Humility and Palm Sunday
What does his triumphal entry teach us about Jesus's character and mission?
Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.” This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying,
“Say to the daughter of Zion,
‘Behold, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’”
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.” (Matthew 21:1-11)
On Sunday, Christians across the globe will celebrate Palm Sunday. Various churches have different traditions, but maybe you are familiar with the custom of distributing palms and waving them at some point in the service.
In the church I attended throughout most of my childhood, both children and parents participated in Palm Sunday according to assigned roles. The children waved palms and marched down the aisle. Meanwhile, the adults sang “Hosanna in the Highest” and took pictures of their little ones.
Certainly it was adorable, but there remained a larger point about humility.
Matthew intentionally brings Jesus’ humility to the forefront of this passage. Jesus is not a Napoleonic crusader, but a “humble” king who rides into the city on “a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.”
Interestingly, King David himself rode on donkeys so Jesus’ entry was actually familiar to the Jewish people in this passage. In crying “Hosanna!” the Jewish people acknowledge that they expect this man to save them by some authoritative means.
In other words, it fit a preexisting pattern. The shocking part is not necessarily that Jesus is a king. Rather, the surprise is the kind of king he is.
This is where we must start in order to understand the humility of Jesus. He comes from the noble line of David, but associates with sinners and tax collectors. He is God and also the suffering servant whose mission is death on a cross. So there remains a paradox in Jesus’ triumphant entry even if it is not exactly the same as we might have been taught.
Surely, He is a conquering king, but His foe is not any earthly enemy. Israel wants to be saved from political humiliation, but Jesus promises something far better. Great David’s Greater Son secures salvation, restoration, and eternal life. In his humility, he exceeds our every expectation.
Sadly, Christians sometimes remain blind to the meaning of this passage. Quickly surveying Christian churches in America might reveal a broad coalition who primarily see the Gospel as the gavel against their political and ideological enemies. We remain confused by the nature of Jesus’ mission.
But there is also a more subtle misunderstanding which I think this church’s Palm Sunday tradition reveals.
Not only is the target of Jesus’ mission unexpected, but so is its audience. Salvation through faith alone is for the poor as much as it is for the rich; for the esteemed as for the lowly. Even children, the least powerful of any society, call Him “king.”
On Easter, many will dress in their “Sunday best,” and that is good and well. We should want to present ourselves worthily before the Lord. But King Jesus is just not that interested in material success. He comes to save sinners, riding on a “beast of burden” and bearing the burden of sin’s curse on our behalf.
Let us then wave our palm branches like the children, made innocent by the sacrifice of our Savior and sing “Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna in the Highest!”
Robert Hasler is the Director of Communications for Ministry to State and co-host of The Will & Rob Show.