The next day a great multitude that had come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took branches of palm trees and went out to meet Him, and cried out:
‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’
The King of Israel!”
— John 12:12-13
Today, Christians throughout the world will celebrate what many consider our holiest week of the year on what is popularly known as Palm Sunday. It commemorates one of the few events in the life of Jesus recorded in all four gospel stories: his entry into Jerusalem, followed by a raucous and warm welcome and a lot of waving branches. (Only John 12:13 mentions they were palms.) In Israel today, churches still reenact the journey from the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem—the route supposedly taken by Jesus all those centuries ago.
As I study this story in Scripture, I’m struck by the fact that the primary symbol for this day—a palm—was not chosen by Jesus. John writes, “took branches of palm trees and went out to meet Him, and cried out: “Hosanna! ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’ The King of Israel!”” (John 12:13). Why did the crowd choose palm branches? It could simply have been that palms were nearby. But history tells us there might have been a deeper reason: Those plants were symbolically linked to military victories and the Messiah.
First Maccabees, a book not included in Protestant Bibles, is the most extensive source of information on events in Judea from 175 to 135, and a generation before Jesus, when Simon Maccabee drove Israel’s enemies out of Jerusalem, people celebrated by waving palm branches:
On the twenty-third day of the second month, in the one hundred seventy-first year, the Jews entered it with praise and palm branches, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel. (1 Maccabees 13:51)
Jews during this period connected palm branches to the expectation of the Messiah. So when Jesus entered Jerusalem, people used them to interpret his identity. He was another Simon Maccabee—a long-hoped-for king who would drive out the Gentiles.
All the Gospels are clear that Jesus chose a symbol, a way for his people to make sense of his kingship. But it was the young donkey, not the palm branch (John 12:14). John rightly sees the donkey as Jesus intended. It was the fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9, which says, ““Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
Jesus picked a symbol that emphasized humility and lowliness instead of military strength. That fact should inform how we celebrate and remember his entry into Jerusalem. Of course, it would be impractical for every church across the globe to find a donkey to drag into and out of its sanctuary. But we can spend Palm Sunday reflecting on what it means to follow a king who rejected the way of violence.
As we look to the donkey, not the palm, what practices might it inspire? What aspects of American Christian culture might it critique?
For some, their expressions of Christianity are too confident in our own judgment of others. They’re convinced that they are right and their enemies are not just wrong but evil. They profess that Jesus must hate the same things they hate when often they are putting words in Jesus’s mouth that was never recorded as him speaking. Jesus did not (nor could he have foreseen) that some Christians would attempt to establish their rule by distorting the words of Jesus, one angry tweet and fiery comment at a time. And so on Palm Sunday, they pick up their palm branches and raise their shouts in support of the Jesus they’ve created in their minds, not the crucified Messiah—whose rule is rooted and grounded in love. He has become a rallying cry for their agenda, not His.
As Russell Moore writes, “Jesus is right in saying this sort of hatred and violence never leads where we think it will—to a vanquishing of all of our enemies and to a victory for ‘us,’ whoever ‘us’ is.” We have forgotten that the world is both the object of God’s affection and a place in rebellion against its creator. Christian faithfulness involves holding these things in tension. Many Christians have granted so many exceptions to the love command that it’s almost empty of meaning. They have hoarded God’s grace for themselves while refusing to offer it to others. They shout about Jesus but do not pay attention to His own words and actions.
Jesus’s claim to be the Messiah was not simply about a goal—God’s rule over all things. He and the crowd agreed on that point. His earthly life and ministry were also about the means of accomplishing that goal: namely, sacrificial love. Jesus gave us not only the gift of forgiveness, flowing through his Passion and resurrection, but also a way to follow. Too many Christians, in their desire to defeat who they see as enemies, have lost Christian virtues—the fruit of the Spirit.
As these same people who called themselves Christian strive to establish God’s rule through self-assertion over neighborly care, pragmatism over principle, and malice over love, then whatever else they think they accomplish, they are not following in the way Jesus taught. God chose meekness, integrity, and love to gather his people. That is the message of Palm Sunday. For all the shouts of acclamation, Jesus never lost sight of the cross. This Holy Week and all the weeks of the year, let’s follow Jesus, who sat atop a donkey so that He can remind us again how to best follow his example.
April 2nd, 2023 at 8:55 am
This commentary is spot on! The pastor/theologian in me greatly appreciates your insights. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan share your thinking as well. A blessed Palm Sunday! Keep your focus on the young ass always! ☺️😏