The triumphant entry text is one of the few passages found in all four gospels, which would lead one to believe that something like this must have actually happened. Most often we use either Matthew or Luke’s version. Today I chose to use Mark’s (11:1-25). Mark is our earliest gospel and so I will go with the assumption that what Mark reports may be just a little bit closer to what actually did or did not happen.
For example, Matthew, Luke and John all talk about a donkey. And then they reference this obscure text from the book of Zechariah. “Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” All of the different gospel authors were writing with different agendas in mind. Part of Matthew, Luke and John’s agenda was to prove, using Old Testament texts, that Jesus was indeed the long-awaited Messiah. Mark tends not to insert the Old Testament into his text as a demonstration of prophecies fulfilled. This isn’t part of Mark’s agenda. So interestingly, the Mark text doesn’t insert the Zechariah passage and never mentions a donkey, referring instead, only to a colt. Matthew, Luke and John also speak about a crowd of people gathering to join in the triumphal entry. Again, Mark doesn’t say anything about a crowd. Rather, he simply states that many people spread their cloaks on the ground. Another point of interest - John is actually the only gospel that mentions palm branches. All the others refer to leafy branches cut from nearby trees.
So this story changes as it is retold, as stories always do. Another thing that really draws me to Mark are the ways in which this gospel emphasizes Jesus’ humanity. To varying degrees, the other gospels are intent upon presenting Jesus as a Divine Being. With each successive gospel, Jesus gets more otherworldly. Most striking is how Jesus identifies himself. In the book of Mark, Jesus calls himself the Son of Man.(Mark 2:10, for example). But by the time we get to John, Jesus is calling himself the Son of God (John 5:25, for example).
Part of church doctrine is to declare Jesus simultaneously fully human and fully divine. The tendency, straight across church history, however, has been to emphasize the divinity and neglect the humanity. So what has been so formative for me these last several years, has been to immerse myself in Jesus’ humanity. So Mark really speaks to me. Therefore the Jesus I see immerge in this triumphal entry text from Mark is a very human Jesus. And the story wasn’t quite as triumphant as I remembered.
Actually, the scenario painted by Mark seems more like a chaotic and maybe even slightly desperate dress rehearsal. My guess is Jesus knew a guy in a little village right outside Jerusalem who had a young colt. This man must have owed Jesus a favor or he was someone sympathetic to Jesus’ ministry. Anyway, Jesus knew borrowing the colt wouldn’t be an issue. What I don’t quite understand is why Jesus wanted to borrow the colt in the first place. Lots of different ideas and opinions are bounced around, but of course the truth is, no one really knows.
Did his disciples put Jesus up to this? Was Jesus humoring his friends? Certainly the disciples wanted Jesus to have recognition, to receive tribute. And if Jesus was humoring their wishes, did he do so without any ulterior motive, or was he trying to teach them how fleeting a thing is fame, is glory? Was Jesus, frustrated at the pace of his ministry, attempting to draw attention to himself? Was he trying to jump start his campaign? Knowing what we do about Jesus’ character, this doesn’t seem likely.
We like to think this procession into Jerusalem was a pretty noteworthy event. And in so far as all four gospels recorded it, it was. But it also wasn’t. I’m going with Mark on this one. Probably there weren’t great crowds of people to welcome Jesus into the city that day. Most likely the disciples and other members of Jesus’ group threw their cloaks on the ground and rushed to grab branches as well. Their example may have inspired a few of the bystanders to do likewise. People love a parade. That hasn’t changed over the years.
But what I’m most struck with this year is how this event faithfully recorded in our gospels, wouldn’t have made the headlines in the Jerusalem Daily or even found it’s way onto page 10. I think Jesus had a bit of an image problem. Here’s where we maybe find the human side really emerge. He was a loose canon. He’d heal a group of people and then he’d turn around and insult the people in power. He would spend hours teaching and then he go to a person’s house for supper and call a woman who asked for help, a dog. He stages this interesting entry into Jerusalem and then, and again, all four gospels agree on this point, he goes and ransacks the temple. I mean, he even curses a poor fig tree when it won’t give him figs in its off season.
I imagine a lot of people had kind of a love/hate relationship with Jesus and others just outright hated him and what he represented. It is telling how very few people there were to accompany Jesus in his final days. So again, what was the point of the triumphant procession?
If I had to take a guess, I’d say it was twofold. Jesus was a wise man. He knew he was heading to his death. The gospels are clear on this point as well. Jesus knew how this story was going to end. I think it’s fair to say he wanted there to be some sort of ceremonial recognition of who he was and what he felt called to do. The ceremony was symbolic, but powerful for all those who followed him, who loved him, who believed him to be set apart by God. I’d say it was a cathartic experience for all of them, to loudly proclaim for all to hear their loud cries of glory and acclamation. So it was in part to fill a need and to state a truth in the present.
But it was also for the benefit of what was not yet, but what would be. It was a moment in time his followers would be able to go back to in their recollections and reframe in a way that better fit their later understandings and revelations. And so we have these differing gospel stories written decades, even a hundred years after the actual event and in their retelling we come to understand what this procession came to mean to Jesus’ followers in later years. That a King did indeed enter Jerusalem that day so long ago, and a handful of faithful followers were there to give witness and to celebrate this man who would eventually turn the world upside down.
What I’m talking about here is resurrection. And this is where this triumphal entry story and my own church story intersect. The final Sunday in May, Bergthal Mennonite will devote the day to a time of celebration and remembrance as we prepare to close our church down the end of June. We've invited people near and far to come join us in our somber festivities.
I see some parallels between this gospel procession story and my church's plans for May 26. Why do we feel a need to have this big event to commemorate Bergthal Mennonite’s life? Why are people planning on traveling great distances in order to be with us on this day? Why bother?
I think it’s twofold. The day is symbolic. We need to be able to find a way to express our gratefulness, our sorrow, our relief, our misgivings, over what is happening and we need to be able to do this with others who have held Bergthal dear. And so we will gather on that Sunday and we will channel all these different emotions into the events we’ve planned. And it will be a cathartic release for all involved. It will fill a need as we, together, share our truth.
But this day will be symbolic on another level as well. It is for our benefit in the present, it is also for our benefit in the future. One of the really wonderful things about the church is that you are able to see how the life of the church is resurrected in those who carry the church and its shaping influence along with them through their lives. I like to think of all the people scattered around this world who have been touched by this congregation, the ways in which Bergthal has shaped peoples' lives and continues to impact how people think and interact and love and live. Most people who have spent time worshipping in our church have long since departed and are living post-Bergthal lives. Obviously, those of us who remain, are not. We don’t know our future. But we have lots of faith that our time at Bergthal has shaped us and will continue to influence and inform our lives from this point on. This is truth we will share in several different, powerful ways on May 26. But at several different points, a years from now, 10 years, 20, we will look back on that day and remember how important it was for us to claim this truth. And there in the future, we will be privileged to see how that truth was realized in our lives from this point on. In the process, how we remember will be altered. This is resurrection.
Holy Week lies before us. In many ways Bergthal is now entering its Holy Week. As we move ahead in the grief and sorrow of these days before us, and these months before us, let us remember our truth. That resurrection awaits us on the other side.