Palm Sunday

according to the account in Luke

Palm Sunday is the celbration of Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem shortly before his execution. Palm Sunday is a celebration because the people accepted and honored Jesus as the annointed ruler of Israel (the Messiah). Even so, it is something of a hollow triumph for jesus, considering what was to happen to him in the next few days.

Luke 19:28-35 – Jesus rides into the city on a colt.

By choosing this way of entering the city, Jesus is announcing that he is indeed the messiah. Anyone familiar with the Hebrew scriptures would recognize what he meant.

The most direct reference is to a prophecy of Zehariah (9:9-10) in which the precise image is used in describing the coming king. The prophets used many different images for the messiah; by choosing this one, Jesus makes a point of bring the kind of savior that Zecharaish talked about. This means that Jesus wanted to be seen not only as triumphant, but also humble, as this passage states. It also means that Jesus wanted to be identified with peace, as the leader who is to banish the war horse and the bows and arrows from Israel. Zechariah, like Jesus, liked to use the image of a shepherd (9:16; 11:4-14). He also spoke about living peacefully "under your vine and fig tree" (3:10). (That picture of a land at peace is found many other places in the Old Testament, including Micah 4:4 and 1 Kings 4:25.) Zechariah also talked about children playing in the village square (8:5) which is probably sometihng that Jesus liked and would want to be associated with. (The prophecy is quoted directly in Matthew's account, 21:1-11.)

A second important reference is to Jacob's blessing of his son Judah (in Genesis 49:8-12). In this blessing, Jacob promises that the kinds of Israel would be descendents of Judah. Jesus himself ("as was thought") was a descendent of Judah and of King David (Luke 3:23-38). So this is another way that riding into Jerusalem on an ass's colt set forth Jesus' right to be considered the messiah. (Some people would also see a veiled prophecy of Jesus' death in Jacob's words about washing "his garments in wine and his veture in the blood of grapes.")

Luke 19:36-38 – The people come out to greet Jesus

Not only did the people greet Jesus, but they covered the road in front of him so that even his mount's feet would not touch the dirt. This would be an honor normally reserved for kings. And not only that, but they sang, the words quoted being a part of Psalm 118.

Now, Psalm 118 is, in the words of the Jerusalem Bible, a "Processional Hymn for the feast of Tabernacles". (The feast of tabernacles is a harvest festival and is described in Leviticus 24:39-43.) Harvest time does fit with some of Jesus' teaching on the trip to Jerusalem (such as that recorded in Luke 10:2), but it was spring, not harvest time. So why did the people sing this particular psalm?

If you read Psalm 118, you will discover that it says a lot about how God saves Israel from trouble. So this song became a part of the imagery about the messiah. When the people sang this song, they were claiming that Jesus was the messiah for whom they had been waiting. (In fact, Jesus himself used a quotation from this psalm the next day when he began to tell about what would be done to him. This is in Luke 20:9-19.)

The use of Psalm 118 also helps to explain the use of palms on this occassion: Green branches are part of the celebration of the feast of tabernacles, and they are mentioned near the end of the song.

Luke 19:39-40 – The Pharisees complain about the noise.

Actually, the Pharisees were asking Jesus to deny that he was the messiah. "Don't let the people say these things about you," they were saying, "because of course none of it is true." But Jesus counters that these things must be said – and will be said, even if the stones have to make the announcement. (In the account in Matthew (21:14-6), the Pharisees complained especially about what the children were saying. The Jesus quoted Psalm 8:2, telling the Pharisees that the children were praising God correctly.) Jesus really couldn't be more explicit about his claim to be the messiah, short of saying, "I am the messiah." (Which is something he did do elsewhere; see the note below.)

Luke 19:41-44 – Jesus cries for Jerusalem

Jesus knows full well what is going to happen to him: He will be rejected, arrested, and executed. Despite the joyous welcome surrounding him, Jesus begins to cry. He remembers the prophecies against Jerusalem (such as that in Isaiah 29:1-10, part of which he quotes here). Jesus suggests that even at that late moment, there might still be a chance to accept to opportunity for salvation that God has offered – and yet he knows that this will not happen. The destruction of foreign armies would come again to Jerusalem, that city which did not know the time of God's visit.

The actual date was August 29, 70 AD, when the Roman legions commanded by Titus took and burned the temple.

Luke 19:45-46 – Jesus drives the merchants from the temple

Jesus quotes Isaiah (56:7) and Jeremiah (7:11) to explain his anger to the merchants. Apparently, these merchants were not only using space in the temple but were also being dishonest in their dealings. There is a strong tradition of prophets speaking against dishonest merchants (Amos 8:5, Micah 6:11-12) and how such sins destroyed the value of worship in the temple (Haggai 2:10-14).

It is interesting that Nehemiah (13:8) performed a similar action centuries earlier. While Jerusalem was being rebuilt after the return from Exile in Babylon, the priest Eliashib gave his friend Tobiah an apartment in the temple. Nehemiah was every bit as angry over this as Jesus was with the merchants.

Luke is not clear about the exact timing, but Matthew (21:17) tells us that after this incident Jesus left the city until the next day.

Luke 19:47-48 – The important Jews seek to destroy Jesus.

The people, at least for a while, accepted Jesus as God's annointed leader. The priests, scribes, and Pharisees – those people who were educated in religion and the political leaders of the city – were not so pleased. They began to plot and to conspire.

Jesus knew that these plots would succeed. Even before he and the disciples set out for Jerusalem, Jesus told them what was going to happen (Luke 9:22; 9:43-44). He spoke of it again on the way (Luke 18:31-33). After arriving, Jesus spoke about his death in parables (Luke 20:9-19). It is important to remember that the joy of Palm Sunday was tempered for Jesus by the knowledge that the plotters were going to succeed.

A note on Jesus' claims to be the messiah:

Besides the dramatic but symbolic statement made by the ride into Jerusalem, Jesus made his claim clear at other times. Some are more explicit than others, most are based on the messianic traditions of scripture. For example:

1988 (?)
September 2002

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