Palmesel (15th Century). Public Domain. The word Palmesel is German for “palm donkey.” Although this looks like a child’s toy, this statue as larger than life and was used during Palm Sunday processions in German-speaking regions until the Reformation.
Matthew 21:1-11 (12-17) New Revised Standard Version
1When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.” And he will send them immediately.’ 4This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
5 ‘Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’
6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’
10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ 11The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’
12Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 13He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.” 14The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. 15But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry 16and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’?” 17He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.
Imagine that you were there. Your culture and traditions call you to travel to the city of Jerusalem to celebrate the great Passover feast. A long time ago, this ceremony was used to ward off evil spirits from your house and call on the gods to bestow blessings on the community. In your day, it was a festival that commemorates the story of Moses leading your ancestors out of slavery in Egypt.
Perhaps you live in a nearby city or have come from a local village. Or maybe you have come from as far away as Ethiopia or modern-day Turkey. Regardless, you are here because your parents brought you when you were little. And their parents brought them and so it has been for generations and generations. You look forward to this pilgrimage every year because it reminds you of your history, your community and because you get to see old friends.
If you are a farmer, you brought your own lamb on the pilgrimage to be slaughtered at the temple. Otherwise, you needed to buy a lamb at the temple – at a marked-up price, of course – and have it butchered. If you are poor and have no lamb or cannot afford to buy a lamb, you needed to purchase doves to have sacrificed by the temple priests. The priests would take a portion and burn it on the altar in the temple, and take a little of the choice cuts for themselves. They package up everything else, and you take it to the place you are staying for the week, perhaps a distance cousin’s home in the city. This sanctified meat saved and prepared later for the Passover meal.
So far, the week has been pretty quiet. You’ve visited with old friends, heard the reading of the scriptures and preaching at the temple. You sang some of the Psalms and other familiar tunes that you learned when you were little. You’ve visited the markets where folks are selling things like apples, dates, and honey, unleavened bread, and other provisions. The streets always seem packed. The city is crowded to begin with, but as the week wears on, the city swells with another 200,000 or even 300,000 people here to celebrate Passover. It can get a little dicey when this many people show up, and you’ve experienced Passovers in the past that exploded with chaos.
As you walk about today, cautiously passing Roman soldiers, hearing calls from beggars, and moving aside so wealthy folks could pass by, you notice the smells. It’s overwhelming. The smell of people and animals and of blood from the temple mingling with the aromas of cooked meat, baked goods, and incense. But something snaps you out of your reflection. There’s a great commotion – At one of the gates, some people are stirring a crowd by proclaiming, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”
Hosanna was a liturgical word, a word of prayer – literally meaning “please help” But now it has come to be a word used to proclaim salvation, even liberation. Shouted in the streets, it was a dangerous word, a challenging word, one that could get you in trouble with both the ruling elites and the occupying Romans.
You want to know what’s happening, so you walk toward the crowd. You expect a strong man – riding a horse and perhaps even a small band of rebels. Instead, you see a man riding a donkey, perhaps, as this gospel tells us with the donkey’s colt beside him. And you remember your scriptures and recall a passage about a king coming to Jerusalem riding on a donkey, the humble king riding on a lowly animal. This man doesn’t look like a strong man, at least he doesn’t really dress like one or carry himself like one. But some people are getting into it – they are laying down palm branches and even their own cloaks to cover the roads.
You turn to the person next to you and ask, “Who this person?” And the stranger replies – “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” You’ve heard of him, and begin to tense up. There were strange rumors about his birth and about his ability to heal people. Your cousins were talking about him back at the house. They said that he has angered local synagogue officials just about everywhere he goes. They even got into an argument about whether his teachings were liberating or heresy.
You know that Passover in Jerusalem is already a tense time – a time when Rome handles the larger than usual crowds with an iron fist – where any rebel-rousing is met with the swift and brutal violence of the state. Yet you follow this parade because you want to know what this is all about.
Jesus and the crowd go to the temple courtyard. And in the large courtyard, there are merchants selling animals for sacrifice and money changers. You always hated the money changers. The temple in Jerusalem had its own currency, and you had to change your money with them to pay for your animal to be slaughtered or buy your sacrifice. And the deal never seemed right to you – like you were getting ripped off somehow. Jesus went directly to the money changers table and got into an argument with them. By now, you can only hear the raised voices as the crowd has gotten larger, and you can no longer see. “‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers,” you hear someone say. And then pushing and movement. “He’s chasing away the money changers!” Someone in the crowd shouted. Although you never saw it, someone else said he had a weapon, a cat of nine tails with him that he used to chase them away.
And in the aftermath of these tense moments, sick people began coming to him - Those who could not see and those who had various disabilities. And you saw him help these people. And the crowd, including children, began chanting once again, saying, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” And you began to worry because of what had just happened. You worried that this would not be a peaceful Passover in Jerusalem.