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Saturday, 23 October 2010 01:00

Gospel Reflections for Lent: Year C Palm Sunday

Written by  Michael Winstanley SDB
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On this Sunday there are two readings from Luke's Gospel. The first is part of the introductory liturgy which commemorates Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem. The second is the passion narrative. I shall limit these reflections to the first, which reads as follows:

After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, "Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, 'Why are you untying it?' just say this, 'The Lord needs it.'" So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them.

As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, "Why are you untying the colt?" They said, "The Lord needs it." Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!" Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, order your disciples to stop." He answered, "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out."

During the transfiguration narrative Jesus is said to speak with Moses and Elijah about the departure which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem. Shortly afterwards he set his face to go to Jerusalem. That journey becomes the structural framework for the rest of the Gospel as far as today's extract, and from time to time Luke reminds his readers about this journey. The final stopping place for pilgrims going up to the temple was the city of Jericho. Before entering this city Jesus heals a blind beggar. Within the city confines he later encounters Zacchaeus, a wealthy outcast, offers him forgiveness and brings him salvation. This beautiful little vignette is followed by a parable, which Jesus tells because he was near Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the Kingdom of God was to appear immediately. The parable has to do with kingship, and is linked with what follows.

Luke again highlights his 'journey to Jerusalem' theme with the words which introduce today's reading. After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. There is a determination about Jesus as he strides ahead making his way to the city and temple, to the theatre of his 'exodus'. The main story line follows Mark's version very closely. On the approach to the small villages of Bethphage and Bethany on the Eastern slope of the Mount of Olives, a couple of miles from the city, Jesus sends two of his disciples ahead. His entry is carefully staged. He informs them that as they enter the village in front of them (Bethphage), they will find a colt which has never been ridden, and so would be fit for royal use. They are to untie it and bring it to him. If questioned about their intent, they are to reply that the Lord needs it. The two disciples do as they have been bidden. Finding the colt, as Jesus as foretold, they untie it. When questioned by the owners, they reply in the words Jesus has instructed them to use. Luke probably intends us to understand all this as an expression of his prophetic foresight, though some have suggested that a previous arrangement had been made, and 'The Lord has need of it' is a password. Animals were sometimes kept for travellers to hire or borrow. After bringing the colt to Jesus, the disciples throw their cloaks on it as a saddle, and then sit Jesus on the young animal. As Jesus rides along on the descent from the Mount of Olives, people keep spreading their cloaks along the road for him to walk over, a powerful symbol of royalty. There is no mention of the waving of palms or other branches, maybe because this would have too nationalistic a tone.

For Luke, Jesus is entering the city as its messianic king, claiming it as his own. But his chosen means of entry makes his understanding of kingship clear. He comes not in pomp and power on a regal charger, but in humility and lowliness on a young donkey. Whereas Matthew and John, in their versions of the event, make allusion to the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9, Luke refrains, but he probably has it in mind nonetheless.

A large crowd of disciples (not a motley crowd or mob) respond to the coming of Jesus by praising God with great joy and full voice because of all the wonderful deeds which they have witnessed during his ministry of healing and compassion. The accompanying words differ somewhat from those found in Mark, and hosanna is omitted:

Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!

Luke adds 'king' to the phrase from Psalm 118:26, which was the priests' blessing for pilgrims coming for the festival, and so changes the meaning in favour of his theology. God is asserting his sovereignty through Jesus; Jesus is commissioned and approved by God. The reader is reminded of the angelic hymn in the earlier story of the nativity. 'The coming of the king who brings peace is the appropriate occasion for ascribing praise to God as the author of peace.'

Some Pharisees who happen to be in the vicinity take umbrage at this messianic manifestation or demonstration. Perhaps they fear that the Romans might interpret this action and the enthusiasm it engenders as an act of sedition and take punitive action. Passover was always a time when patriotism ran high. Or they simply intend to reject the messianic acclamation of Jesus as king (a further link with the parable referred to earlier). Such pretensions are unacceptable. So they tell Jesus to order his disciples to stop. But he comments that if the disciples were to cease, the very stones of the city would cry out in recognition of his royal entry (Hab 2:11). His kingship cannot be unrecognized and suppressed.

This triumphant entry is not structurally self-standing. It is part of a greater literary unit, which includes the subsequent episode in which Jesus weeps over the city for its failure to recognize the things which make for peace, and to acknowledge the visitation from God. He then enters the temple and drives out those who are engaged in selling there. All this marks the beginning of the climax of Luke's Gospel narrative.

Jesus' sense of vocation, of destiny, and his desire to respond courageously and generously to the Father's will for him, are strongly expressed in this narrative. We are invited to ponder and examine our own lives, our own sense of mission, the journey to our own 'Jerusalem'. At times we know that it is difficult to respond with like courage and generosity. His entering the city on a donkey is a powerful prophetic critique of worldly authority and power structures and systems of control and domination. Clearly the religious authorities of his day were tainted with these very human tendencies and urges. Jesus' entry challenges us too today as individuals and as Church, and invites us to examine our values and aspects of our life-style. Perhaps our hearts aren't completely synchronized with the beat of his heart. Perhaps we haven't fully accepted his mindset and servant way.

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