Easter approaches. Yesterday was Palm Sunday; today, Monday, is the day we traditionally remember Jesus’ cleansing of the temple.
And with the help of N. T. Wright, this is the first year I’ve actually made a connection between the two.
On Palm Sunday, we remember Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, when the city was packed to the rafters with pilgrims who had come to celebrate the Passover. Here’s John’s brief description, with a humble first person commentary added:
The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him. They shouted, “Hosanna! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessings on the king of Israel!”
Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written, Don’t be afraid, Daughter Zion. Look! Your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt.
His disciples didn’t understand these things at first. After he was glorified, they remembered that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him. (John 12:12-16, CEB)
Palm branches held great symbolic significance across many cultures in the ancient world. For the Jews, palm branches were probably used as part of the Feast of Tabernacles, commemorating the hardship of a wandering people living in temporary shelters.
And they would have reminded the people of Judah Maccabeus (the name may mean “The Hammer”), the revered warrior whose family liberated the Jews from the Seleucid Empire. Roughly two centuries before the ministry of Jesus, the Seleucids had forbidden Jewish worship and had set up their own pagan statuary in the Jerusalem temple. Judah, the son of a priest, initiated a daring series of guerilla actions that beat the Seleucids back; in 164 BCE, he reclaimed the temple and rid it of the offending artifacts.
When the temple was triumphantly rededicated, the people celebrated Judah with palm branches as a symbol of his military victory, rejoicing in what seemed to be the salvation of the Lord (see 2 Maccabees 10:1-8). Judah himself would later pick up that symbol by stamping it on coins.
So what did people have in mind when Jesus rode into Jerusalem, down from the Mount of Olives, sitting on the back of a donkey? The reference is to Zechariah 9:9, which prophesies God’s victory, but through a Messiah of humility and peace.
Forget the humility and peace part. When the people brought their palm branches that day, they were probably hoping for another Hammer.
Indeed, just two chapters before John’s account of the Triumphal Entry, we read this:
The time came for the Festival of Dedication in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple, walking in the covered porch named for Solomon. The Jewish opposition circled around him and asked, “How long will you test our patience? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” (John 10:22-24, CEB)
The Festival of Dedication: in other words, Hanukkah, the commemoration of the rededication of the temple after the victory of the Maccabees. What kind of Messiah were they expecting?
And immediately following the Triumphal Entry (in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but curiously, not in John), Jesus cleansed the temple. But this time, it wasn’t paganism that was being driven out; Jesus was condemning what had become of the temple system itself.
Jesus was not, one supposes, the Messiah people expected. Perhaps he wasn’t even the one they wanted. And not long after, the Roman Empire had Jesus on a cross, with the people’s approval.
When we remember the suffering of Jesus, his crucifixion, and resurrection, we might ask ourselves: is he the Savior we wanted? Or were we perhaps expecting someone else?
Hosanna, the people shouted: Save. From what? What is it we want God to do? And is it what he came to do?