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Palm Sunday

Holy Week

Palm Sunday: Matthew 21: 1-17
JESUS' TRIUMPHAL ENTRY INTO JERUSALEM

INTRODUCTION

Every year we celebrate the Palm Sunday remembering Jesus’ ceremonial entry into the Temple of Jerusalem before his self-sacrifice. The people welcomed the perfect “lamb” that God sent to replace the animal sacrifices in the Temple. Jesus answered through his passion, death, and resurrection, the traditional “Hosanna” appeal of the people to God for their salvation. The peace-loving and compassionate Jesus became furious when he saw the sacrilege and exploitation in the Temple. His one-man protest shocked the authorities that ignited their revenge against him and speeded up his crucifixion.

BIBLE TEXT

The Entry into Jerusalem

(Matthew 21:1) When they drew near Jerusalem and arrived at Beth­phage, on the mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, (2) saying, “Go to the village in front of you, and as soon as you enter, you will find there a donkey tied up with its colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. (3) If anyone says something to you, say: ‘The Lord needs them, and he will send them back immediately.’” (4) This happened to fulfill what the prophet had said: (5) Say to the daughter of Zion: See, your king comes to you in all simplicity, riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden. (6) The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them, (7) and they brought the donkey with its colt. Then they threw their cloaks on its back, and Jesus mounted. (8) Many people also spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut leafy branches from the trees and spread them on the road. (9) The people who walked ahead of Jesus and those who followed him began to shout: Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna, praise to him in the highest heaven! (10) When Jesus entered Jerusalem, all the city was dis­turbed. The people asked, “Who is this man?” (11) And the crowd answered, “This is the Prophet Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee.”

The Cleansing of the Temple

(12) So Jesus went into the Temple and drove out all who were buying and selling in the Temple area. He over­turned the tables of the money changers, and the stools of those who sold pigeons. (13) And he said to them, “It is written: My house will be called a house of prayer. But you have turned it into a den of thieves.” (14) The blind and the lame also came to him in the Temple, and he healed them. (15) The chief priests and the teachers of the Law saw the wonderful things Jesus had just done, and the children shouting in the Temple area, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” (16) They became indignant and said to Jesus, “Do you hear what they say?” Jesus answered them, “Yes. Have you never read this text: From the mouths of children and infants you have ordained for yourself perfect praise?” (17) So leaving them he went out of the city and came to Bethany where he spent the night.

INTERPRETATION

(Matthew 21:1) When they drew near Jerusalem and arrived at Beth­phage, on the mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples.

When they drew near Jerusalem
Though Jesus went to Jerusalem several times to celebrate the feasts, his last entry into Jerusalem had special significance. He entered solemnly as a humble king of peace and as a priest to offer himself as the lamb of sacrifice for the atonement of all humanity. It led to his victory over sin and Satan.

Arrived at Beth­phage, on the mount of Olives.
The Mount of Olives is a hill east of Jerusalem. Zechariah 14:4 mentions it as the place where the Lord would appear to rescue Jerusalem from the enemy nations. Jesus appeared at this mountain to move towards the Temple. Bethphage was on the way from Jericho to Jerusalem and near Bethany. The exact location is unknown now. Bethphage means “the house of figs” because farmers cultivated fig there. Bethany means “the house of dates,” and Gethsemane stands for “the oil-press.” All these are on the Mount of Olives where olive trees were plenty. Jesus came from Jordan, spent Sabbath at the house of Lazarus (John 12:1) in Bethany and on Sunday, he entered Jerusalem via Bethphage. So, we celebrate this feast on the Sunday before Easter.

The passion and crucifixion of Jesus matched with the Jewish Passover observance. It started with the sacrificial lamb’s selection that should be free from all blemish. Jesus was the perfect “lamb” without blemish from birth that God sent to offer as a sacrifice for the atonement of all humanity. The Israelites selected the sacrificial lamb on the tenth day of Nisan which according to Christian calendar was on Sunday, April 2nd that year. The people welcomed Jesus to the Temple that day as their redeemer. After Jesus cleansed the Temple, the agitated priests confirmed the people’s selection by their decision to kill him. The Israelites sacrificed the pascal lamb on the 14th of Nisan. That was on Thursday, April 6th from sunset to April 7th sunset that year. The crucifixion of Jesus was on Friday, April 7th, before sunset.

Pilgrims brought the paschal lamb from Bethphage and led to the Temple mount. People selected Jesus, the perfect lamb of God, and led to the Temple for sacrifice along the same route. When Pilate gave a choice, the people confirmed their selection of Jesus for crucifixion, instead of the blemished Barabbas.

Jesus sent two of his disciples.
The Bible does not mention the names of the two disciples. The scholars guess that they might be Peter and John, whom Jesus sent later to prepare for the Passover (Luke 22:8).

(2) … saying, “Go to the village in front of you, and as soon as you enter, you will find there a donkey tied up with its colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me.”

Go to the village in front of you.
This location can be Bethany or Bethphage.

You will find there a donkey tied up with its colt by her.
Jesus used a donkey and its colt for his ride to Jerusalem to fulfill the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9. “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout for joy, O daughter of Jerusalem! For, see, your king is coming, just and victorious, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The colt would imply that no one had traveled on it. In Mark 11:2 and Luke 19:30 Jesus stated, “you will find a colt tethered on which no one has ever sat.” No one used the womb Jesus used for his birth and the tomb he used for his burial. (Luke 23:53).

Scholars assume that Jesus used both donkey and colt one after another. The Pharisees and Scribes enforced burdensome rites and ceremonies of the law over the Jews like the donkey that had to carry heavy loads. The colt which was wild and untamed, was allegorical of the Gentiles. Christ used both donkey and its colt symbolizing the Jews and the Gentiles and lead them to the heavenly Jerusalem.

(3) “If anyone says something to you, say: ‘The Lord needs them, and he will send them back immediately.’”

Jesus had pre-arranged the donkey with its owner. So, the entry of Jesus on the donkey was Jesus’ pre-planned activity, though others were unaware of it.

(4) This happened to fulfill what the prophet had said: (5) Say to the daughter of Zion: See, your king comes to you in all simplicity, riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.

This was Jesus’ first time use of animal ride since he started his public ministry. He used the animals for his last entry into Jerusalem not because he wanted them for his journey, but for establishing his kingship as the fulfillment of the prophecy. Matthew confirmed that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophesies by quoting from Zachariah 9:9 combined with Isaiah 62:11. Prophets had the practice of using symbolic actions to communicate a message to the people in a non-verbal and memorable manner.

(6) The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them.

The disciples were not aware of what Jesus intended. They obeyed the order of their master. Mark gives more details of this. “They went off and found the colt out in the street tied at the door. As they were untying it, some bystanders asked, ‘Why are you untying that colt?’ They answered as Jesus had told them, and the people let them go.” (Mark 11: 4-6).

(7) And they brought the donkey with its colt. Then they threw their cloaks on its back, and Jesus mounted.

According to Mark and Luke, Jesus rode on the colt only. Matthew mentions the use of both colt and donkey to fulfill the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9. When there were two donkeys, one was for ride, and the other was for carrying the luggage. It is not clear whether Jesus rode on one after another or on the colt only.

Laid their cloaks over them.
There was no saddle for the animals because no one had used them. So, the disciples spread their cloaks over the animals as the saddle for the master to ride.

He sat upon them.
Jesus might not have sat on both at the same time. The plural “them” might stand for the cloaks on which Jesus sat.

(8) Many people also spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut leafy branches from the trees and spread them on the road.

When people wanted to make Jesus King of the Jews because he had multiplied loaves of bread (John 6:15), Jesus had declined it. People have been expecting that the Kingdom of God would appear soon (Luke 19:11). Jesus received the welcome of the people when the time came for him to reveal that he was the spiritual king of the world and fulfillment the prophesies.

Many people
A week-long annual feast of Passover was taking place. So, the Jews from nearby and faraway places were gathering in Jerusalem for sacrifice. “The very large crowd” that greeted Jesus were of different backgrounds: those who had accompanied Jesus from Galilee, the excited people who had seen Lazarus whom Jesus brought back to life from the tomb (John 12:17), those who had heard of Jesus but had never seen him before, those who wanted to greet him again, and those whom Jesus cured and wanted to reiterate their gratitude towards him.

Spread their cloaks on the road.
This is a reminder of how people had welcomed King Jehu. When the servants of the King of Israel came to know that Elisha anointed Jehu as the new king, they welcomed him by spreading their garment under the bare steps of Jehu, blew the horn, and cried out, “Jehu is king!” (2 Kings 9:13).

Others cut leafy branches from the trees and spread them on the road.
Since this was not a pre-planned event, the people made use of their cloaks and branches of trees to greet and honor Jesus as the king. It was easy for them to cut olive branches because they were passing through the Mount of Olives. The people’s reaction was as if they were celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles for which they used olive branches and palm leaves. “On the first day you shall take choice fruits, palm branches, boughs of leafy trees and willows from the riverbank, and for seven days you shall rejoice in the presence of the LORD your God.” (Lev. 23:40).

On the anniversary of the rededication of the Temple after the Maccabean war, people used branches of trees with leaves and palms to sing hymns of grateful praise to God (2 Mac. 10: 7). Jesus was also on the way of purification of the Temple that the Jewish leaders had profaned.

(9) The people who walked ahead of Jesus and those who followed him began to shout: Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna, praise to him in the highest heaven!

The people who walked ahead of Jesus and those who followed him.
There were several crowds following Jesus and the crowds coming down from the Temple to meet and greet Jesus at Kidron Valley. So, there was a superb view of Jesus in the middle of crowds greeting him from two mountain tops, the Mount of Olives, and the Temple Mount.

Hosanna
Hosanna is two words combined: Hoshia-na means “save now.” It refers to Psalm 118 that had been a liturgical hymn of the Feast of Tabernacle seeking God’s salvation of humanity. Using palm branches was also the native Jew’s acclamation of jubilation and their welcome to the pilgrims.

Hosanna to the Son of David
When the people acclaimed Hosanna to the “Son of David,” they addressed it to Jesus acknowledging him as the Messiah, the successor of David. According to God’s covenant with King David, the Messiah would come from David’s lineage and he will govern all nations for eternity (1 Chronicles 17:11-14).

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
This is a direct quote of Psalm 118:26. Here also the greeting and acclamation was for Jesus because he was entering Jerusalem in the name of the Lord. People were crying for blessings on the Messiah, “God save the king.”

Hosanna in the highest.
“In the highest” was an intensification of the blessings on Jesus. The people who wished blessing on the Savior, was then crying to God to ratify in heaven the blessing that they invoke on earth.

(10) When Jesus entered Jerusalem, all the city was dis­turbed. The people asked, “Who is this man?” (11) And the crowd answered, “This is the Prophet Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee.”

All the city was dis­turbed.
Jerusalem became crowded during Paschal week. Roman authorities had a special eye on the Jews during such a huge gathering because they feared that revolt could arise from the Jews against the Roman supremacy. So, the Roman authorities kept watch on the public’s acknowledgement and welcome to the new unauthorized king. The people welcomed Jesus with royal greeting to the Jewish headquarters. That shook the Jewish leaders who hated Jesus. Even for the disciples, the public reception of Jesus and his cooperation with them was a stunning experience.

This disturbance of Jerusalem corresponds to a similar horror happened when the Magi visited King Herod searching for the newborn King of Jews (Matthew 2:2-3). There was a life threat for Jesus after that. Here also, life threat happened for Jesus after this solemn entry in the Temple.

The people asked, “Who is this man?”
This question could be from the pilgrims who had arrived from faraway places and did not know much about Jesus. It could also come from the Jewish leaders who could not recognize Jesus as the Messiah but considered him as a revolutionary.

The Cleansing of the Temple

Jesus’ initiative to purify the Temple was his unusual physical protest towards the Jewish authorities for defiling the Temple. This reminds us of the Maccabean Revolt from 167 to 160 B.C. led against the misuse of the Temple by Seleucid rulers and the corrupt Jewish priests under the Hellenistic influence. Maccabees led rebellion and guerrilla wars against the worship of Greek gods and won victory over the Seleucid rulers and Hellenized Jews. The Maccabees entered Jerusalem in triumph, cleansed the Temple, and reestablished the traditional Jewish worship.

The cleansing of the Temple by Jesus was also a revolt against the Jewish religious leaders who desecrated the Holy Temple by allowing trade at the Court of the Gentiles and exploiting the pilgrims. Like the priests during the Maccabean revolt were corrupt by the bribery they gave to Seleucid rulers for their position, the clergy during Jesus’ public ministry were corrupt and unjust by the bribery they gave to the Roman authorities. They also received bribery from the exploiting merchants in the Temple.

(12) So Jesus went into the Temple and drove out all who were buying and selling in the Temple area. He over­turned the tables of the money changers, and the stools of those who sold pigeons.

The temple area
The Temple of Jerusalem had different sections starting with the Court of Gentiles to the Holy of Holies. The Gentiles could enter for prayer only in the Court of Gentiles which was the Temple’s outermost court. Instead of allowing that place for prayer, businessmen had converted it for money exchange and to sell sacrificial animals and birds. These were used to be on the Mount of Olives. Later merchants shifted them to the Court of Gentiles with permission from the Temple authorities making it dirty, unholy, noisy, and unjust.

Buying and selling
The business at the Court of Gentiles was not for selling and buying of general merchandise but a necessary service for the pilgrims coming for the feast of Passover from different countries of the world. The Temple of Jerusalem was the only place where Israelites could offer animal sacrifice.

Leviticus chapters 1 to 7 describe various offerings. Israelites offered five kinds of sacrifices: The burnt offering, the meal offering, the peace offering, the sin offering, and the trespass offering. Pilgrims coming from faraway places found it convenient to buy sacrificial animals somewhere near the Temple. They were buying animals and birds for sacrifice and exchanging foreign currency to the acceptable Temple money. Such business started in the Temple area after the return of Jews from Babylonian captivity. By that time, Israelites had gone worldwide and came to the Temple from Gentile countries.

Money changers
Adult pilgrims offered half shekel for the service of the Temple. “Everyone subject to the census, that is to say, of twenty years and over, must pay the sum set aside for the LORD. The rich man is not to give more, nor the poor man less, than half a shekel in their contribution to the LORD to pay the forfeit for their lives.” (Exodus 30:14-15). Coins with images were unacceptable for offering in the Temple. Pilgrims were coming from different countries with Roman, Syrian, Egyptian, or Greek coins. Such coins, stamped with the symbols or images of pagan monarchs, were unacceptable in the Temple treasury. The pilgrims had to exchange them for acceptable coins. Though a service, the money changers exploited the pilgrims by charging an enormous amount as exchange fee. Jesus could not tolerate that corruption.

Selling doves
Pilgrims offered lambs and doves in the Temple as the sacrificial offering. Those who could not afford to offer lambs could substitute lamb with doves (Leviticus 5:7). The merchants were selling sheep and oxen in the Temple for sacrifice (John 2:14).

He overturned the tables… and the seats.
What caused Jesus furious? (1) The shift of business from the Mount of Olives to the only prayer court of the Gentiles, making it a noisy and unfit place for prayer. (2) Exploitation by the merchants, in partnership with the High Priests, who were charging unjust margin for money exchange. (3) Merchants exploiting pilgrims by charging a high price for sacrificial animals and birds. (4) Priests unreasonably rejecting animals brought by pilgrims from outside for sacrifice, accusing of defects to favor the unjust animal sales in the Temple. All these made Jesus furious and function as a rebellious leader.

(13) And he said to them, It is written: My house will be called a house of prayer. But you have turned it into a den of thieves.

Jesus justified his action by quoting from Isaiah 56:7 and combined it with a phrase from Jeremiah 7:11. Jesus claimed that the Temple was his house because he was the God incarnate. Using the “den of thieves,” Jesus confirmed the prevalent exploitation. His cleansing of the Temple corresponded to the cleansing of houses to prepare for the Passover.

(14) The blind and the lame also came to him in the Temple, and he healed them.

The blind and lame were coming for alms from the worshippers. They had no permission to enter inside the Temple (2 Samuel 5:8). When they saw Jesus, they came after him for help. Even during the serious action of cleaning the Temple, Jesus showed compassion to the less fortunate. Instead of giving alms that he could not afford and would not resolve the problems of the blind and the lame, he healed them as a permanent solution. Jesus came to this world not merely to resolve our temporary troubles, but to save us from eternal damnation.

(15) The chief priests and the teachers of the Law saw the wonderful things Jesus had just done, and the children shouting in the Temple area, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”

The chief priests
During the public ministry of Jesus, Caiaphas was the High Priest and his father-in-law and former High Priest Annas was the head of the Sanhedrin and coworker of Caiaphas. The Jews called them High Priests. Besides these two, the Jews called the heads of the 24 courses of priests, the chief priests.

The teachers of the Law
Scribes were experts in the Law (Ezra 7:6) and they used to copy the scripture carefully and wrote commentaries on it. 

The wondrous things
The wonderful things here include the cleansing of the Temple, that no one else would dare to carry out single handedly against a big number of merchants, and the curing of the blind and lame for which they were witnesses 

Children
Children in the original terminology are boys from seven to 14 years old. But here they include younger children because Jesus quotes from Psalm 8:2 that includes “infants and nurslings.” These children continued crying out “Hosanna to the Son of David” even after the procession to the Temple was over. Since Jesus loved little children, they enjoyed his presence and were glad to continue imitating the adults in expressing their simple faith in Jesus as the Son of David. This displeased the chief priests and the Scribes because the children were acknowledging and greeting Jesus as the Messiah. The Jewish authorities could not accept Jesus as the Messiah, and so they got outraged when they heard the cries of the children.

(16) They became indignant and said to Jesus, “Do you hear what they say?” Jesus answered them, “Yes. Have you never read this text: From the mouths of children and infants you have ordained for yourself perfect praise?”

“Do you hear what they say?”
The chief priests and the Scribes, who were busy in the Temple with the festival duties, might have missed seeing the former grant Hosanna greeting for Jesus. So, it surprised them when they heard the cry of children acknowledging and greeting Jesus as the Son of David. When they questioned Jesus on this, they might have expected him to disagree with the children’s’ greetings and would make them quiet.

Have you never read the text…?
Jesus is quoting here from Psalm 8:2 proving that the children’s praise of him is the fulfillment of an old prophecy that the Scribes should know.

(17) So leaving them he went out of the city and came to Bethany where he spent the night.

He went out of the city and came to Bethany.
The chief priests and the Scribes had no answer to Jesus’s defense. They could not arrest him in public because of the crowd that believed in Jesus. He moved to Bethany, two miles away from Jerusalem to the house of Lazarus. It was a household of peace and rest for Jesus. He went there to be free from the crowded city of Jerusalem. He enjoyed the devotion and hospitality of Lazarus and his two sisters in contrast to the rejection and life-threat he felt in his house, the Temple of God.

MESSAGE

1. Every year, the people who gathered in Jerusalem used to sing Hosanna that means “save us now.” God answered that prayer by sending his Son for self-sacrifice as a ransom for us. Pilgrims welcomed Jesus while the Jewish authorities rejected him. As we imitate the pilgrims of Jerusalem welcoming Jesus holding palm leaves, let us also invite Jesus to our lives.

2. Jesus cleansed the Temple because of the unacceptable practices there. We, who have received the Holy Spirit through the sacraments and received the precious body and blood of Jesus, are now the temples of God. What would Jesus drive out from us if he comes now to our lives?

3. Even during his serious action of cleansing the Temple, Jesus cured the blind and the lame who came seeking his help. Let us find time amidst our busy schedule to help those who need our love and help.

4. Jesus always loved children and appreciated their devotion to him. Let us facilitate our children coming close to God through Jesus.

5. The Israelites welcoming Jesus into the Temple of Jerusalem as their savior on the Tenth day of Nisan and the High Priests deciding to kill him represented people’s selection of the lamb on that same date for sacrifice on the day of Passover. While welcoming Jesus as our Savior, let us also join him in offering ourselves as sacrifice for God’s mission in our lives.

6. The second preparatory step of the Passover was cleaning the house and destroying all the leaven in the house. Leaven stood for sin. Jesus cleaned the Temple that was his house (Matthew 21:13) to prepare for his sacrifice for the Passover. We also need to clean ourselves from sin so we can offer our lives to God as a holy sacrifice.