King Jehu told his master’s servants that he had been anointed and proclaimed king by the prophet Elisha’s servant, “at once each took his garment, spreading it under Jehu on the bare steps, blew the trumpet, and cried out, ‘Jehu is king!’” (2 Kings 9:13)
There was no ambiguity about this entrance. In fact, when some of the Pharisees told Jesus to rebuke His disciples he replied, “I tell you, if they keep silent, the stones will cry out!”
Just when Israel is expecting Jesus to muster troops to free the nation from Rome’s domination…the readings suddenly shift. Jesus is betrayed by one of the Twelve in the nighttime and is taken before the Sanhedrin before anyone realizes what is happening. His disciples scatter, Peter denies even knowing Him. Finally, instead of mounting a throne Jesus mounts the cross.
What happened? How did the cries of “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord” become cries of “Crucify him! Crucify him!” What went wrong?
Nothing went wrong. It wasn’t that Jesus didn’t fulfill the people’s expectations, it was that their expectations were too small! Jesus is the King, but He was concerned with bigger enemies than Rome. He didn’t come to free Israel from Rome’s oppression; He came to free all people from sin and everlasting death. His weapons weren’t swords and spears but steadfast and persevering obedience, obedience even to death on the cross.
Palm Sunday’s liturgy is an preview for the coming week. It shows us the trajectory we’re about to embark upon as we enter the holiest week of the year.