What did the people who heard that Jesus was entering into Jerusalem expect to see? They were accustomed to seeing grand spectacles of Roman generals and politicians processing through the streets of Jerusalem. The Judean governor, Pontus Pilate, and his soldiers entered Jerusalem from the west, riding on spirited war horses, dressed in armor and shiny helms, beating war drums, and waving legion banners. It was a show of pomp and power through sword and shield. It was a bludgeoning reminder of Rome’s occupation and rule over Jerusalem and the Jewish people.
In contrast, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was nothing like this. The four Gospel stories describe Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey or a colt from the east through the villages of Bethphage and Bethany. Jesus sent two of his disciples to go and untie the donkey they would find and bring it back to him. The disciples laid their cloaks on the donkey’s back and helped Jesus get on. As Jesus rode into Jerusalem people came out to see him. They spread their cloaks upon the ground before him. Others had cut leafy branches and spread those upon the road as well. Shouts of “Hosanna!” and “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” filled the air with the waving of more palms as Jesus approached the path down from the Mount of Olives.
The images found in the stories of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem are even more powerful than Pilates’s parades. The symbolism of the plain and humble animal Jesus rides depicts the prophecy as told in Zechariah (9.9-10) of a king who comes in peace and humility. The disciples care and honor for Jesus are expressed in their preparing the donkey and helping him. The praise and honor are continued through the multitude of people by the laying down of their cloaks and palms as an offering before Jesus. The waving of the palms and shouts of “Hosanna” symbolize the coming messiah and God’s salvation. Additionally, the Mount of Olives, although only briefly mentioned in these stories is a significant place for Jesus and his disciples throughout the New Testament and builds upon the stories and prophecies found in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Mount of Olives was on route to Jerusalem from the east. It’s named for the olive groves that once grew upon its slopes. And we know that an olive branch is used as a symbol of peace.
The Mount of Olives was a place of refuge and preparation for Jesus and his disciples in many ways. Not unlike our special places where we have spent time along our Lenten journey to pray and draw closer to God. The Mount of Olives is where Jesus went often to pray alone and with his disciples. It is a place where he instructed his disciples about the future and coming peaceable reign of God. It was where Jesus prayed and asked God for the strength and will to face his coming suffering and crucifixion. And it was in the Garden of Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives where Judas betrayed Jesus, Peter struck a soldier with a sword, Jesus’ rebuke of Peter’s violent action, and Jesus’ healing of the soldier’s wounded ear. For Jesus and for us the Mount of Olives symbolizes a place of prayer, preparation, humility, healing, and peace.
So, why a donkey? Because Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, that we along with Christians from around the world celebrate on Palm Sunday, the sixth Sunday of Lent, and the beginning of Holy Week, is a lesson about humility and peace. It is not about pride, power, or pomp and circumstance. It is a lesson that our discipleship be one of embodying the humility and peace of Jesus Christ.
As you continue on your Lenten journey toward Palm Sunday, how have you experienced the humility and peace of Christ? How have you shared Christ’s humility, healing, and peace with others?
Scriptures: Mt 21.1-11; Mk 11.1-10; Lk 19.28-40; Jn 12.12-19 NRSV