It is always a relief when we celebrate Palm Sunday from Matthew or Mark’s account. Luke 19.36 in his account talks only the garments, and does not mention palm branches, so in those years we have to call it Garment Sunday (which doesn’t have the same ring about it). In fact it is only John, the supposed ‘spiritual’ gospel, who specifies the palms. But if you are reading or preaching from Matthew’s account, what stands out?
Matthew’s account of the events leading to the entry into Jerusalem is slightly briefer than Mark’s or Luke’s, with the exception of the addition of the fulfilment of prophecy in Matt 21.4–5. Matthew, and to a lesser extent Luke, omit some of the ‘eye-witness’ details found in Mark’s account—the exact question the disciples will be asked (Mark 11.3), the asking of it (Mark 11.5), the fact that the branches were ‘leafy’ (Mark 11.8; Mark uses the word stibas suggesting leafy palms, rather than Matthew’s more general klados). Matthew’s account is more ‘stream-lined’ in order to make the points that he thinks are significant.
A striking feature is the emphasis on the impact that Jesus has. The ‘large crowd’ that has followed Jesus from Jericho in Matt 20.29 has become a ‘huge crowd’ in Matt 21.8. (Some translations render this ‘many of the crowd’ but this is not the best translation of the unusual phrase.) It is worth noting that, though many versions title this episode ‘The Triumphal Entry’ or some such, the acclaim happens before Jesus enters the city. When he does final come into Jerusalem, Matthew alone notes that ‘the whole city was stirred’ in verse 10. Here he highlights the divide between the Galileans, the pilgrim crowd, who acclaim Jesus, and the local Judeans who do not. I have always felt was much more historically plausible as an explanation of what is happening.
Contrary to the hymn ‘My Song is Love Unknown‘ (Sometimes they strew His way/And His sweet praises sing…Then “Crucify!” is all their breath…) it is not the same crowd that praised him this week who call for his crucifixion the next, but different groups responding to Jesus differently (something which John’s gospel draws out more explicitly). And the Galilean crowd emphasise that this king-like person is not local, but from Nazareth; whereas Judea was ruled directly by Rome through a prefect, Galilee was a separate region ruled by Herod as tetrarch. So the political threat would have been all the more obvious.
Up to this point, Jesus has walked everywhere with his disciples on foot—and it appears that the expectation was that Passover pilgrims should arrive at the city on foot. So Jesus’ riding on a donkey would have been very conspicuous amongst the crowds; he could have chosen to remain incognito by walking if he had chosen. The use of a donkey was not a sign of poverty as such; it was the most common animal at the time for a range of work roles. Its primary significance is found in the fulfilment of the conflated prophecies in Zech 9.9–10 with the opening phrase from Isaiah 62.11. The Zechariah text in turn alludes to David’s entry into the city after the defeat of Absalom in 2 Sam 19. The true king arrives, not as conquering hero but proclaiming peace, not presuming to impose his will, but hoping to be welcomed willingly. In this sense Jesus is demonstrating by his own example the teaching he has been giving in Matt 20.25–28. Though he has forbidden proclamation of his identity in Matt 16.20, his actions speak louder than their words.
There is no particular need to think of the arrangements as miraculous; we know from John 11 and John 12 that he has contacts in this area. The mention of an ass and a colt here (compared with only one animal in the other accounts) looks like Matthew’s characteristic doubling—in many of Jesus’ miracles, he deals with two people in Matthew where Mark and Luke only mention one. There is no simple explanation for this—Davies and Allison mention nine possibilities in their commentary, none of which they believe satisfactory! It is worth noting that, in many cases, it is historically plausible; those in need tend to group together. And if the colt here has never been ridden before, it would be quite natural that its mother comes with it. Matthew would know how to read Hebrew parallelism in Zech 9, so it is rather odd to suggest he has misunderstood the passage. But, like others of his day, he shows an interest in the fulfilment of the passage in its form, not just its content, and mentioning both animals helps to emphasise this.
Fulfilment of Scripture is a repeated theme for Matthew, and here the citation takes the place of the explicit acclamation of Jesus as king in the other gospel accounts. The fact that he is ‘a prophet’ (Matt 21.9) has already been highlighted by Matthew’s placing him on a mountain in Matt 5.1 (rather than a ‘level place’ in Luke 6.17) and organising his teaching into five blocks.
So Jesus is presented as fulfilling the purposes of God. Having silenced those who proclaimed him earlier, he now makes no secret of who he is. Although his claims had inevitable political implications, Matthew focuses on his role as the Son of David and the prophet who was to come. His arrival draws a huge following—but it also divides people in their loyalty. Jesus is not someone who encourages sitting on fences!