Sunday will be Palm Sunday. The start of what has traditionally been called Holy Week, and the continuation of another round of the great liturgical calendar of the Church.
We’re familiar with the story, most of us. Jesus knows that His time is coming. He sends His disciples to go and find a donkey that’s never been ridden and bring it to Him. They put their coats on its back as a saddle, and Jesus rides it into Jerusalem, accompanied by throngs of people cheering His entry as the Son of David and the One who comes in the Name of the Lord.
And this year, I wonder how much the crowd knew.
How familiar were they with Isaiah’s prophecy that the King-Messiah would come to Zion riding on a donkey?
Were they aware of the prophetic import of Jesus’ choice of mount, or were they expecting someone more in the image of an Alexander or a Caesar, astride a mighty war-horse or pulled in a chariot?
Were their shouts of Hosanna an actual prayer of “Save Us!”, or just the emotion of the moment?
It’s difficult to tell. On the one hand, the wider cultural expectation was that kings don’t ride donkeys. It would be like the President of the US driving himself around in a Fiat Punto.
On the other hand, according to many historians Messianic expectation was running fairly high in Jesus’ day, and the crowd’s shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David!” and “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord!” are certainly what we would expect from people who were familiar with the prophecies and knew something of what to expect from their Messiah.
So how much did the crowd really know?
I don’t have any absolute answers, but it does look like they knew a lot more than we sometimes give them credit for. We’re apt to juxtapose their loud acclamation at the Triumphal Entry with their equally loud cries of “Crucify!” a week later, and dismiss the shouts of Hosanna as the emotionalism of the moment.
I’m not sure I buy that. Based on what they were shouting, it looks like they had an understanding of the prophetic significance of riding into town on a donkey. This was the action of the Messiah-King, coming in to set the nation to rights, drive out the evil Roman pagans and set up a Divine Kingdom in the image of King David’s. With liberty and justice for all. The crowd knew about the prophecies. They memorised the Scriptures, heard and read the words of Isaiah and the other prophets. They knew enough to at least recognise it. Here was the King.
But then, once in Jerusalem, Jesus doesn’t behave at all like the Messiah is supposed to. He doesn’t drive out the Romans from the city of God; He evicts Jews from the Temple. He doesn’t raise an army to oppose the Imperial taxes, He instructs His followers to give to Caesar what belongs to him.
He opposes the Pharisees, who were widely regarded as the holiest people around and as model Jews, but surrounds Himself with prostitutes, drunks and Roman collaborators.
Then He commits the worst error a Messiah can possibly make: He gets defeated.
Dragged off in chains by the holy Pharisees and handed over to the evil Roman overlords, it’s little wonder they turned on Him. “How dare You raise our hopes and then dash them like this?”
How dare You claim Messiahship? You aren’t He; He is God’s special King and does not get defeated!
Disillusionment can turn easily to anger. If Jesus wouldn’t act like a proper Messiah, then He must obviously be a deceiver. Away with Him!
So the appropriate question may not be “how could they turn on Him so quickly?”, but “how do we react when God won’t do what we think He should?”
Heal my mother/sister/brother/father. Make me wealthy. Fight against the godless liberals/conservatives/radicals/oppressors. Condemn this group or that group of evil God-haters. Make my country the world leader that it ought to be.
God may not be fighting the godless liberals because He is fighting something more fundamental than which side of the political dividing line we are on. He may not be making me wealthy because He wants me to seek Him for Himself rather than for rewards. He may not be making my country a world leader because the government belongs to Him, not to any one nation.
In other words, our ideas of what He ought to do may need some adjustment.
After all, He is good. He is the Source of good; everything good and perfect comes from Him. More, He’s omniscient; He really does know everything and see everything, so He knows what is really good and what merely looks the part. More than that, He’s all-powerful. Nothing can prevent Him from doing the good He intends. He can’t be forced to do evil.
More even than that, He’s pure. He alone has pure motives and is incorruptible. Even something He wants will not bend Him towards evil; there is no shadow of turning in Him.
If we can’t trust Him to know what He ought to be doing far better than we do, we have a problem. We’re in unbelief, trapped by a false image of who He is.
Jesus rides into our Jerusalem on a donkey in large part to deal with this. The crucifixion was all part of the plan; it was the only way to separate beloved Humankind from the sin and deceptions that dominated us. He has already died to put an end to our sin, and risen to set us free from it.