Palm Sunday

Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. (Matthew 21: 1-17)

INTRODUCTION

Every year we celebrate Palm Sunday remembering the ceremonial entry of Jesus into the Temple of Jerusalem for his self-sacrifice. It was a time when the people welcomed the perfect “lamb” that God sent to replace the animal sacrifice in the Temple with Holy Eucharist in the churches. 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 changed his tone of behavior when he saw sacrilege and exploitation in the Temple. His one-man protest shocked the authorities that ignited their revenge against him and facilitated his crucifixion.

Bible Text

The Entry into Jerusalem.
(1) When they drew near Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, (2) saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find an ass tethered, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them here to me. (3) And if anyone should say anything to you, reply, ‘The master has need of them.’ Then he will send them at once.” (4) This happened so that what had been spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled: (5) “Say to daughter Zion, ‘Behold, your king comes to you, meek and riding on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’” (6) The disciples went and did as Jesus had ordered them. (7)  They brought the ass and the colt and laid their cloaks over them, and he sat upon them. (8) The very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and strewed them on the road. (9) The crowds preceding him and those following kept crying out and saying: “Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; hosanna in the highest.” (10) And when he entered Jerusalem the whole city was shaken and asked, “Who is this?” (11) And the crowds replied, “This is Jesus the prophet, from Nazareth in Galilee.”

The Cleansing of the Temple
(12) Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all those engaged in selling and buying there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves. (13) And he said to them, “It is written: ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a den of thieves.” (14) The blind and the lame approached him in the temple area, and he cured them. (15) When the chief priests and the scribes saw the wondrous things he was doing, and the children crying out in the temple area, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant (16) and said to him, “Do you hear what they are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; and have you never read the text, ‘Out of the mouths of infants and nurslings you have brought forth praise’?” (17) And leaving them, he went out of the city to Bethany, and there he spent the night.

 Interpretation

(1) When they drew near Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples,

When they drew near Jerusalem
Though Jesus had been to Jerusalem several times to celebrate the feasts, his final entry into Jerusalem had a special meaning. He was solemnly entering as a humble King of peace and as the priest to offer himself as the lamb of sacrifice for the atonement of all humanity. It was also going to be a victory over sin and Satan.

Came to 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 believed to be on the way from Jericho to Jerusalem and located near Bethany. The exact location is unknown now.  Bethphage means "the house of figs" because fig was cultivated there. Similarly, Bethany means "the house of dates," and Gethsemane stands for "the oil-press." All these are located 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. That is why we celebrate this feast on the Sunday before Easter.

Passover feast involved selection of a sacrificial lamb, free from all blemish on the tenth day of Nisan. Jesus was the perfect “lamb” free from sin that God selected to offer as sacrifice for the atonement of all humanity on the 10th of Nisan which according to Christian calendar was Sunday, April 2nd. This lamb could be sacrificed only in Jerusalem and that should be on the 14th of Nisan that was on Thursday, April 6 from sunset to April 7th sunset. Jesus was crucified on Friday, April 7th.

Usually the paschal lamb was brought from Bethphage and was lead to the Temple mount. Jesus the perfect lamb of God was selected also by the people and led to the Temple for sacrifice along the same route.

Jesus sent two disciples
The names of the two disciples are not mentioned. The guess is that they might be Peter and John who were later sent to prepare for the Passover (Luke 22:8).

(2) saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find an ass tethered, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them here to me.

Go into the village opposite you
This location can be either Bethany or Bethphage.

An ass tethered, and a colt
A donkey and its colt were used for the riding of Jesus to fulfill the prophesy of Zechariah 9:9. “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, your King comes to you: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding on an ass, and on a colt the foal of an ass.” The Evangelist himself quotes this verse later.

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.” The womb Jesus used for his birth and the tomb he used for his burial were used by none before. (Luke 23:53).

It is assumed that Jesus used both ass and colt one after another. Jews were allegorically represented as an ass who were carrying the burdensome rites and ceremonies of the law enforced by the Pharisees and Scribes. The colt, that was wild and untamed, was allegorical of gentiles. Christ came to rule both Jews and Gentiles establishing Church that would lead them to the heavenly Jerusalem.

(3) And if anyone should say anything to you, reply, ‘The master has need of them.’ Then he will send them at once.”

Jesus had pre-arranged the donkey with its owner. So, the entry of Jesus on the ass was a preplanned activity of Jesus though others might not have known that.  

(4) This happened so that what had been spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled: (5) “Say to daughter Zion, ‘Behold, your king comes to you, meek and riding on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’”

Jesus had never used an animal to travel during his public life. He used the ass and colt for his final entry into Jerusalem not because he wanted them for his travel but for establishing his kingship as 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. It had been the practice of the prophets to use 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 ordered them.

The disciples were not aware of what was the intention of Jesus. They obeyed the order of their master. Mark gives more details of this. “So they went off and found a colt tethered at a gate outside on the street, and they untied it. Some of the bystanders said to them, ‘What are you doing, untying the colt?’ They answered them just as Jesus had told them to, and they permitted them to do it.” (Mark 11: 4-6).

(7) They brought the ass and the colt and laid their cloaks over them, and he sat upon them.

According to Evangelists Mark and Luke, Jesus rode on the colt only. Matthew mentions the use of both colt and ass to fulfill the prophesy of Zechariah 9:9. When there were two donkeys, one was for riding 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 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 indicate also the cloaks on which Jesus sat.

(8) The very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and strewed them on the road.

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

The very large crowd
A week-long annual feast of Passover was going to take place. So, Jews from nearby and faraway places were going to 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 who were cured by Jesus and wanted to reiterate their gratitude towards him.

Spread their cloaks on the road
This is a reminder of the welcome King Jehu had received. When servants of the King of Israel came to know that Jehu was anointed as the new king, they instantly 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 branches from the trees and strewed 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 him as the king. It was easy for them to cut olive branches because they were passing through the Mount of Olives. The reaction of the people was as if they were celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles for which they used olive branches and palm leaves. “On the first day you are to take branches from luxuriant trees - from palms, willows and other leafy trees - and rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days.” (Lev. 23:40). On the anniversary of the rededication of the Temple after the Maccabean war, branches of trees with leaves and palms were used to sing hymns of grateful praise to God. (2 Mac. 10: 7). Jesus was also on the way of purification of the Temple that was profaned by the Jewish leaders.

(9) The crowds preceding him and those following kept crying out and saying: “Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; hosanna in the highest.”

The crowds preceding him and those following
There were several crowds following Jesus and the crowds that were coming down from the temple to meet and greet Jesus at Kedron Valley. So, there was a superb view of Jesus in the middle of crowds greeting him from two mountain tops; Mount of Olives and the Temple Mount.

Hosanna
Hosanna is a combination of two words 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 and was associated with the use of palm-branches. This invocation for help had eventually become an acclamation of jubilation and welcome to the pilgrims by the native people in Jerusalem.

Hosanna to the Son of David
When the people acclaimed Hosanna to the “Son of David,” it was directed specifically to Jesus and was an acknowledgement of 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 the messiah will rule 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) And when he entered Jerusalem the whole city was shaken and asked, “Who is this?” (11) And the crowds replied, “This is Jesus the prophet, from Nazareth in Galilee.”

The whole city was shaken
Jerusalem was normally crowded during Paschal week. Roman government had a special eye on the Jews during such a huge gathering because they feared that any uprising of revolt could arise against the Roman supremacy over the Jews. The acknowledgement and welcome to a new civilly unauthorized King was a question of suspicion for the Roman government. The Jewish leaders who had rejected Jesus were shaken by the unusual enthusiasm of the public in greeting and welcoming Jesus to the headquarters of the Jews. The believers of Jesus might have been stunned with the marvelous blessing of God on Jesus being acknowledged by the great public.

Jerusalem had been shaken before, when the Magi came to King Herod asking to find the location of the newborn King of Jews.” (Matthew 2:2-3). There was life threat for Jesus after that. Here also life threat and death of Jesus happened after this entry of Jesus in the Temple.

Who is this?
This question could be from the pilgrims who had arrived from faraway places and did not knew much about Jesus. It could also come from the Jewish leaders who could not recognize Jesus as the Messiah but consider as a strange revolutionary.

The Cleansing of the Temple.
The cleansing of the Temple by Jesus was an unusual physical protest of Jesus against the Jewish authorities for defiling the Temple. This is a reminder of the Maccabean Revolt from 167 to 160 BC led by the Maccabees against the misuse of the temple by Seleucid rulers and the corrupt Jewish priests under the Hellenistic influence. After victory over the Seleucid rulers and Hellenized Jews by rebellion and guerrilla wars against worship of Greek gods, the Maccabees entered Jerusalem in triumph and cleansed the Temple and reestablished the traditional Jewish worship.

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

(12) Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all those engaged in selling and buying there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves.

The temple area
The Temple of Jerusalem had different sections starting with the Court of Gentiles to the Holy of Holies. Gentiles were allowed only in the Court of Gentiles which was the outermost court of the Temple. It was supposed to be a place for prayer. But there was business taking place in that area when Jesus entered there. Formerly the money exchange and sales of animals for sacrifice were taking place on the Mount of Olives. Later it was shifted to the Court of Gentiles with permission from temple authorities making it unholy, noisy, and unjust.

Selling and buying
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. They usually offer five kinds of sacrifices: The burnt offering, the meal offering, the peace offering, the sin offering, and the trespass offering. Various offerings are described in Leviticus chapters 1 to 7. The pilgrims who were coming from faraway places found it convenient to buy sacrificial animals somewhere near the temple area. They were buying animals and birds for sacrifice, and exchanging foreign currency to the acceptable temple money. Bible scholars believe that such business started in the temple area after the return of Jews from Babylonian captivity. By that time, Israelites were dispersed and began to come to the Temple from foreign countries.

Money changers
Adult pilgrims were supposed to offer half shekel for the service of the temple. “Everyone who is enrolled, of twenty years or more, must give the contribution to the LORD. The rich need not give more, nor shall the poor give less, than a half-shekel in this contribution to the LORD to pay the ransom for their lives.” (Exodus 30:14-15). Coins with images were not allowed for offering in the Temple. Pilgrims were coming from different countries with Syrian, Egyptian, or Greek coins. Such coins were stamped with the symbols or images of pagan monarchs. So, they were not acceptable into the Temple treasury.  The pilgrims had to exchange them for acceptable coins. Though it was supposed to be a service, great exploitation of the pilgrims was taking place by charging an enormous amount as exchange fee. Jesus could not tolerate that exploitation.

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

He overturned the tables …  and the seats
What made Jesus furious was (1) the shift of merchandise from the Mount of Olives to the place of prayer for gentiles, making it a noisy and congested place. (2) Exploitation of merchants with the cooperation of the high priests who were charging high margin for the exchange of money. (3) Merchants exploiting pilgrims by charging high price for sacrificial animals and birds. (4) Priests unreasonably rejecting animals brought by pilgrims from outside for sacrifice while inspection of any defects of sacrificial animals was done to favor the animal sales persons in the temple. So, the true spirit of prayer and selfless service was lacking that made Jesus furious and act as a rebellious leader.

(13) And he said to them, “It is written: ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you are making it 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 house of God was his house because he was God incarnate. The use of “den of thieves” confirmed the exploitation that was happening at that time.

(14) The blind and the lame approached him in the temple area, and he cured them.

The blind and lame were coming for alms from worshippers. They were not allowed to enter inside the temple. (2 Samuel 5:8). When they saw Jesus, they came after him for help. Even during serious business of cleaning the Temple, Jesus took time to show compassion to the less fortunate in the society.

(15) When the chief priests and the scribes saw the wondrous things he was doing, and the children crying out in the temple area, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant

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. Both were known as high priests. Besides these two, the heads of the 24 courses of priests were known as chief priests.

The scribes
Scribes were experts in the Law (Ezra 7:6) and they used to copy the scripture very 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 do singlehandedly 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 can also 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 publicly expressing their simple faith in Jesus as the Son of David. This displeased the chief priests and the scribes because children were acknowledging and greeting Jesus as the Messiah. The Jewish authorities could not accept Jesus as the Messiah and so they were outraged by the cries of the children.

(16) and said to him, “Do you hear what they are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; and have you never read the text, ‘Out of the mouths of infants and nurslings you have brought forth praise’?”

“Do you hear what they are saying?”
The chief priests and the scribes, who were busy in the Temple during the feast, might not have witnessed the former grant Hosanna greeting for Jesus. So, they were surprised when they heard the cry of children acknowledging and greeting Jesus as Son of David. When they questioned Jesus on this, they might have been expecting Jesus to disagree with the greetings of children and 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 have known.

(17) And leaving them, he went out of the city to Bethany, and there he spent the night.

He went out of the city to Bethany
The chief priests and scribes had no answer to Jesus’s defense. They could not arrest him in public because of the crowd that believed in Jesus. Jesus moved to Bethany that was almost two miles away from Jerusalem to be at the house of Lazarus. It was a household of peace and rest for Jesus and he went there to be free from the crowded city of Jerusalem. He enjoyed the devotion and hospitality of the 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 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 for a reason. 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 did not disregard the blind and the lame who came seeking his help. Let us find time amidst our busy schedule for those who need our love and care.

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

5. The reception of Jesus to Jerusalem and the cleansing of the Temple that we remember today are the two preliminary steps of celebrating the old Passover meal. The welcoming of Jesus by Israelites into the temple of Jerusalem as their savior on the 10th day of the month of Nisan and the high priests deciding to kill him was representative of the selection of the lamb on the 10th day of Nisan to be sacrificed 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) in preparation for his sacrifice for the Passover. We also need to clean ourselves from sin so that we can offer our lives to God as a holy sacrifice.