Today is Palm Sunday, when we remember Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem to shouts of, “”Hosanna to the Son of David; Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:9). In today’s Mass, though, we’ll also read of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. Why did the crowds turn on Jesus so quickly? How did they go from Messianic praise on Sunday, to “crucify Him!” on Friday?
Expectations were high as Jesus and thousands of other Jewish pilgrims entered Jerusalem. He had just raised Lazarus from the dead, and many of the Jewish people had allowed themselves to hope as never before: was this Messiah who was to come? Since the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 586 BC, the Jewish people had not been truly free. Despite brief spans of revolution, they had been enslaved to the Babylonians, then the Assyrians, now the Romans. The Jewish people had waited so long! They talked among themselves with great excitement: had the Messiah, prophesied especially in Isaiah, finally come?
Hopes for a Jewish Kingdom
To call Jesus the son of David was a politically charged title – it reflected the belief that Jesus would retake the throne of David by re-establishing the Davidic kingdom. To praise Jesus like that had revolutionary undertones, since the only way a Jewish kingdom could be established would be to overthrow Roman rule. This is why some of the Pharisees were afraid during Holy Week and said, “If we let Him go on like this, all men will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation” (John 11:48).
Didn’t the Pharisees want a Jewish kingdom? Of course. But after the many rebukes Jesus had given them during His three year ministry, the Pharisees knew they wouldn’t have any kind of political or religious power in Jesus’ kingdom. So instead they sought to kill Him.
What about the rest of the Jewish people? Why did they turn on Him? There’s no doubt some were influenced by the Pharisees. They were the religious authorities at the time, and surely some of the Jews who had supported Jesus on Sunday were either convinced or intimidated by them into calling for His death on Friday. But perhaps just as many Jews called for His crucifixion because Jesus was not the kind of King they had expected.
A New Kind of Kingdom
The Jews hoped that Jesus would establish an earthly kingdom. They believed He was the New Solomon, and that therefore His kingdom would be greater – in terms of power, riches, land. They were waiting for Him to crush the Romans, free the Jews of their rule, and fulfill all of God’s promises. But they were wildly disappointed, because as Jesus explained to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). Jesus did not come to establish an earthly kingdom ruled by power and force, and was killed because of it.
But Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God was at hand during His ministry (Matthew 3:2), so what was He talking about? As Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, explained in Called to Communion, the kingdom is Jesus Himself. He proclaimed that God is with us, seeking to draw all of us to Him in a new and deeper way.
And this Kingdom is full of paradoxes that puzzled many then, and continues to puzzle many now. Though powerful, He made Himself weak. Though the greatest among us, He made Himself the servant of all. Though Creator of everything, He had nowhere to lay His head. Though love itself, He was rejected by man and crucified. This was NOT the kind of Kingdom the Jews were expecting! This was not the kind of Kingdom they wanted!
How Much Has Changed?
As I’m in Mass today, reading aloud the part of the crowd, I will be forced to think of how much I am like the Jews in that crowd. Every time I sin I am in essence choosing an earthly kingdom over His Kingdom. It will be impossible for me not to see the contrasts between the two kingdoms: death vs life, war vs peace, hatred vs love, selfishness vs selflessness, power vs service, greed vs generosity, pride vs humility, fleeting happiness vs joy.
I can’t end this post on a happy note, because it’s not yet Easter. Good Friday is rightly a time for sorrow, and that is where the readings will end today, with Jesus’ Crucifixion. So let us instead reflect on those areas of our lives where we still prefer an earthly kingdom, and allow this Palm Sunday to be a time of greater repentance and conversion.
See also last year’s post: My Struggle With Palm Sunday