Hail the king (part 1)

It’s a bit of a mob scene.

A good one.

Picture it. Passover is near, and the city of Jerusalem will eventually be thronged with thousands — by some estimates, millions — of Jews who have made the pilgrimage from outlying areas. Many of them will have come from Galilee, where Jesus performed most of his ministry.

The yearly Passover celebration commemorated the beginning of the Israelites’ central, defining story: the exodus from Egypt. With miraculous might, God rescued his people from the hand of Pharoah. And their descendants are the ones who now fill Jerusalem. They have long memories and storied traditions. They remember the oppression of Egypt, the glory days of King David, the exile in Babylon, the sacrilege of the Seleucids, and now, the everpresent threat of Rome. They have come to Jerusalem not merely out of ritualistic duty, but to have their hope, their imaginations renewed. God saves. Remember.

Each of the four gospels has its own account of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem; each supplies unique details not found in the others. John’s tale, not surprisingly, is quite different in some respects from the other three. For example, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all speak of how Jesus acquired the colt or donkey he rode into Jerusalem that day, but John leaves this out. John, however, is the only one who tells us specifically that the crowds were waving palm branches as Jesus approached the city.

It’s an important symbolic detail. The Law (cf. Lev 23:40) already prescribed that palm branches were to be used in the celebration of the Festival of Tabernacles, and they came to be part of other celebrations as well. Perhaps most importantly, two centuries earlier, the Jews had brought palm branches to the temple when the Maccabees reclaimed it from the Seleucids. And as we’ve seen in an earlier post, according to John, the last time Jesus was in Jerusalem was for the Festival of Dedication, or Hannukah (John 10:22-39), a commemoration of that triumph.

It was in that context that some of the leaders in Jerusalem accosted Jesus and asked him to tell them straight out if he was the Messiah. Jesus’ response, in essence, was, “I told you, and you didn’t believe. There’s no point in my telling you again, because you’re not going to believe.” Then he spoke in what they considered to be blasphemous terms, and they tried to kill him. End of conversation.

But the question of Jesus’ true identity still hung in the air.

As it would on Palm Sunday.