Jesus’ ‘triumphal’ entry on Palm Sunday in Matthew 21
It is always a relief when we celebrate Palm Sunday from Matthew (as we do in this Year A in the lectionary) or Mark’s account (next year). Luke 19.36 in his account talks only about 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; the inclusion of the fulfilment of prophecy in Matt 21.4–5 replaces the narrative detail about the collection of the donkey(s). 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.
Like Mark, but in contrast to Luke and John, Matthew includes the mention of the Mount of Olives as the location of the journey into the city. This might help remind his (largely Jewish?) readers of the story of David’s exile and return in 2 Sam 19–20, which will be referenced indirectly in the citation of Zech 9. It also has messianic connotations as expressed in Zech 14.4, and it becomes the location for the extended ‘eschatological discourse’ in Matt 24–25. 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.
In Jesus’ instruction to the disciples, the phrase he gives them ‘The Lord has need of it’ must refer to the Lord God; Matthew nowhere uses ho kurios to refer to Jesus, even in his narrative comments (a striking contrast to Luke’s usage). And, different from Mark’s account, the second phrase must mean, ‘he [i.e. the man you ask] will let you have it immediately’ rather than ‘he [the Lord] will return it immediately’. Jesus is clear that, in this action, he is fulfilling God’s own purposes.
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. The word is pleistos, the superlative of polus, ‘many’. Matthew’s use here is perhaps the equivalent of the way we might say in English ‘there was the most enormous crowd’ where our use of ‘most’ doesn’t actually make literal sense since we are not actually comparing it with other crowds.) 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, not at his entrance. When he does finally 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 this was much more historically plausible as an explanation of what is happening.