The texts that Christians typically read on Palm Sunday have become so familiar that we probably don’t sense their revolutionary power. But no first-century Jew would have missed the excitement and danger implicit in the coded language of the accounts describing Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem just a few days before his death.
In Mark’s Gospel we hear that Jesus and his disciples “drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethpage and Bethany on the Mount of Olives.” A bit of trivial geographical detail, we might be tempted to conclude. But about five hundred years before Jesus’ time, the prophet Ezekiel had relayed a vision of the “Shekinah” (the glory) of Yahweh leaving the temple, due to its corruption. However, Ezekiel also prophesied that one day the glory of God would return to the temple, and precisely from the same direction in which it had left: from the east (Ez. 43: 1-2). As the people saw Jesus approaching Jerusalem from the east, they would have remembered Ezekiel’s vision and would have begun to entertain the wild but thrilling idea that perhaps this Jesus was, in person, the glory of Yahweh returning to his dwelling place on earth. He was the new and definitive temple, the meeting-place of heaven and earth.
And there is even more to see in the drama. As the rabbi from Nazareth entered Jerusalem on a donkey, no one could have missed the reference to a passage in the book of the prophet Zechariah: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zech. 9:9). A thousand years before the time of Jesus, David had taken possession of Jerusalem, dancing before the Ark of the Covenant. David’s son Solomon built the great temple in David’s city in order to house the Ark, and for that brief, shining moment, Israel was ruled by righteous kings. But then Solomon himself and a whole slew of his descendants fell into corruption. The people began to long for the return of the king, for the appearance of the true David, the one who would deal with the enemies of the nation and rule as king of the world. The Biblical authors expected Yahweh to become king, precisely through a son of David, who would enter the holy city, not as a conquering hero, riding a stately Arabian charger, but as a humble figure, riding a young donkey. Could anyone have missed that this was exactly what they were seeing on Palm Sunday?
Jesus was not only the glory of Yahweh returning to his temple; he was also the new David, indeed Yahweh himself, reclaiming his city and preparing to deal with the enemies of Israel. And this is why Pontius Pilate, placing over the cross a sign in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew announcing that this crucified Jesus is King of the Jews, became, despite himself, the first great evangelist!
So the message delivered on Palm Sunday, in the wonderfully coded and ironic language of the Gospel writers, continues to resonate: heaven and earth have come together; God is victorious; Jesus is Lord.
“Heaven and earth have come together; God is victorious; Jesus is Lord.”
– Father Robert Barron