For the past few months (though part of a longer pattern), various Israeli settlers and right wing politicians have been entering the Haram al-Sharif (the area formerly known as the Temple Mount), exploring and praying under police protection. These visits have the explicit aim of recovering the site for Jews to rebuild the temple. Unsurprisingly, the presence of the settlers and politicians has sparked demonstrations and protests from worshipers at Al Aqsa Mosque.
It’s Palm Sunday today, the day the Church celebrates another incursion of sorts, another challenge of sacred space—the same sacred space, in fact. Palestinians today refer to Jerusalem as “Occupied Jerusalem.” In Jesus’ day, Jerusalem was also an occupied city. There would have been Roman soldiers everywhere, and in fact more than usual because of Passover; much like today, when Jerusalem is crawling with soldiers and police, security in those days was increased during festivals in response to the crowds of pilgrims. Although the First Jewish Revolt did not break out until 66 CE, tensions were simmering all through the first century. The concentration of people in Jerusalem during festivals also concentrated the political upheaval.
The stories of the triumphal entry in the Gospels reflect the political and religious tension of the Roman occupation and Jewish nationalism. Jesus chose to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey, a royal mode of transportation in Gen. 49:10-12 and 1 Kings 1:38-40. Matthew makes sure we get this point by quoting Zech. 9:9; if you read that particular text in its context, you find it’s about a warrior king defeating Jerusalem’s enemies, bringing peace, and ruling the nations. The kingly imagery is also part of the people spreading their cloaks and palm branches on the road—this was also done for Jehu in 2 Kings 9:13, and it also happened during a Hasmonean celebration of the expulsion of foreigners from Jerusalem (held in the temple itself – 1 Macc. 13:51).
Jesus, in other words, enters Jerusalem as a conquering king, a symbol of political revolution. And the crowds understand what he’s doing: “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Mark 11:9-10 NRSV). No wonder the Jewish authorities object (Matt. 21:15-16). This is precisely the sort of thing to which the Romans would respond with violence.
The political tensions remain central throughout the events of Holy Week. The challenges posed to Jesus by the priests, scribes, elders, Pharisees, Herodians, and Sadducees show that they understand Jesus as a political revolutionary. The disciples themselves agree—John and James ask for prime seats of power in Jesus’ government (Mark 10:35-37), and the disciples have swords with them in Gethsemane (Mark 14:47; cf. Luke 22:38). In part, the disciples’ distress after the crucifixion lies in the apparent failure of their hope for the restoration of the political kingdom, something they continue to expect after the resurrection (Luke 24:19-21, Acts 1:6). They think the whole Jesus thing has been about Israel’s independence from Roman rule.
Jesus’ own actions and words, ‘cleansing’ the temple, cursing the fig tree, the parable of the wicked tenants, and foretelling the apocalyptic disruption and destruction of Jerusalem, suggest something else is going on. In Mark’s gospel (my favorite), Jesus has been trying to redirect the expectations of his disciples, the crowds, and the authorities for several chapters by the time we get to Jerusalem. This redirection defines another “way” (ὁδός, hodos, which is sometimes translated as ‘road’ or ‘path’):
- In Mark 8:27, Jesus asks his disciples along the “way” to Caesarea Philippi who they think he is. Peter says he’s the messiah—by which he would mean the king who would restore Israel. Jesus immediately tells them that his way of kingship is suffering (verse 31), and their way of following him will also be the way of suffering (verses 34-35).
- In Mark 9:33, Jesus asks his disciples what they were arguing about on the “way.” They hem and haw, not wanting to admit that they were arguing about who was the greatest among them. Jesus knows anyway, and he tells them that the way to be great is to be the least, and to be the slave of all (verse 35).
- In Mark 10:32, Jesus is on the “way” to Jerusalem. Everyone is amazed and afraid—and Jesus again takes the opportunity, for the final time before they reach Jerusalem, to warn the twelve disciples of the suffering to come (verses 33-34). Immediately after this, John and James show that they, and likely the other disciples, still don’t get it—they still think Jesus is going to overthrow the Romans (verses 35-37); Jesus responds by again telling them of his suffering, and teaching the disciples to serve each other as he himself serves them, to the death (verses 38-45).
Mark 11:8 is the last mention of Jesus’ “way” in the gospel. It establishes the context for the rest of the story; it reminds us that the triumph and conquering and joy of Palm Sunday have a great cost. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord”—even when the coming is unexpected, surprising, and full of suffering.