This year, Year C in the lectionary, Palm Sunday is cancelled, so you need to do away with your palm crosses, and change the choice of hymns. The reason is that we are reading from Luke 19.28–40, and Luke makes no mention of ‘palms’ during Jesus’ ‘triumphal entry’ in Jerusalem, riding on a donkey. Instead, we only get mention (Luke 19.37) of people spreading their cloaks, or outer garments (himatia) on the road. So this year we celebrate Cloak Sunday. (If you are part of the tradition which keeps the palms and burns them for next year’s Ash Wednesday, I would advise against doing this with your coats.)
But Luke’s account raises another question for us: what kind of king do we want reigning over us? I am not here referring to questions of succession to Queen Elizabeth (if there is one!)—but to the kind of authority that we are ready to submit to. There are many authorities which exercise influence over our lives, both formal and informal—and in fact all those around us exercise some kind of power over us, through their opinions, personalities and evaluation of us, as we exercise power over them.
The reason Luke raises this question for us is that this whole section of his gospel is shaped to relentlessly press home the question for his readers: who is Jesus?
It starts in this passage with the mention of Jerusalem. Although Jesus must have visited the city many times before, Luke has been arranging his narrative since chapter 9 around this, climactic visit (Luke 9.51, 13.22, 17.11). Why does Jerusalem form such a vital focus? Certainly because this is the place where prophets are killed (Luke 13.33–34), but also because Jerusalem was the centre of spiritual, religious and political power. It was from Jerusalem that the influential Jewish leaders had come (Luke 5.17) and where people expected the kingdom of God to be revealed (Luke 19.11)—not least because it is the City of the Great King (Matt 5.35, Psalm 48.2). We might also note (as we have seen before) that Luke’s writing appears to be oriented to a non-Jewish readership who have received the gospel—and he wants to make it clear that, whilst the gospel is for the gentiles, it comes from the Jews and Jerusalem (compare John 4.22)
We will find in this passage many motifs pointing to the identity of Jesus as the longed for Davidic king, and so a key question is how Jesus will be received in Jerusalem, the city of the king. Although there is a physical coming and going in and out of the city (since it is too dangerous for Jesus to remain in the city overnight), from a theological point of view, Jerusalem is Jesus’ destination, and Luke writes in these terms. David Gooding (According to Luke, 2013, p 320) notes that there are two entries made into the city by Jesus—this one in public, and then one in private in Luke 22.7ff, when Jesus celebrates the Passover with his disciples. In both cases, Jesus send two disciples ahead to make preparations, and gives careful instructions for them to follow. These two entrances represent the paradox of Jesus’ kingship; on the one hand, there is public acclaim, and Jesus is welcomed as the coming king.
Jesus is a king—but not the kind of king that the crowds so desperately desire (Mikeal Parsons, Paideia, p 284).
There is a desire for the kind of political king who will liberate the nation from Roman rule, and fulfil national expectations; this is so deeply rooted, that the disciples still think in this way after the resurrection before the Spirit is given (‘Will you restore the kingdom to Israel?’ Acts 1.6). But the second entrance, in secret, points to the way that the kingdom of God will come—not as a political and national idea, but as a new covenant that will transform the heart, in fulfilment of other prophetic promises (Jer 31.33–34).
As Jesus approaches the city, Luke slows down the narrative dramatically; Bethany and Bethphage are just a couple of miles from the city, and the Mount of Olives just several hundred metres away, with a panoramic view over its walls and temple—glistening in the sun with its limestone, marble and gold decoration. Up till now we have covered mile after mile with Jesus; now we slow right down so we can trace his every footstep.
Luke and Mark mention both the villages of Bethphage and Bethany, where Matthew only mentions the first of these. Bethany is well known to us from the Fourth Gospel as the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha, and it is clearly a place that Jesus knows and in which he has friends. The site of Bethphage is not accurately known (despite the fact that you can locate it on Google maps!), but perhaps it is the name of the village (‘house of unripe figs’) that is significant, given Jesus’ blasting of the fig tree as a symbol of the unfruitfulness of the temple in Matthew 21 and Mark 11; Luke talks of judgement in quite different terms. Luke links the whole episode to Jesus’ prior teaching about both delay and judgement in the parable of the minas, and revisits the question of judgement on Jerusalem in the pericope that follows our passage, where Jesus weeps over Jerusalem. (Mikeal Parsons believes that Jesus is contrasting the tyrant in the parable with his kind of kingship, but I am not sure the repetition of judgement really supports that interpretation.)
Luke’s focus on detail doesn’t tell us some things we would like to know—like which disciples go ahead to find the colt, exactly which village the colt comes from, who the owners are, or what they felt when the colt was taking. But it does tell us about the colt being untied—five times! The disciples (who might or might not be from the Twelve; note how Luke uses the term much more broadly in v 37) will find a colt that is tied up; they are to untie the colt; they might be questioned about the untying; they did untie it; they were asked about untying. Why all the focus on untying?! Because, according to Gen 49.10–11, this is the sign of the Coming One who is the true ruler of Judah, to whom the nations of the world will submit, and he is the one who ties and unties the donkey. As Joel Green comments, ‘the whole process is wrapped in the interpretive cloth of eschatological expectation and scriptural allusion.’ Uniquely in Luke, it is the colt’s ‘lords’ (in most translations, ‘owners’) who question the disciples (Luke 19.33); they respond to these ‘lords’ that the colt is needed by the Lord.
Although the two disciples have followed Jesus’ instructions in fetching the colt, they appear to act on their own initiative in putting their cloaks on it, and then setting Jesus to ride on it. It is as if they look at the colt, look at Jesus, and remember the scriptures—and know just what to do! We also need to remember that Jesus riding on an animal approaching the city will be highly conspicuous; pilgrims universally walk, and in any case, riding an animal would be the preserve of the wealthiest (which is why Mary did not ride a donkey to Bethlehem in the nativity narrative).
The colt hasn’t been ridden on before, because that is what is required for the king’s mount. And the format of the entry into the city follows the pattern of other examples from Scripture and from culture. What is most striking is that such events do not mark the crowning of the king, but the recognition of the king who has already won his victory. Matthew and Mark hint at this in the way they record the acclamations of the crowd. ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the Coming One…!’ (Matt 21.9); ‘Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!’ (Mark 11.10). But Luke makes it explicit: ‘Blessed is the coming King!’ (Luke 19.38), adding to the quotation from Ps 118.36.
Ps 118 is the last of the Hallel psalms which were sung by pilgrims as they approached Jerusalem—and it has the significance of being the most quoted psalm in the New Testament. It was originally associated with the coming of the king to Jerusalem, and the symbolic action of throwing cloaks on the road is associated with welcoming the conquering king, as Jehu is welcomed in 2 Kings 9.13. The psalm only later becomes associated with the Feast of Tabernacles, which is when leafy boughs (Matthew and Mark) or palms (John) were associated with it. By omitting any reference to palms or other branches, Luke is taking us back to the first meaning of this psalm.
Luke notes that the acclamation takes place ‘as he was drawing near—already on the way down the Mount of Olives’ (v 37). This is an accurate topographical reference; the hillside of the Mount of Olives forms a steep drop into the Kidron Valley which must be crossed before climbing up again to enter the city. But it also emphasises that Jesus is very close to the city, and has a good view; he is heading on this downward path to his own death in full awareness of what this will all mean, as he has done from the beginning.
Luke is quite clear that those who are cheering Jesus are ‘the whole multitude of his disciples’, that is, the pilgrim crowd that has been following him, many of whom will be Galileans. The crowd that then calls for his crucifixion are the local Jerusalemites and Judeans; the contrast is between two crowds with two sets of loyalties, not (as claimed in the hymn ‘My Song is Love Unknown’) a single crowd who prove fickle.
The Pharisees, mentioned for the last time in this gospel here, and representing those who challenge Jesus’ claims to kingship, address him as ‘Teacher’, a title used of Jesus in Luke only by those challenging Jesus or demanding answers to their questions. The idea of the stones crying out might point to Jesus’ kingship over nature—but I wonder whether there is a Hebrew or Aramaic pun here, since the Hebrew for ‘son’ is ben and the Hebrew for stone is eben. The inanimate stones would be better sons of God than the sceptical Pharisees.
So Jesus is coming to the city of the king; he comes in the manner of a king; and he is acclaimed by the crowd of his disciples as the king who hope the kingdom will now be announced. But what kind of king is Jesus? And what does his kingdom look like?
First, he is a king who brings peace. Luke also records the crowds as acclaiming: ‘Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!’ Do you recognise that acclamation? I hope so; we heard it at Christmas on the lips of the angels as they made their announcement to shepherds in the field (Luke 2.14). When Zechariah celebrates the birth of his son, John the Baptist, he anticipates that his ministry will ‘give light to those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death and guide our feet into the way of peace‘ (Luke 1.79). Peace is a major feature of the theology of both Luke and Paul, so much so that Paul begins every letter not just with the customary greeting of ‘grace’ but also with ‘peace’.
Secondly, Jesus is a king who merits praise and brings joy. This is not just true for people, but the whole of the creation. If the people stop praising, then the very stones themselves (on the road? of the temple building?) will cry out (Luke 19.40)! Celebration is a consistent theme in Luke, not least in the parables of the lost who are found (in Luke 10).
Thirdly, Jesus is a king who brings power. The disciples welcoming Jesus celebrate the ‘works of power’ they have seen him doing (Luke 19.37). Luke has a distinctive interest in the question of power; when the Spirit comes on Mary, then power from on high rest upon her, the same power that will rest on the disciples when the Spirit comes in Acts 1 and 2. And Jesus himself, who goes into the temptations in the desert ‘in the Spirit’, returns in the ‘power of the Spirit.’ But this power is not to be used to control, manipulate or restrict, but to bring down the proud ‘in the imagination of their hearts’ (Luke 1.51) and to give ‘freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and to set the oppressed free’ (Luke 4.18).
This is a different kind of king to any you’ve met before. And the reason for that is that the journey up to Jerusalem is not a journey to power and glory, but (as Paul makes very clear in Phil 2.5–11, the other lectionary reading for (No-)Palm Sunday), it is a journey down in obedience to death. Jesus does not come to conquer the city; he comes to be conquered, and in this great reversal to win an even more profound victory. This is why he brings peace: he has turned us from enemies of God to friends through his death. This is why he brings praise and joy: because his death and resurrection have dealt with the things which separate us from God and from one another. This is the power he offers: power to know forgiveness and peace of mind.
Jesus…sees his reign not as nationalistic but as universal. His mission includes not only proclaiming release to the captives but also recovery of sight to the blind and good news to the poor…His crown is crown of thorns; his throne, a splintery cross. His exaltation does not come in riding a horse-drawn chariot amid the cheers of family and friends; rather, he finds his glory in being raised up on a cross amid the jeers of the masses. Through his death and resurrection this one who refuses to be an earthly king makes his royal entry by way of a cross and empty tomb (Parsons, Paideia, p 285).
And this presents each of us with a challenge. Will we stand with the disciples and welcome this king of peace, praise and power? Or will we stand with the Pharisees who are like the resentful tenants who ‘will not have this man to reign over us’ (Luke 19.14)?
The video discussion of this passage is now online: