Palm Sunday is the day in the Christian calendar when the Church celebrates Jesus’ arrival into Jerusalem. In Churches all around the world children and adults wave palm branches, shout “Hosanna” (even though they probably have no clue what it means), and celebrate Jesus arriving in Jerusalem. Some churches have musical programs that tell the story. Other churches will bring in a live donkey or a whole petting zoo. It’s a day of celebration and revelry, just as it was long ago.
Israel had been oppressed by Rome for a long time, and Greece before that. When the rumor got out that a new king was in town the people gathered. Everyone hoped that Jesus would be the king they were looking for. The one who would be anointed by the priesthood, take up the throne of King David, and restore Israel to their “glory days”. As he approached town Jesus stopped and told his disciples to go and get a donkey, or a colt, or both (depending on which Gospel story you read). He would then ride the donkey into Jerusalem to the temple. The people knew that a king arriving on a donkey was a sign of peace. The people believed that Jesus would be their new king. As he approached Jerusalem the crowd began to wave palms, which for that time period were pretty much the national flag of Israel. They lay their cloaks down on the road so that the king’s donkey might not get dirty. The shouted “Hosanna” (which means roughly “save us, we pray”). They proclaimed Jesus the Son of David, the descendant of the hero king against which all of Israel’s kings were measured, and who would provide the legitimacy to the throne. They sang praises to God who had delivered them from slavery in Egypt, and, they hoped, would deliver them from the oppressor Rome. It was seriously a big deal, and that’s why churches today make it a big deal, except most of the people who read the Bible stories for this celebration miss what I call “Surfer Jesus”.
Matthew’s gospel talks briefly about a sign that Jesus fulfilled about the Messiah. It comes from Zechariah 9:9, and I believe the King James Version actually captures this “surfer” image best. “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; Shout O daughter of Jerusalem: behold thy king cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.” The Hebrew and the Greek (Septuagint) both had the conjunctive word normally translated as “and” in there. As we fast forward to Matthew’s reference to this passage in Zechariah we get a picture of Jesus on what appears to be two donkeys. I want to see a pastor or someone else dressed as Jesus riding into church on Palm Sunday with two donkeys. I envision Jesus like some of those circus performers with one foot on each animal.
This is a comical example, but one that is important for us to talk about. There are things in the Bible that when you slow down and reflect upon them, they are comical. Madeleine L’Engle once wrote “I take the Bible far too seriously to take it all literally.” It is great to celebrate Palm Sunday, and I love the stories about God that are found throughout the Bible. I hope that by sharing this one example you might learn not only to read the Bible carefully, but also with a sense of humor. May Jesus ride upon both a donkey and a colt into the temple of all of our hearts today that we may know and love our Creator all the more.