I have to admit that I don’t know much about the tradition of Holy Week, which begins with Palm Sunday, one week before Easter Sunday. I didn’t grow up observing a liturgical calendar (and I still don’t), but I have recognized that there are about two times a year when many people suddenly turn their attention to the story of Jesus, and Easter time is one of them.
To me, this means the church has a unique opportunity. Throughout most of any given year, most people (even some church-goers and believers) think primarily about their own world, rarely giving any extended thought to the story of the gospel. But as Easter (or Christmas in the winter) draws near, many families decide to go to church, or they visit family who will take them to church, or at the very least, they are thinking of something besides their own little world, and an evangelistic opening is possible.
This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t celebrate the resurrection all the time – we absolutely should. Neither is it to say that we should use gimmicks to take advantage of the Easter season – we should not. But nevertheless, when the world suddenly pauses for a moment to think about Jesus, the church should take notice and step up.
In light of that, I want to share a brief thought on Palm Sunday. The scene unfolds in Matthew 21:1-11 (as well as in Mark 11, Luke 19, and John 12):
“Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.”
This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying, “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’”
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.”
The first thing that strikes me about this passage is its connection to the Old Testament. There is the obvious connection to the prophet Zechariah, along with other, less obvious connections. In Zechariah 9:9, we read of this scene, in which a king would ride a colt, and here, many centuries later, Jesus fulfills this prophecy. This is a prophecy that Jesus has some agency in fulfilling, while there are many others fulfilled over which he has no control or effect.
In addition to the fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy, this triumphal entry echoes other Old Testament events: Isaac rides a donkey in Genesis 22, when his father, Abraham, is taking him to the altar to be sacrificed; in Genesis 49, Jacob’s blessing over his son, Judah, involves a donkey and a colt; and who could forget Balaam’s donkey, who warned Balaam of his disobedience in Numbers 22. To Matthew’s Jewish readers, these connections likely bore some significance.
In addition to the Old Testament connections, this moment communicates many things about Jesus, His character, and His kingship. There is something substantially meaningful (and ironic) about the king riding into town on a donkey colt. One might have expected (as many of His day did) that the king would ride a war-horse, prepared to lead his people to victory over their enemies, but Jesus intended to save His people in a wholly unexpected way. He is a different kind of King - a humble servant who would suffer and die for his people. By entering Jerusalem on a donkey, Jesus proclaims that He leads a kingdom not of the powerful, but of the lowly; a kingdom not of the popular, but of the rejected; a kingdom not of the proud, but of the humble.
However, in spite of Jesus’s humility and His humble entry into Jerusalem, many people welcome Him appropriately, recognizing Him for who He truly is. People spread cloaks and tree branches (where we get the “Palm Sunday” tradition) in the road, laying down their things before the King. Meanwhile, religious leaders in Jerusalem are plotting how they will kill Him. The irony is dark and thick - as the leaders seek to end Jesus’s life, the onlookers praise Him as the Son of David and Hosanna in the highest.
Regardless of how those in positions of power view Jesus, there are those who know the truth - that He is the King - and act accordingly. This first-century world is surprisingly similar to our own, in which many think little of the One we praise. In the midst of the world, may we be like these believers, laying our lives before Jesus and worshiping Him as Lord and King, even while the rest of the world looks the other way. In humbling ourselves, we exalt Him.