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The Irony of Palm Sunday: A Meditation

03.12.2024

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Reflecting on the Palm Sundays of my youth, I remember walking out of church with a cross-shaped leaf in hand. I remember waving a branch bigger than me. I remember singing songs with a word (hosanna?) that I never once used in an English literature class. I remember a preacher mentioning a man, a donkey, and some redneck-ish red carpet made of old coats. I remember… being confused. 

Why the religious luau? Why the palm branches? Why the donkey? Why coats on the ground instead of on shoulders? Why hosanna? Why Palm Sunday? Why is this moment so significant that all four Gospel writers include it?

To see the significance, we must slowly survey the scene. We must meditate on the pictures of Palm Sunday. 

A King

Palm Sunday has a special setting. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each ensure their reader knows Jesus is en route to Jerusalem for Passover. In perfect timing, the person of power enters this place of power. New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright comments on a peculiar coincidence unfolding: “Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor… would come up to Jerusalem [at Passover] to prevent trouble. He would arrive, from the west, on a military horse with an armed escort.” As that empirical tyrant makes his way from the West, rumors of another ‘king’ coming in from the East emerge.

The scene narrows in on Jesus. 

The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem.

John 12:12

Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.”

Matthew 21:1–3

He gears up for his entry. Thus far, Jesus has kept a hard rule of hushing any public comments that he was some sort of “king,” but now his guard is down. Matthew, Mark, and Luke each make sure to mention his commanding arrangements for his entrance. In other words, he is not accidentally stumbling upon a parade entrance; he is planning one. The Uber has been called in advance. The campaign texts have been sent out to all. The King is coming on his own command. He leaves no middle ground. As Tim Keller once coined, “You either kill Him or crown Him.”

Meditation: Jesus, you are more than a mere man, leader, teacher, or example. You are the King. Forgive me for the moments I’ve come to you for options to consider, not commands to obey.  

A Donkey

“Get off your high horse!” The metaphor brings to mind the mighty. The high and proud have always been a combo deal with the big beasts. In antiquity, kings triumphed into town on their large horses, chariots, and camels, accompanied by large armies. The higher the king, the higher the horse, the louder the entrance. 

This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying, “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.’ ” 

Matthew 21:4-5

In stark contrast to the stallion, Jesus journeys into Jerusalem with irony. Palm Sunday is taking place to fulfill what God promised his people all along: a mighty King will come on a donkey.

There is nothing impressive about a donkey. If the President of the United States rode one, we would await the memes. Leaders do not show up looking lowly. Kings show up in bling—with convoys of Cadillacs. The powerful would never show up on such a poor creature. Not this King. He is the great paradox. Powerful, yet peaceful. Divine, yet meek. His heart is made of tender mercy, not calloused pride. Palm Sunday is King Jesus’ announcement of his purpose and character to the world: He is the King, He has come, and he is humble.  

Meditation: Jesus, you are the humble King. You are mighty and meek. Teach me how to walk in the trail you have blazed: godliness and humility. Take me off my high horse and hitch me onto yourself. 

A Palm Branch & A Plea

Two centuries before Jesus’ Palm Sunday, there was another Palm Sunday. A man named Simon was famous for driving opposing forces out of Jerusalem. Simon was welcomed into the city with songs, chants, and… yes, palm branches. Decades after Jesus’ death, palm branches were engraved on Jewish currency as an emblem of rebellion against Rome. It is safe to say the palm branch was a symbol of national hope. 

Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”

Matthew 21:8-9

As Jesus marches in, the crowds wave palm branches and lay cloak-carpets. A single hope is on their mind: freedom from political oppression. “Hosanna!” they plead, full of emotion. The term literally means “Save us, now!” Do they realize what they are requesting? In their eyes, Jesus is the candidate who can bring that freedom right now. He is the one who can take down Rome. He is the national hope. In his eyes, the crowds’ dreams are too dainty. Their hope—too near-sighted. Their aspirations—too narrow. Jesus will not be just another elected official who patches oppression up with a bandaid. His objective is far greater than releasing the grip of Rome. He has come to conquer what no party, politician, or policy could ever touch: death. 

Meditation: Jesus, you are the humble King and Savior of the world. I await your return and repeat with the crowd: Hosanna — save us! Bring to mind not just the palm branches waving on this day but the trees themselves clapping on the day you return in glory. 

A Rejection

Haters always find a way to crash a party. While Jesus marches into Jerusalem on a donkey to the sounds of the chanting crowds, an opposing party rises to the surface. Anger boils up in the blood of the Pharisees:

So the Pharisees said to one another, “You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after him.”
John 12:19

And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” 

Luke 19:39

The Pharisees see the whole scene as pointless and futile. The people gain nothing from praising a man on a donkey. Though the world follows him, the Pharisees will not make that stupid fault. They will not join the crowd’s chants that Jesus is King. “Jesus, do you not think this is getting out of hand? Your disciples need a chill pill.” It is as if Jesus replied, “If humanity had no mouths, you would still hear stones singing that I am King.” Creation bows to this King. The Pharisees do not. They miss it all. God passed them on a donkey, and they were busy scrolling through their own self-centeredness. Did he catch your eye? Do you see the picture of Palm Sunday?

Behold! The King who rides in humility. The King who restores stoney hearts. The King who substitutes himself for sinners. The King who bleeds on behalf of the guilty. The King that turns the worst day of humanity into a “Good” Friday. The King that robs the grave. The King that defeats death. Behold! The King who enters from the East.

Meditation: Jesus, thank you for the picture of Palm Sunday. Your triumphal entry led you to a cross to take away my sin. Before I could chant or clean up, you died for me. Like the rocks, I will cry out for all to hear: amazing grace!  

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Scripture References

  • John 12:12
  • Matthew 21:1–5
  • Matthew 21:8-9
  • John 12:19
  • Luke 19:39
Thomas Barr Thomas Barr works on staff at Passion City Church D.C., helping form the local church spiritually through teaching and written content. He also studies Historical Theology at Dallas Theological Seminary. His favorite things are friends and books.