The Political Entry

Palm Sunday was the first and arguably the most overtly political act of Jesus of Nazareth’s short career. (Mark 11:1-10, Matthew 21:1-9, Luke 19:29-40, John 12:12-16.) Before then he was recognised as an itinerant Galilean preacher, even a prophet like John the Baptist, announcing the imminent arrival of God’s kingdom (Matthew 21:10-11.) Him riding into the Jewish capital on a donkey, a week before Passover, was actually the opening act of the political theatre that he was staging in the final week of his life. The drama was “Who is the Messiah?” that is the true king of Israel, and Jesus had come to lay that question to rest.

There had been rumour and speculation about his messianic status throughout his itinerant ministry. He purposefully avoided publically claiming to be the Messiah. However, he strongly hinted at it through his evocative words and actions. His dramatic entry into the nation’s capital, where he was relatively unknown, was him finally declaring his bid and laying all the speculation to rest. However, it was more than simply the beginning of his campaign. It was him declaring he had already won vote. As the heir apparent to the fallen Davidic dynasty, God had already chosen him, as the prophets had foretold, to be the King of Israel. So the royal script he had chosen to enact that day was Zechariah 9:9, a prophecy about the coronation procession of the Messiah entering Jerusalem. The crowd recognised this because they exclaimed, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” (Mark 11:10.) The Messiah after all was David’s descendent whom God had promised would restore his dynasty (2 Samuel 7:11-16, Isaiah 11:1, Amos 9:11.)

Now even the Romans would have had an inkling of what the audacious stunt Jesus was pulling meant. [1]It was a known ancient Mediterranean trope for a ruler to ride in on a donkey. If that alone was not enough, the timing of the surprise procession at the start of Passover week was overtly political. Yes, the Passover was a religious festival but it tells the story of how God freed the Jewish people. It was their independence day and the Romans knew the dangerous mix of religious and nationalistic fervour could spark revolutionary riots. So they made sure to [2]reinforce their military presence during such festivals.

Now the Jewish crowd certainly did not miss the connection between Jesus’ royal messianic claims and Passover when they shouted, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (Mark 11:9.) That quote is from Psalm 118, a psalm about the king’s procession into the city to celebrate the festival at the temple. It was a part of a collection of Psalms known as the Hallel that were used during Passover. He was openly presenting himself as the Messiah, the divinely promised liberator of God’s people, going to fulfil Passover, the festival of liberation. Being under the thumb of Rome, they were not a free people. If he was the Messiah sent by God, there was no better time for them to cry to God hosanna, which means, “Please save us!”

Though Jesus did not outright say it, his actions spoke volumes. He was announcing himself king and as the story unfolds Romans were having none of it. However, they did not immediately arrest him. [3]This was because it really wasn’t a “triumphal entry,” which implies a display of military might, but rather a coronation procession. Jesus did not come in on a horse. He came on a donkey. Coronations in the ancient world often involved the ruler coming in on a meek beast of burden as a sign of his humility as well as a sign of the peace and stability his reign was meant to establish. Now this of course was a conceit of imperial power. The Pax Romana was overseen by the long dark shadow the cross cast on the empire. He came in unarmed to face the might of the world’s greatest military power and basically said, “come at me.” Little did they know he was about to revolutionize what political power itself is.

The foundation of all political power is the threat of violence. Unlike the world’s kingdoms, his kingdom was not built by doing violence to others but by embracing violence on himself for the sake of everyone. When Jesus came in peace, he actually meant it. As he told Pilate, his kingdom really was different (John 18:36.) Rome did not know how to deal with a peaceful threat so they did what they did best: they crucified him, a political execution. However, a week after he publically announced his royal claim, God vindicated him as the messianic king by raising him from the dead (Romans 1:3-4.) God robbed the Roman cross of its deadly power and made it a symbol of his victory over death (Colossians 2:14-15.) Without the fear of death political power is no longer the same.

Today, we like separating religion and politics but in the ancient world, they were not separate categories. Because of this artificial distinction, which doesn’t even hold up today, when we read the ancient biblical texts, we do not recognize how political it was, especially in its time. We see Jesus as a religious figure but he was just as much a political figure as well. If we pause long enough to seriously consider this, as we just did, it is quite obvious. The clue is in his name, Jesus the Messiah, which is what Palm Sunday is all about.

 

[1] Craig Keener, IVP Bible Background Commentary – New Testament, p. 156, IVP Academic, 2014.

[2]Ibid., p. 157.

[3] Ibid., p. 97.

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