In Luke’s Gospel, we follow Jesus up the hillside climb to the small village of Bethany. There, he enjoys the gracious hospitality of Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus whom Jesus had recently raised from the dead. This location on the Mount of Olives is significant. Based on certain biblical prophecies, some believers expect that the Messiah would return from the East. The Holy One would descend into Jerusalem from the area of Bethany, from near the Garden of Gethsemane.
These aren’t just trivial details from Bible history, but instead are deeply meaningful symbols. Knowing more about them enriches our observance of this week. They help us see how a relatively private and anonymous dinner up at Bethany, earlier in the week, providentially sets the stage for this week… and for the events that we commemorate in our Holy Week liturgies.
First, Jesus humbly goes up to Bethany on the Mount of Olives. And then… with the same spirit he comes down into Jerusalem. But not that we would readily know this. For the Gospels, with their descriptions of exuberant crowds praising Jesus during his palm-procession, create a different impression. As do many artistic representations of the event, like that of James Tissot, pictured above. We will want to notice this: as Jesus enters Jerusalem, he does not put himself forward into a royal role even though so many others want him to. In the process, he does not involve himself in calculating reactions; he does not speculate about outcomes; he does not deal with probabilities. Instead, Jesus simply accepts God’s holy Providence. And so, he walks or rides toward what has been planned for him rather than toward what he might have planned for himself. Despite whatever recognition Jesus may already have received, this is the decisive moment, for him ~ and for us. In this Gospel moment, he realizes his true vocation.
The most vivid —and yet also very subtle— sign of this is how he embarks on his procession toward what will be his ‘coronation.’ The expected Messiah, coming as promised from the East, and down from the Mount of Olives, descends the slope riding upon a donkey. That is, he rides upon a ‘beast of burden,’ and markedly not upon a ‘war-horse.’ For the Prince of Peace returns to God’s holy Temple in humility rather than with the threat of aggression.
Despite this, conflict and violence await the Prince of Peace. At first, some of it seems to be of his own making, for he soon engages in the ‘Cleansing of the Temple.’ As we have noticed before, this act could easily be interpreted as an act of violence, and one that is perpetrated by him. Nevertheless, just as he did in his descent into the Holy City on a donkey, he honors his vocation by being faithful to Providence. And he acts as the One who will bring peace ~ but the kind of peace that the world does not give, and cannot give.
Given all this, a particular question should occur to us: We see the Prince of Peace enter the City mounted not on a warhorse but on a lowly donkey. So why, then, would his arrival provoke conflict and violence? His immediate and dramatic act of overturning the tables of the money changers, and his scattering of sacrificial animals for sale in Temple, were hardly enough to instigate a plot to do away with him. Instead, it was surely what these acts appeared to represent. Because they caused fears and distrust to well up into hostile action. For what we know now, and what some at that time could intuit, is a central truth ~ a truth as pertinent to us as it was to those who ruled Jerusalem in those troubled days. There can only be one true King of Israel. There can only be one Lord. And so, all of us must choose. Or, we must be responsible for avoiding the choice… the choice regarding whom we recognize as King and Lord. In Israelite history, there is only one correct answer to this question ~ Adonai ~Y*hw*h, the God of their history and ours.
The above painting is James Tissot’s, Procession on the Mount of Olives. This post is based on my homily for Palm Sunday, April 14, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here. Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.