Things aren’t always as they seem. Especially with stories and traditions that we’ve grown comfortable hearing. Familiarity has a funny way of hiding things that are hanging right in front of us.
Yesterday was Palm Sunday and like many pastors I taught from Luke 19:28-48. This is what has been traditionally titled the Triumphal Entry. But was it a triumph?
Many of the same people who were crying out, "Save us!” and “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!" as Jesus descended upon the city would four days later be shouting, "Crucify him!” and “Give us Barabbas!”
Why? How could the Jews experience such a rapid swing in opinion in just a matter of days?
To answer that you need to understand something of the theological and political atmosphere that Jesus walked himself into. Jerusalem was primed for political revolution in the first century. Not only was the Roman Empire occupying Palestine but Herod, an Edomite, was a client king over the province of Judea — making him King of the Jews. And there was at that time also an expectation that the Messiah might soon come and lead Israel out of their captivity. There were two oracles in the prophecy of Daniel that placed this very moment in time at the nexus of their fulfillment. And so there was this added fervor among the Jews to hasten the coming of the Messiah. Either through strict adherence to the Law and Oral Tradition —the Pharisees— or through violent revolution —the Zealots.
So it comes as no surprise that significant hope was built around the ministry of Jesus, that he might indeed be the one who Israel had been waiting for. There had been others who’d come before Jesus and after him who claimed to be Messiah. Jesus was different though. He was different because he was actually able to corroborate his messianic claims by performing miraculous signs. And it so happens, in the days before Jesus made his descent into Jerusalem, that he raised Lazarus from the grave. And if anyone was Messiah, it must be the man who has power over life and death.
This is what Jesus was stepping into as he made his ride into Jerusalem. And he knew it. Jesus was very calculated in what he did to very clearly and undeniably communicate his claim to be their king. Dispatching his disciples to collect those two donkeys was not arbitrary. It was audacious. Because in so doing he set himself up to fulfill a centuries old prophecy given by Zechariah.
"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.’” — Zechariah 9:9
And this is precisely what caused the throngs of Jesus’ disciples and the crowds to sing Psalm 118 to Jesus as he triumphantly rode in toward the city.
“All nations surrounded me; in the name of the LORD I cut them off! They surrounded me, surrounded me on every side; in the name of the LORD I cut them off! They surrounded me like bees; they went out like a fire among thorns; in the name of the LORD I cut them off! I was pushed hard, so that I was falling, but the LORD helped me. Save us, we pray, O LORD! O LORD, we pray, give us success!” — Psalm 118:10-13, 25
The people who cried out "Save us!" wanted a king who'd liberate them from Roman occupation, not from their slavery to sin. They'd wrongly believed that their problem was Rome. When in fact, the occupation of Rome over Judea was simply the consequence of their continued sinful unfaithfulness to their covenant with God. Sin was their problem, not Rome. And since they wanted salvation from Rome and not from their slavery to sin, the judgement of God would shortly come upon them.
When Jesus was arrested and brought before the people in chains, the great hope of salvation that they’d placed upon their messianic liberator came crashing down. And when significant hope is invested in someone who fails to meet your expectations, heroes quickly become villains and are hated to a greater degree than they ever were loved.
And that is why Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem was not triumphant. It was tragic. The people he’d come to save wanted salvation, but it was salvation from something other than what Jesus had come to offer. And when they rejected their Messiah and despised his salvation they forever sealed their fate. Their king had come to suffer for their covenant rebellion and to offer them the blessings of his covenant faithfulness but that is something they were unwilling to receive. Rather than looking to Jesus, they pinned their hope of salvation on the zealot Barabbas instead.
And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” — Luke 19:41-44
Jesus was like his father King David in this respect. David wept as he fled Jerusalem on the back of a donkey over the top of the Mount of Olives after his son Absalom had rejected his father as king. And in the same way but in the opposite direction, Jesus wept over Jerusalem as he rode down into the city from the Mount of Olives on the back of a donkey knowing that he'd likewise be rejected as King of the Jews. — 2 Samuel 15-19.