Palm Sunday is this weekend.
This is the Sunday that Christian churches all over the world remember Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem, a narrative that’s recorded in each of the four Gospels (Matthew 21:1–11, Mark 11:1–11, Luke 19:28–44, and John 12:12–19). This is also the Sunday that many churches in my tradition begin their preparations for Easter. During the morning message, we learn the meaning of words like “hosanna,” and each child leaves with a palm branch in hand.
But Palm Sunday, as is told in the Gospels, is a story shrouded in some very heavy symbolism. It’s also meant to be read in light of some very significant historical events that happened not too long before the 1st century A.D. And when we read this narrative with these events in mind, the message that the biblical authors were attempting to convey becomes all the more clear.
This is a message that we desperately need to be reminded of now.
The Triumphal Entry of Simon Maccabee
Roughly 200 years before the first Palm Sunday, the nation of Israel was in a state of intense political and religious turmoil.
The nation of Persia had been overthrown by the nation of Greece. And unlike Persia’s rather relaxed foreign policy, in which Jews enjoyed the ability to rebuild Jerusalem and freely practice their religion, Greece ruled with a tight fist. Or specifically, the Seleucid king that controlled the territory that Israel was in was very restrictive in what he would allow.
Antiochus Epiphanes, this Greek king and war general, forced the Jews to burn their Torah scrolls in the streets. He tortured and killed those who would not reverse the marks of their circumcision. He even forced a pig to be sacrificed on the alter in the Jerusalem Temple in honor of Zeus. And if you know anything about Torah cleanliness laws, pigs were very taboo animals on their own, but especially when they’re sacrificed to pagan deities in the most holy location in Israel.
Eventually, the Jewish people reached a boiling point. Antiochus Epiphanes and the Greek nation had to go. And one Jewish family led that charge: the Hasmoneans.
If you’re familiar with the story of Hannukah, you’ve likely heard this one. But in 167 B.C., a priest named Mattathias and his son Judas Maccabeus initiated a rebellion against Greece by killing Antiochus Epiphanes’ representatives in their Jewish cities. This sparked an all-out war between Judea and Antiochus’ forces, which ultimately culminated with Israel’s independence. Judas’ brother Simon was even successful in freeing Jerusalem from all Greek control and cleansed the Temple of all foreign impurities.
This was a huge moment for the nation of Israel. It was of monumental importance.
Jesus’ disciples, and all first century Jews would know this story just as well as we know the story of our nation’s independence on the 4th of July 1776. The Hasmoneans were heroes. They were seen as little “messiahs.” And many expected God’s ultimate Messiah to be just like Mattathias, Judas, and Simon, just on a larger cosmic level.
In fact, the book of 1 Maccabees records the events of Simon coming into the city of Jerusalem. See if you catch any parallels between this event and the story of Palm Sunday:
“Those who were in the citadel at Jerusalem were prevented from going in and out to buy and sell in the country. So, they were very hungry, and many of them perished from famine. Then they cried to Simon to make peace with them, and he did so. But he expelled them from there and cleansed the citadel from it’s pollutions. On the twenty-third day of the second month, in the one hundred seventy-first year, the Jews entered it with praise and palm branches, and with harps and symbols and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel. Simon decreed that every year they should celebrate this day with rejoicing. He strengthened the fortifications of the temple hill alongside the citadel, and he and his men lived there.”
Jesus’ Triumphal Entry
Jesus’ followers expected him to be a Messiah in the footsteps of Judas or Simon. That is, they thought that he would come as a conquering king, ready to win Israel back from Rome and usher in a time of eternal independence and prosperity.
But Jesus makes an absolute parody of those expectations within his triumphal entry.
This is especially evident in Mark’s Gospel.
In Mark 11:1-11, Jesus arrives in Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. He didn’t arrive on a warhorse or chariot, but on a colt. However, the crowds gathered there to greet him react by laying down their cloaks on the road as well as palm branches, similar to the response Simon received when he marched into Jerusalem just over a century before. They even offer up a song for Jesus too: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” And at first glance, this song seems innocent enough. But it’s actually borrowing language from Psalm 118 and using such language to interpret Jesus’ entry as one of a conquering king, something that Jesus explicitly stated wasn’t on his agenda in his travels to Jerusalem (Mark 10:32-34).
The parody in Mark’s Gospel doesn’t stop there, though. Because if the crowds were expecting Jesus to act as a Messiah like Simon or Judas, they probably assumed that his first stop would be at the Temple. And they likely expected him to rid God’s Temple of all foreign impurities and maybe even kill any Roman representatives within this holy space. Jesus does go to the Temple. But he dashes the crowd’s expectations. As Mark 11:11 tells us: “He entered Jerusalem and went into the Temple. And when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.”
But that’s because the Temple purification wasn’t ever supposed to be the climax of Jesus’ story. The climax of the story is the cross.
Thinking about the Triumphal Entry Today
It’s fun to parse out the parody of the first Palm Sunday.
But we shouldn’t forget that those who expected Jesus to act like a Maccabee weren’t doing so maliciously. They wanted to see the God of Israel return to restore creation. They wanted to see an end to sin, pain, sickness, and death. The Messiah’s rescue of Jerusalem was meant to usher in a time of peace not only for Israel, but for the entire world.
But they also weren’t listening to Jesus when he explained to them that God’s Messiah wasn’t going to look like what they were expecting. Instead of a triumphal king, he had come as a suffering servant.
I think the holiday of Palm Sunday is so warmly regarded by many because we don’t completely understand what it means. I also think that many of us today still think of Jesus as more of a Maccabean-type Messiah than one who came to die. We’re still closing our ears to his description about himself. We’re still asking Jesus to follow us, not the other way around.
This also comes from our best intentions too. We don’t misrepresent Jesus maliciously. Instead, we want to see an end to sin, pain, sickness, and death. And we’ve got an idea in our own heads about how Jesus should go about making that happen.
But if Jesus’ death on the cross, as well as our call to become cross-shaped people, doesn’t fit into our framework, that’s a good sign that we’re way off base.
Are we following Jesus? Or are we asking Jesus to follow us?
 1 Maccabees 13:49-52
 There are layers of complexity to this story. Here in this blog, I’m attempting to tease out the triumphal entry’s relation to the Maccabean Revolution. But we shouldn’t forget that Jesus rode on this colt in fulfillment of the words of Zechariah 9:9. God has always understood His kingship as one marked with humility.