Summary: A curious thing happens as Jesus begins his journey into the city, Jesus begins to weep. “Have you wept over our city?”
Heart for the City
Today is Palm Sunday which celebrates Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. More than 200,000 people descended on Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover each year. Passover celebrates God’s deliverance of the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. One of those pilgrims converging on the Holy City is Jesus, the one whom everyone has been talking about, because of his miracles and teaching, and in particular the resurrection of Lazarus just weeks before. So all of Jerusalem was abuzz. Jesus and the disciples stayed at Jesus’ best friend’s home in Bethany, that of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. It is from here that Jesus begins his walk to the Holy City and the Temple of God. Two of Jesus’ disciples are dispatched to go ahead to the next village called Bethpage to obtain a donkey, a walk which climbs a very steep hill and takes about 20 minutes. If there was a part of the journey into Jerusalem where Jesus might need or desire the help of an animal, this would be it because from Bethpage, it’s all down hill to Jerusalem. But instead, Jesus walks to Bethpage where Jesus he climbs a rock to mount the donkey they have brought to him. The sight of Jesus riding a beast of burden must have recalled in the disciple’s minds the coronation of King Solomon who did the same thing and the fulfillment of a prophecy by Zechariah more than 500 years before: “Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey….”
Bethpage was considered the city limits of Jerusalem. Today, we would call it an outer suburb. This was the furthest point where bread could be made for use in the Temple. So if Jesus was going to enter the city on a donkey and identify himself as the Messiah, he had to do it beginning at Bethpage as he entered the city limits. And when he did, the crowds who had gathered saw clearly this messianic sign of the Messiah riding a donkey. In addition, the belief was that the Messiah would come from the East, from the Mount of Olives and where the sun rises. So of the eight gates leading into the city, Jesus chose the one from East. It is one reason why the cemetery next to the Mount of Olives is the most expensive place in the world to be buried because the belief is that these will be raised from the dead first when the Messiah comes. Finally, add in the resurrection of Lazarus, another sign of the Messiah, and the crowd has no doubt Jesus is the Messiah, their King.
The people lined the streets and waved palm branches as the long awaited Messiah processes into the city. The palm branch was a symbol of freedom for the Jewish people starting in the second century BCE. Judea had fallen under the control of the Syrian King, Antiochus IV who decided to bring Greek civilization and thought to the Jews. When he insisted that they change their religious practices to the Greek gods, a revolt broke out, led by the Maccabaean brothers. Israel gained their independence and was free to rule itself for the first time in more than 500 years. The coins that were minted in this new kingdom had a palm tree printed on one side which became a symbol of rebellion, freedom and Jewish nationalism, especially in light of Roman occupation. So as Jesus processes into the city, the people gather to wave palms and it is readily apparent that in the eyes of the crowd, this is a political rally welcoming a new King and not a spiritual gathering welcoming a Messiah or High Priest.