Matthew’s rendition of the first ‘Passion Sunday’ – what we know as Palm Sunday and the Beginning of Holy Week – is full of high drama and emotion, prophesy fulfilled, healing, action and opportunities for reflection and foreboding for the future.
It is much more than simply a day of triumph.
We see the day begin – probably in the cool of the morning – near Bethpage, as Jesus finds a mount to carry him towards his final earthly journey. The journey had begun some 33 years earlier in a lowly birthplace – not far from where he now rides.
The journey took him to a river to be commissioned for his task and then he journeyed out into the wilderness – a time of trial and testing by Satan. It is Satan he is soon to reencounter on Maundy Thursday. The journey then involves teaching, healing, taming the elements, challenging and changing expectations at who God is.
And now, the journey comes to Jerusalem – and Jesus receives the adulation of enthusiastic people who don’t really comprehend what is unfolding before their eyes.
Jesus’ journey continues to the temple – to vent his anger then to turn around and heal the blind and the lame and finally to return to the far outskirts of the town – to rest for the night.
It’s been a big day in a big life with a climax just around the corner.
But Palm Sunday happenings are not just about the events of the day – it is about the people.
Let’s spend some time thinking about the characters that are mentioned and even those not mentioned but integral to the story.
We start with the disciples themselves. What are they feeling, thinking about this day? In John 11 Thomas says ‘let’s go, so that we may die also?’ What foreboding did he see or feel? How did Peter and James and John feel having heard Jesus predict his own death and then being taken to the top of the mountain to experience the Transfiguration (Matthew 17)?
What did the two disciples think when Jesus told them to take another Israelite’s property – a donkey and her colt – so that Jesus could ride into Jerusalem? What did the owner think?
They must have been as confused as or with the same expectations as the crowd who came to greet Jesus, laying cloaks and palm branches before Jesus – shouting Hosanna – Save us Lord, Save us Son of David, heir to the throne.
This strong man, this healer who speaks with such authority, this one who does not fear, but who challenges the Pharisees. The one who stands up for the burdened and the oppressed, this one who heralds a new kingdom of peace and righteousness. This one who has even had demons flee from him – this one titled Messiah, Son of God, Son of Man, Bread of Life, Good Shepherd.
What would they think in a few days when the Romans, the Jewish leaders, Herod Antipas and Pilate seemed to have the measure of Jesus as well as the upper hand.
They – like we – may have questioned – is God in control? Was this the One?
Might we,too, turn to water or even just turn away, like so many have done?
What are the Roman guards thinking – looking over the events from the high points on the walls of Jerusalem – were they thinking just another trouble-maker, someone we have to stop as he gathers the locals around him! This will need to be reported to Pilate.
The temple guards, priests and Pharisees at the temple – when Jesus violently overturns the tables of the money changers – What were they thinking about the threat? The threat to the way they transact business and dispense their religion. How could they stop him?
The money changers themselves – who Jesus expelled – ‘ekballo’ is the word used in the Greek which is the word for exorcised – something that would be done to a demon – Was it more than their dignity and reputation that was damaged in that exchange?
What of the blind and the lame and the children who then came to the temple after the expulsion – healings occurred, praise was offered up by the innocent young – what an incredible juxtaposition – What lasting impacts were to occur from these events?
And there – lurking behind the crowds in the street – up on the high points with the Roman guards – with the Pharisees in their huddles – and in the corner of the temple itself – was the one not often seen – Satan – the father of lies, the deceiver, the tempter – the one seeking to manipulate the events for his own evil purpose.
But then we come to the Jesus of this Palm Sunday who we celebrate – at the beginning of Passion Week.
Jesus, the one who prophesises about where to find a donkey – yet does not know if the disciples will encounter someone who wants to know why they are taking it – so he gives them the words to reply just in case (verse 3)
This prophet with a sense of foreboding – does he see the full picture of what is to be revealed this week?
This humble man who accepts the adulation of the crowd without fanfare or a self-sense of kingship, as he rides on a donkey.
But we see the righteous anger that he delivers to the money changers and the merchants in the temple (and especially to the Pharisees and scribes in Chapter 23).
Then we see the openness, compassion and love for the vulnerable and burdened who he then gathers and heals in the temple.
What a bevy of human emotions this man must have been experiencing this day as he journeyed in and out of the wilderness, surrounded by people, but maybe also feeling extremely lonely, burdened and even isolated – this was not just another day at the office – it was not just a day of triumph where Jesus could sit back at the end of it with a sense of satisfaction, with a cup of wine and chewing on a piece of bread.
For if bread was torn in this hands that night and some wine spilt on the floor – it spoke of a much greater task that lay before him – one for all of the people he had encountered that day – and for you and for me this day also.