Look at this crowd: in James Tissot’s painting, excited people await and greet Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Two things are obvious about his arrival in the city. We notice the huge and enthusiastic crowd. And, we notice the object of their attention, Jesus riding on a donkey. At first, we naturally assume an affinity between these two things. The crowd is joyful about Jesus precisely because he is the answer to their questions, and the apparent solution to their concerns. Who he is seems to fit neatly with who they are, and with where they want to go. After all, who wouldn’t be happy when long-nurtured hopes and expectations are about to be fulfilled.
As Matthew describes the scene, the crowd responds to Jesus’ arrival in two ways, both of which evoke historic precedent. We learn from 2 Kings about the followers of Jehu ~ when they learn he has been anointed king, they spread their cloaks for him to walk on.1 And in 2 Maccabees, we learn how Judas Maccabaeus was greeted upon arriving in Jerusalem, after defeating Israel’s enemies. The people honored him by waving palm branches in the air. To clinch the point, Matthew want us to know this: that when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, the crowd’s dramatic response was a fulfillment of God’s word through the prophet Zechariah: “”Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” And the people shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”
In other words, as Matthew describes Jesus’ arrival in the city, the crowd’s greeting of him suggested a similar hope, that he might vanquish the repressive powers causing God’s people to suffer. This Nazarene might be the one to make God’s Kingdom present in their time. These observations can help us appreciate how Jesus was greeted when he arrived in Jerusalem, and how he was viewed soon after. For, like many leaders in history, he was the object of an immense amount of hopeful projection.
Consider again at the crowd in Tissot’s wonderful painting of Jesus’ arrival. How many of them are looking directly at him? And of those, how many actually see him, and for who he is rather than for what he represents among their pre- existing desires? Notice how many in the crowd are carried away by the moment. They are excited by imagined possibilities, rather than by the Kingdom concretely at hand. This situation is not merely of historical interest, nor is it primarily about other people, living at another time. Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem is also about us, and about why we are drawn to worship during Holy Week. For his arrival invites us to consider our intentions this week, as we greet with palms our Lord’s arrival. And it prompts us to consider how we might best walk with him through the rest of the week.
This image is from James Tissot’s painting, The Procession in the Streets of Jerusalem. I am indebted to N.T. Wright regarding the specific references to earlier biblical precedents for the way Jesus was greeted upon his arrival in Jerusalem. This reflection is based on my sermon for Palm Sunday, which may be accessed by clicking here.