This Sunday in the lectionary is Palm Sunday, the week before Easter, and here in Year B we are offered the choice between reading the account in Mark 11 and John 12. I am going to look at Mark 11, since we have been doing a lot in the Fourth Gospel in recent weeks, and the account in Mark makes some important connections back with ideas that we found in its early chapters. We perhaps ought to note from the outset that the festival of ‘Palm Sunday’ is a later construction of the church; Mark makes no mention of palms (which are only found in the account in John 12.13), and the idea that this occurred seven days before Jesus’ resurrection relies on counting back in Mark’s chronology, which is more likely to be a narrative creation of Mark than a historical schedule.
It is worth remembering the events that have immediately preceded this reading, since they put this event in its theological context. On the one hand, Jesus has just come through Jericho where he has healed blind Bartimaeus, who has unequivocally identified Jesus as ‘Son of David’, a title with clear messianic implications. As Jesus approaches Jerusalem, the secrecy around his identity is cast off, and his explicit claims to be the anointed one of God become clear. On the other hand, the episode immediately before that is the dispute between the disciples about who is greatest. Jesus puts an end to their argument with one of the most important statements in this gospel:
For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10.45).
As at the beginning of the gospel, where the sonship of Jesus proclaimed at his baptism wove together ideas of royal enthronement with suffering servanthood, the juxtaposition of these two episodes makes it clear what kind of king Jesus is.
Our passage begins by commenting that ‘they’ came near to Jerusalem; the language of ‘coming near’ is perhaps better than ‘approached’, since the latter terms suggests the city would be visible to them, when in fact the Mount of Olives would obscure their view. But who are ‘they’? We are given a clue by the parallel phrase in Mark 10.46, when ‘they’ come to Jericho. This would certainly have included both Jesus and the Twelve, but we know they did not travel alone (Luke 8.1–3), and by now they are accompanied by the pilgrim crowds, all heading to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. Mark later confirms this (in verse 8) and this is important for understanding the strange dynamic of adulation and rejection that Jesus experiences once he arrives at the city.
Mark mentions 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 for Mark, given Jesus’ blasting of the fig tree as a symbol of the unfruitfulness of the temple later in this chapter.
Mark makes the unnecessary mention of the Mount of Olives as the location of the two villages (which Matthew follows, but Luke and John do not); if you knew anything about Jerusalem and its environs, you would already know this. But this is the first of several hints that Mark gives, in which he assumes that his readers will pick up on allusions to Old Testament texts. The first is the story of David’s exile and return in 2 Sam 19–20, but this mention also has messianic connotations as expressed in Zech 14.4, where on the day of the Lord, God will defeat Israel’s enemies, and ‘his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives’; the hill then becomes the location for the ‘Little Apocalypse’ in Mark 13. From this spot, overlooking the city, we get a glimpse on the horizon of the end of all things—the climax of Jesus’ ministry, and beyond that the anticipation of his final return.
Jesus sends two of his disciples out together on a mission, as he has done before in Mark 6.7 (paralleled in Luke 9 for the Twelve and Luke 10 for the 72). It is not clear which village is ‘the one opposite’ or ‘in front of you’, since we do not know the exact relation of the two villages, and which one (as they approach from the east) they will come to first. Matthew clears this up, by mentioning only Bethphage first, which suggests that the village the two disciples go to is Bethany—which makes sense from our knowledge of the Fourth Gospel that this was a home to friends and allies of Jesus. Although Mark’s account can be read as though the events here are the result of Jesus’ miraculous foreknowledge and a miraculous provision, there is no need to; it seems more likely that Jesus has already formed and communicated this plan and made the arrangements ahead of time.
Although Mark 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 taken—he does tell us about the colt being untied—five times! The disciples 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. And, in characteristic style, he includes some precise detail (it is tied at a door outside on the street) which the other gospels omit, much as he has told us about the green grass at the feeding of the 5,000 (Mark 6.39) and the cushion on which Jesus lays his head in the boat (Mark 4.38). 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 on the parallel account in Luke, ‘the whole process is wrapped in the interpretive cloth of eschatological expectation and scriptural allusion.’
When challenged, the disciples are instructed to reply that ‘The Lord has need of it’. In this gospel, unlike in Luke, Jesus is never directly addressed as ‘Lord’, so the only possible interpretation of this term is that it refers to God; Jesus’ approach to Jerusalem on the donkey is an act of divine necessity. Yet we see, as we found in the opening chapter of Mark, that the action of God is expressed in the action of Jesus. Just as John the Baptist prepared the way ‘for the Lord’, and that Lord turned out to be Jesus, so ‘the Lord’ who has need of the donkey is Jesus himself.
Jesus emphasises that this ‘colt’ has not been ridden before, and this is confirmed by the need of the disciples to put their cloaks on it, since otherwise it has no saddle. This might suggest Jesus’ identity as king, since the king’s steed cannot be ridden by others. It might hint at an animal set apart for holy use, which cannot be used by others, or for other purposes. But the primary allusion is to be found in Zech 9.9–10, an allusion that Matthew makes explicit. (It is curious to note that Matthew, likely written for a more Jewish audience, needs to make explicit that which in Mark is implicit). In Zech 9.9, the king who comes to Jerusalem to declare the victory of God over Israel’s enemies, and bring liberation and peace to the city, rides on a ‘new colt’, polos neos, which is understood by Mark (and Jesus) to refer to a colt (Mark uses exactly the same term) which has not been ridden before.
Jesus’ act of sitting on the donkey is striking in two ways. First, he has previously walked everywhere; this is the first time the gospel records him as riding. Secondly, he would be conspicuous amongst the pilgrim crowd, since pilgrims are expected to walk to Jerusalem if they are able. (Indeed, walking would be the normal method of travel for ordinary people; the image of Mary riding on a donkey to Bethlehem at the nativity is the fantastic creation of children’s Christmas plays.) Secrecy is left behind, and Jesus approaches the city in open messianic splendour.
The practice of covering the ground is a common honour for the welcome of a dignitary—though for Jesus the covering is ordinary clothes and branches that the pilgrims have to hand. Mark emphasises that it is the travellers who acclaim Jesus in this way; it is ‘those who went before and those who followed’ who sing his praises. 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. And the Galilean crowd emphasise that this king-like person is not local, but from Nazareth (as Matthew 21.11 makes explicit); 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.
The acclamation is drawn from Psalm 118.25–26, the last of the Hallel psalms recited on the journey up to the temple, and particularly associated with Passover. These verses are not themselves messianic, but rather a blessing of those coming to the festival, though the immediately preceding verses (‘The stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone’) are cited by Jesus in dispute with his opponents as well as by Peter in his exposition of Jesus’ importance in 1 Peter 2.7.
‘Hosanna’ originally meant ‘God save us’ though has become by now a general acclamation of praise. But Mark records the crowd making a specific declaration: in the coming of Jesus to the city, they see the ‘coming kingdom of our father David’, echoing the language of the kingdom of God from the beginning of Jesus’ own teaching. The question is, what kind of kingdom is this, and from what will God, in Jesus, save his people? With the political overtones of this language, many might suppose that Jesus came to deliver them from the power of Rome; but Jesus has been consistent, not least in his saying in Mark 10.45, that he has really come to deliver them from the power of sin.
The final, rather enigmatic, conclusion, appears to be an anti-climax. But it shows Jesus’ careful consideration of all that he sees, and implies that the action which follows is deliberate, calculated and informed, rather than accidental or spontaneous.
The account here is worth comparing with an earlier account of a previous ‘triumphal entry’, that of Alexander the Great entering Babylon, the old capital of the ancient Near East, in October 331 BC. The longest description is that of the Roman author Quintus Curtius Rufus, who based his account on earlier, Greek sources.
A large number of the Babylonians had taken up a position on the walls, eager to have a view of their new king, but most went out to meet him, including the man in charge of the citadel and royal treasury, Bagophanes. Not to be outdone by Mazaeus in paying his respects to Alexander, Bagophanes had carpeted the whole road with flowers and garlands and set up at intervals on both sides silver altars heaped not just with frankincense but with all manner of perfumes.note
Following him were his gifts – herds of cattle and horses, and lions, too, and leopards, carried along in cages. Next came the Magians chanting a song in their native fashion, and behind them were the Chaldaeans,note then the Babylonians, represented not only by priests but also by musicians equipped with their national instrument. (The role of the latter was to sing the praises of the Persian kings, that of the Chaldaeans to reveal astronomical movements and regular seasonal changes.)
At the rear came the Babylonian cavalry, their equipment and that of the horses suggesting extravagance rather than majesty. Surrounded by an armed guard, the king instructed the townspeople to follow at the rear of his infantry; then he entered the city on a chariot and went into the palace.
The next day he made an inspection of Darius’ furniture and all his treasure, but it was the city itself, with its beauty and antiquity, that commanded the attention not only of the king, but of all the Macedonians. And with justification. Founded by Semiramisnote (not, as most have believed, Belus, whose palace is still to be seen there), its wall is constructed of small baked bricks and is cemented together with bitumen. The wall is ten meters wide and it is said that two chariots meeting on it can safely pass each other.
Not for Jesus flowers and garlands, but ordinary cloaks and branches. Not for him the splendour of a conquered army and his own troops, but peasant crowds and even children. He rides not on a war chariot, but on a young donkey. He hasn’t come to conquer the city—he hasn’t come to conquer anything, but to be conquered, to ‘give his life as a ransom for many’. This is not a ride to victory and glory, but a ride to service and death. And yet, in this way Jesus will win a victory and draw a people to himself.