The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord: the King of Israel!" Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: "Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey's colt!" His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him. (John 12:12-16)
According to John's sequence of events this episode takes place on the day after the celebratory meal in Bethany during which Mary has anointed Jesus' feet and wiped them with her hair. It is therefore Sunday. The pilgrims who have already arrived in the city of Jerusalem for the celebration of Passover, on hearing that he was coming, go out to meet him, as an exalted personage, cutting palm branches as they hurry along. Of the evangelists only John mentions palm branches. Palms were rare in Jerusalem. As they go, the people shout: Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord: the King of Israel. Hosanna is a cry for help, for salvation. It means Save now, we pray. The rest of the phrase comes from Psalm 118, where it reads: Blessed in the Lord's name is he who comes, that is, who comes to the Temple as a pilgrim. The slight change in word order is significant, highlighting the person of Jesus. The one who comes is a messianic title, and in John Jesus not only comes in God's name, but bears that name and discloses it to his friends (17:11-12, 26). The people explicitly greet Jesus as the King of Israel, a further messianic title. The carrying of palms was associated with Maccabean nationalism, and the local coinage bore palm fronds, with the inscription: for the redemption of Israel. So the people are clearly welcoming Jesus as the expected, political messianic king and liberator. They wish to bring him into the city in triumph.
When the crowd had attempted to make Jesus their king earlier in the Gospel, after the banquet of bread and fishes by the lakeside, he had fled to the hills. This time his response is to perform a symbolic gesture. He finds a young donkey and mounts it. This has not been planned, as in Mark's version. Jesus is not denying his kingship, but is reinterpreting it. He is not a political, nationalistic ruler. His kingdom is not of this world, as he will inform Pilate later. The people have misunderstood. His entering the city on a donkey, rather than on a warhorse or in a chariot, is almost a mockery, a caricature of worldly authority. The scriptural quotation, an amalgam of texts, affirms the compatibility of humble entry with genuine kingship. This connection, the true nature of Jesus' kingship, is realized by the disciples only later, after the events of the hour.
Mark's version of the incident reads as follows:
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, "Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, 'Why are you doing this?' just say this, 'The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.'" They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, "What are you doing, untying the colt?" They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!" (Mark 11:1-10)
In Mark's Gospel Jesus visits Jerusalem only once. This makes his entry more dramatic. In the previous story Jesus heals the blind Bartimaeus, as he leaves Jericho. Now he is only a couple of miles from Jerusalem, on the Eastern slope of the Mount of Olives. Several verses of the text are dedicated to the preparations for his arrival. Two disciples are sent on ahead with very clear instructions about what to do and say. They follow Jesus' commands to the letter. Things unfold exactly as foretold. There is a strong sense of Jesus' authority, his being in charge, and his commitment to the carrying out of his destiny.
On bringing the colt to Jesus, the disciples throw their cloaks across its back as a saddle, and Jesus sits on it and rides into the city. Some of the pilgrims accompanying Jesus spread their cloaks on the road ahead of him. Others cut branches from nearby trees and strew them onto the road too. This is a sign of respect and homage. (There is no mention of palms.) A procession forms, with some folk walking in front of Jesus, and others, maybe the disciples, behind.
As in John, they cry Hosanna, a liturgical acclamation, followed by the adapted quotation from Psalm 118. The following acclamation, Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David, clearly suggests political and nationalistic expectations. This is to misunderstand what Jesus is about. The hopes of the people and the disciples are misguided. Jesus is coming into Jerusalem in order to suffer and die. Jesus has told the disciples this several times. Jesus' royalty will be manifest on a cross. Messiahship will be radically redefined.
It's easy to wave branches (or placards) and cheer. What is important is the level of understanding and commitment behind our actions. In our story neither is particularly impressive. The crowd and the disciples were enthusiastic about Jesus, but both had agendas and expectations and hopes of their own, dreams developed over centuries. These they imposed on him. He would bring them to fulfillment very soon. They weren't really open to Jesus, his true identity, his message and his way. They were using him, and they were, unwittingly perhaps, setting him up to disappoint them, to let them down. He was a messianic king of a different genre. For him power, prestige and violence weren't values or options. Jesus would be true to his understanding of God's compassionate love for all and the demands of that love, whatever the cost.
In our liturgy, as in procession we wave palm branches and chant hosannas, we perhaps need to pause and question what we are doing. Our commitment to Jesus must go beyond crying Lord, Lord. It must find expression in our trying to live by his values, especially his rejection of power in favour of humble service, his rejection of any form of violence in favour of unselfish love, his radical challenging what our world holds dear. We may discover that we are finding subtle ways of using him for our own needs and agendas which run counter to all he stands for: safety, security, status, complacency, comfort, exclusivism in a variety of forms, narrowness. We need to ask ourselves whether he is in fact king of our hearts and minds and lives. Hosanna: save us, Lord, we pray.