Towards Palm Sunday (Matt 21): Riding on a donkey (or two) as the crowd shouts ‘Hosanna’

Next Sunday is Palm Sunday. As we approach the day, we have opportunity (during this period of enforced social distancing and self-isolation), to survey the scene of the first Palm Sunday, and reflect on its significance. As you read the account in Matt 21, ask yourself: What do you see? What do you hear? How is God revealed to you in this story? How does God speak to you in this story? What is the word of God, the vision of the Lord, for you, today, from this well-known story from so long ago?

What do you see? What do you hear? We see pilgrims travelling the winding route to Jerusalem, climbing the hills outside the city as they make their way to the capital of ancient Israel. And in their midst, can you see the figure of Jesus, surrounded by his followers, approaching the city?

Jesus, seated on the colt, riding on a donkey, was the centre of attention—at least for his own followers. Those in the crowd who knew their scriptures, would have immediately recognised the allusion. The account of this story that we find in Matthew’s Gospel and that we hear this Sunday, actually specifies the verse that interprets the significance of the donkey (Matt 21:4-5).

In Zechariah 9:9, the vision is clear: “your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious, humble and riding on a donkey”. That is what the prophet declares; in this story of Passover pilgrims, Jesus can be seen to be bringing that vision to fruition. And that vision declares that this coming ruler “shall command peace to the nations, and his dominion will be from sea to sea, from the river to the ends of the earth”. That is the vision that Jesus evokes as he rides into Jerusalem on this donkey.

What do you see? What do you hear? Can you hear the cries of the crowd: “Hosanna, hosanna!” they cry. What were they calling out? Hosanna is a foreign term, a word from the Hebrew language, not a common word in our English usage. The best way to translate Hosanna, is “save us”. It is a cry for salvation; a yearning for deliverance. The word appears in the Psalm we have heard today, in Psalm 118:25, where they people cry out, “save us, we beseech you, O Lord!” Save us, redeem us, liberate us.

Psalm 118 was one of the Hallel Psalms, the Praise Psalms, which were associated with celebrations on each of the three great festival days—the Feast of Tabernacles, or Booths; the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost; and the Feast of Passover. These psalms of praise became particularly associated with the celebrations of the rebuilding of the Temple.

Rebuilding the Temple was an inherently political action. It was the foreign invasion of Palestine by the Hellenistic Seleucids some two centuries before Jesus which had led to the destruction of the Temple. It was the political activity of the Jewish Maccabees which had led to the reclaiming of the Temple two decades later.

“Praise you, O God, for we have our Temple, rebuilt, restored, renewed”. So the prayer might well have gone. And it was the political activity of the Maccabees which had brought this about. The Hallel Psalms had become Psalms of Praise for liberating political activity. And this is what the people were singing out!

They expected Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee. He entered the city in the midst of the pilgrims, for the festival of Passover. He came preaching the coming kingdom of God—a kingdom to be marked by righteous-justice (Matt 6:33). He blessed those who sought that righteous-justice (Matt 5:6, 10). He urged people to walk the way that led to justice for all (Matt 12:18-21). He came into the city filled with zeal for God’s righteous-justice kingdom (Matt 23:23). The festival of Passover was a most appropriate time for him to enter the city and make his mark.

This series of blogs on Palm Sunday is based on research by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires, published in Validating Violence—Violating Faith? Religion, Scripture and Violence. Edited by W. Emilsen & J.T. Squires, ATF Press, Adelaide 2008. See https://assembly.uca.org.au/rof/images/stories/interfaithsep/25sept.pdf

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/31/towards-palm-sunday-matt-21-passover-and-politics/

See more on righteous-justice at https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/13/you-have-heard-it-said-but-i-say-to-you-matt-5/

We have also turned it into a creative dialogue, which you can read at https://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2019/04/palm-sunday-ps-1181-2-19-29-luke-1928.html

Tomorrow: Waving branches, spreading cloaks

Author: John T Squires

My name is John Squires. I live in the Australian Capital Territory. I have been an active participant in the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) since it was formed in 1977, and was ordained as a Minister of the Word in this church in 1980. I have served in rural, regional, and urban congregations and as a Presbytery Resource Minister and Intentional Interim Minister. For two decades I taught Biblical Studies at a theological college and most recently I was Director of Education and Formation and Principal of the Perth Theological Hall. I've studied the scriptures in depth; I hold a number of degrees, including a PhD in early Christian literature. I am committed to providing the best opportunities for education within the church, so that people can hold to an informed faith, which is how the UCA Basis of Union describes it. This blog is one contribution to that ongoing task.

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