Jesus came in response to the Messianic expectations of his people. Among the Maccabees and others there had been previous claimants to the title. They’d amassed followers and led movements, only to be killed and their followers dispersed. So by the time Jesus comes on the scene there was likely a mixture of Messiah fatigue and fierce hope that, “finally, at last, the true Messiah has come.” Cousin John’s ministry of prophetic preaching and baptism preparations only served to stoke the flames of anticipation.
The people were ready for a leader, yet from the very beginning Jesus was an unlikely candidate. He didn’t come from a leading family or a ruling district. He wasn’t formally trained. And he spent his public time preaching, teaching, healing and exorcising, not organizing a political or military campaign. Yet when Palm Sunday came he wanted to be sure there was no misunderstanding.
Entering Jerusalem as he did, riding on a donkey, was Jesus’ way of throwing down the gauntlet, going all in at the table, playing the Messiah script perfectly, just as everyone imagined. This is why the leaders were so incensed, “Tell your followers to be quiet.” If there were to be a Messiah, surely the religious and political elites among the Jews would be the first to know. And for them, Jesus couldn’t possibly be the one.
All eyes were fixed on him during this week. Not simply because God’s script required crucifixion and so Jesus’ part was to instigate that. This was the result, not the cause.
Jesus’ intent, I believe, was to make clear that God’s way is not the way of political power, wealth, or military might. Jesus was saying, “Yes, I am the Messiah. Now let me show you what that means, what God is saying and doing among you.” Fully consistent with his preceding messages and with the prophetic texts of the suffering servant and God’s preferential option for the poor, Jesus entered into Jerusalem as the Messiah who was both Lord of all and Servant of all.
Power, wealth and political influence are not in themselves bad (though they have an overwhelmingly corrupting influence on the human spirit). It is simply that they are not Jesus’ way. He used them, and welcomed people of that class to follow, support and work alongside him. But they were to follow his way, rather than the other way around.
Palm Sunday was Jesus’ way of saying, “Here I am, just as you requested. But be careful what you wish for.” When Jesus shows up in your life, will you follow him, or try to get him to conform to your preconceived expectations and norms? Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” Will your answer fit with what he came to do?