Two readings assigned for Sunday March 25th recount Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, at the beginning of Passover week. (John 12:12-16 and Mark 11:1-11).
John’s gospel opens the day after a dinner given in Jesus’ honor by Lazarus, Martha and Mary in thanksgiving for raising Lazarus. At that dinner Mary had washed Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume and wiped them with her hair. Jesus had said, “this perfume is for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”
Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews learned that Jesus was there and came to see him and Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many of the Jews believed in Jesus.
Jesus’ fame had grown, perhaps more for his miracles than for his teachings and humble personal lifestyle. Nevertheless, he kindled hope in the people.
This is the point at which John’s gospel opens. Here is the complete gospel.
The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord– the King of Israel!”
Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!”
His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.
In John’s account the crowd took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him. The welcome went far beyond curiosity and became an active embrace of Jesus. Tearing off palm branches and waving them was enthusiastic and heartfelt. Beyond that, they borrowed words from Psalm 118, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord and by doing so acknowledged his life in divine light.
Similarly, John sees the event from a prophetic perspective, referencing Zechariah 9:9. Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” In doing so, he situates Jesus in a prophetic spotlight as the fulfillment.
John also stresses Jesus’ humble lifestyle, since he is not riding a horse or being driven in a chariot, which were the transport of the wealthy and influential but on something that common people would use.
John shifts to the disciple’s lack of understanding of the events in their full context. Clearly, the disciples would have been impressed by the welcome but not been able to see it as a prophetic fulfillment, let alone an ironically true welcome: Jesus is the King of the Jews, and all of us.
In John’s account Jesus does not speak. It is hard to imagine that he would be the object of so much attention and yet John presents him as silent to the point of suggesting indifference to the adulation. It suggests that he was focused, instead, on the events of the difficult, destructive, demeaning week ahead.
Mark’s account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem has more detail. When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.'”
They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?”
They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it.
Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it.
Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.
Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
According to Mark, Jesus orchestrated all the details of the entry. He wanted to ride a specific colt, and he knew where to find it, the objections that would be raised and the answer that his disciples should give.
Like John, Mark describes and enthusiastic welcome, adding that they spread their cloaks on the road. They did, however, include the same psalm passage, Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
The final detail, that then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany, clashes with the mood of the preceding section in the sense that it seems like a solitary activity, without connection to the crowds…. Unless it was because he knew that he was looking at the temple for the last time before his death. Like someone who has sold a home they have grown up in, and who walks around the empty rooms one last time recalling the memories that each place holds, perhaps Jesus walked around ‘his Father’s house’ savouring the memories privately.
One common element is missing from both accounts. Neither Mark nor John records him speaking to anyone while he is riding into the city. Nor do either describe his reaction to the crowds. We don’t get the impression of a smiling Jesus, acknowledging the cheers and people he’d seen like a modern day politician. We are left to imagine that he was not carried away by a sense of fame or popularity. His feet were too well grounded to think that the flattery was substantial. He had seen his death coming and he knew that this momentary celebrity was not even a poor facsimile of faith.
- What do you imagine Jesus’ disciples thought when they saw the crowds welcoming Jesus as he entered the city? Were they happy for Jesus and themselves? Did they regard it as superficial? Did they look to Jesus to gauge his reaction?
- If you were a bystander at the event watching the welcome Jesus received, what questions would you ask? ‘Who is he?’, ‘What did he do?’, ‘Why are people cheering him so wildly now?’, ‘What is going to happen next?’
- What would you think of Jesus’ decision to ride a colt into Jerusalem? Was he trying to make a statement? Was it incidental to his trip? Was he conscious of the biblical prophesy and seeking to fulfill it?