The problem with Mark’s triumphal entry is that it’s anything but triumphant. Oh there’s a parade for sure, and it’s at the festive time of the Passover, and Jesus rides on a colt, and people shout Hosannas, but beyond that there isn’t much to sermonize about. The triumphal entry in Mark ends in anticlimax with Jesus simply walking to the temple, taking a look around, and then packing it in for the night and returning to Bethany. He doesn’t do a thing. No symbolic healing. No daring exorcism. No sermon on the temple vestibule. He just observes and then quietly heads back toward the Mount of Olives. Think about how silly it would have been if after the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t get up and give his “I have a dream” speech. Can you imagine if the quarter million people that attended simply gathered for a moment at the National Mall, in front of the Lincoln steps and the Washington Memorial and around the reflecting pool, and then shook hands, said their goodbye pleasantries, and hurried home for supper?! What an opportunity would have been lost! Didn’t Jesus know that the stage had been set for a big moment?
The stage had indeed been set. Jesus came down from the Mount of Olives in the same fashion that the Maccabeans had come down two hundred years prior to gain control from the mighty Seleucid empire during the time of Greek imperial rule. The name “Maccabeans” is taken from the Hebrew word for “hammer.” The Maccabeans (Mattathias, Judas, Simon) knew how to put the hammer to it. They knew how to ride on into the city, take charge, cleanse the temple, and throw their weight around. Upon arresting control from the Seleucids and gaining a measure of autonomy the Maccabeans enjoyed nearly a hundred years of self government. They rededicated (i.e. cleansed) the temple. They installed their own high priest. They even expanded their territory.
Rome put an end to all this when in 63 B.C.E. Pompey conquered Jerusalem and the surrounding lands putting them under Roman control. But the sweet taste of sovereignty still resided on the tongues of those Jews who went to worship daily in the temple under the shadow of the Tower of Antonia and the careful eye of the Roman guard.
Some Zealots were so offended by the new Roman imperial presence that they formed a secretive group known as the Sicarii. Sicarii means “dagger-men.” They, like Jesus, came into the city defiantly at the major festivals, such as the Passover. Unlike Jesus, who came with colts, donkeys, and palm fronds, this group hid Sicae, or small daggers, in their cloaks. At popular assemblies, particularly during the pilgrimage to the Temple Mount, they stabbed their enemies (Romans or Roman sympathizers, Herodians, and wealthy Jews comfortable with Roman rule), lamenting ostentatiously after the deed to blend into the crowd to escape detection. At one point the Sicarii destroyed Jerusalem’s food supply so that the people would be forced to stand up and fight against a Roman siege of the city. They desired war. They wanted Jerusalem to finally stick up for itself. Their covert ops were lethal and effective and their strategies were imaginative and well calculated. Many people thought they were heroes–freedom fighters.
When Jesus entered Jerusalem he had no such covert plans. He did not come under the cover of a cloak, or carry a concealed weapon, or make careful assassinations of key political figures. He did not try to manipulate the masses into an open and aggressive war. He didn’t wield a hammer, take charge, and throw his weight around. He simply took a tour, looked all around, drank in the milieu, and left. The raucous parading crowd was, to be sure, sadly disappointed.
At least Matthew, Luke, and John try to dress the event up a bit. Matthew grabs hold of Mark’s colt and adds a donkey to the animal montage in keeping with a literal interpretation of Zechariah 9:9, a loaded messianic prophecy ripe with apocalyptic significance in the minds of the oppressed people waiting their moment of deliverance. Luke and John have the people shout out that Jesus is “king”–an affront to the Roman occupiers. Matthew says the triumphal entry had the whole town in a buzz wondering “Who is this person?” John says that the Pharisees grumbled to one another saying “Look, the world has gone after him.”
Neither Matthew or Luke has Jesus simply look around and go home. They know better! Both of their gospels have Jesus enter the temple and angrily expel the money changers immediately upon entering the holy city. Matthew’s Jesus flips over the money changer’s tables and then invites into the temple the blind and the lame whom he heals. The crowds are so thankful that shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David!” follow Jesus into the sacred precincts. In Luke’s gospel Jesus uses the grand moment to prophesy the city’s destruction before purging the temple of its sacrificial markets. In John’s gospel Jesus addresses the crowd about the true meaning of discipleship and the coming glorification of the Christ. Everyone follows up the big entrance with something spectacular! Everyone but Mark that is.
Mark’s Jesus experiences the parade and then turns around and goes home. It’s only the next day in the gospel of Mark, on Jesus’ second entrance into the city, when the crowds are no longer taking off their cloaks and laying them at Jesus’ feet and putting down palm branches while shouting psalms of old, that Jesus reenters Jerusalem on foot and performs his cleansing of the temple. But too late, the moment had come and gone, and that second night, just like the first, Jesus slinked out of the city again.
Maybe that’s why Mark’s gospel spends so much time on the colt. Over half of Mark’s story of Jesus’ triumphal entry is taken up in securing the Son of David’s mount. Why? Well what else is there to focus on? So Mark spells out the mundane task in careful details. Jesus dispatches two of his brightest and best and tells them to go to the village ahead and in it they will find tied to a pole a colt that no one has ever ridden. Anticipating that his two faithful disciples might run into an inquisitive person who would wonder why a couple of non-locals were horse-nabbing a pony, Jesus tells his men what to do if questioned: “If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.'” The two disciples follow through with Jesus’ careful plan, and as they do Mark narrates the event presenting once again the exact same narrative material. It takes a full seven verses of the eleven verse pericope narrating the grand Palm Sunday festivities for Jesus to even get atop his mount. This leaves a rather paltry four verses to describe the parade, the entrance of the city, the scoping out of the temple, and the quiet return home.
The irony is that after all of this attention we still scratch our heads and wonder what kind of mount is this? A pony?! And untrained?! People’s theologian Samuel Wells is beside himself, “Where is the horse, the steed that bears the triumphant general, the untamable champion loyal only to the skilled commander, so beloved of great leaders from Alexander to Napoleon? It’s not here…After all this fuss about procuring, even sequestrating, the right animal, just the kind of action worthy of a king, he gets the wrong animal. He chooses an agricultural tool, not a weapon of war; a tractor, not a tank.”
And can you imagine the poor disciples?! A few verses earlier the mighty James and John (‘sons of thunder’ you know) were jockeying for future position in the kingdom of God, a disease of self-importance that will sorely inflict the other followers Christ as well, and now Jesus hand selects a couple of these wannabes for the enviable task of ‘pony detail.’ Who would have thought “preparing the way for the Lord” would be so humble a task? Fetching a pony sounds as exciting as sitting in on a worship committee meeting to discuss preparation for Palm Sunday.
I can see the two disciples now, crawling around a stable, trying not to look like horse nabbers, pulling and pushing an ornery and amateur colt up rocky clefts and down steep ravines. At least if it was a horse of some merit, with a shiny black mane, piercing eyes, and flaming nostrils, they could have held their head up high as pages to a mighty knight. But no, one pulled, the other pushed, and likely the whole town had a good laugh at their expense. Welcome to discipleship 101. Here’s what it means to go before Jesus and gather the things of value in his kingdom.
I hope you are getting the feeling that despite the crowds enthusiasm and the impressive historical precedents that Jesus meant for this to be a very different kind of parade. There is a lesson on this final Sunday in Lent, in Jesus’ refusal to make his royal coronation march ‘normal.’ He is telling all of us with ears to hear, Be careful what kind of parade you throw me.
I like the fact that our children make up our parade today. For Jesus says the kingdom of God belongs to them. Jesus does not say the kingdom of God belongs to us stubborn adults, who jockey for positions of honor, and who shout expectant hosannas hoping that the gravy train pulls up at our station. It does not belong to us hard hearted disciples, who conceal daggers in our cloaks, and dream of war horses and hard pounding hammers. We all join in the march, and take up our signs of protest, and wait for the big speech, and feel quite righteous in all our anger–and we have no idea that until our sanctification is done, and we share in Christ’s glorification, we are still part of all that is wrong in the world.
Mark uses a full seven verses to tell us that if we want to do any good at all perhaps we should spend our time on pony detail–fetching an image of peace and provision rather than beating the drums of war. Let’s take the air out of our puffed up chests. You pull. I’ll push. They’ll laugh at us of course, but what do we care? This is what it means to “prepare the way.” And hurry up. We don’t want to miss the big moment when Jesus enters the temple and looks all around under the shadow of the Tower of Antonia and the careful watch of the Roman guard, and then turns around and goes home. Can we accept this final lenten lesson–that the end of imperialism, and oppression, and arrogance, and greed is not brought about by strong hammers, and concealed daggers, but by the humility and weakness of the cross.
Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!