Where’s the Triumph?
By Ron Gallagher
The episode we’ve come to call “Palm Sunday” will soon be celebrated again by Christianity around the world. All four Gospel writers record the event, but John’s account provides a concise summary:
The next day a great multitude that had come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took branches of palm trees and went out to meet Him, and cried out: “Hosanna! ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!’ The King of Israel!” Then Jesus, when He had found a young donkey, sat on it; as it is written: ‘Fear not, daughter of Zion; Behold, your King is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt.’ John 12:12-15 (NKJV)
The event was full of profound implications, but the total lack of any public exhibition of supernatural power was no doubt disappointing to many of those converging around Jesus that day. After all, the road they were traveling brought them near the place where He had recently raised Lazarus from the grave. Hoping for more miracles like that or some showy demonstration of divine authority would seem reasonable as they approached Israel’s religious capital at the holiest time of the Jewish year. But though their songs and shouts of praise appeared genuine enough to arouse concern among their religious leaders, the Messiah they saw didn’t fit the triumphant image they were conditioned to expect.
“Save Now” — But from What?
Their shouts of “Hosanna” were literally a collective prayer that means “save now,” and it was a perfectly appropriate request for them to offer. They were under the heavy burden of Roman occupation and wanted to be free of Rome’s oppressive and restrictive demands on their lives. They wanted a revived sense of national pride and spiritual well-being, coupled with an unprecedented resurgence of personal prosperity and security. In spite of their shouts of praise, looking at this physically unimpressive guy on a donkey may not have been as inspiring as they would have preferred. He didn’t seem able to offer the kind of salvation they wanted.
Palm Sunday is a familiar title for this unique episode, but it isn’t the only one. We also call it, “The Triumphal Entry.” The Palm Sunday appellation obviously fits, but using a term like Triumphal Entry begs the question, “Triumph over what?”
A Perplexing Picture ~
The picture we get from the text definitely shows excitement and enthusiastic anticipation, but Jesus didn’t look like someone celebrating a major triumph. For one thing, He was way underdressed for a triumphant procession. There’s nothing to indicate that He even had a new outfit. As nearly as we can tell, He was clothed as He always was, in the common ordinary garb of a Rabbi from the poorer classes. He had no choreographed entourage to spice up His image, just the rag-tag bunch of work-a-day men and women who followed Him around, listened to His teaching and assisted Him in whatever way He directed.
If this was a triumph, it couldn’t have been mistaken for a military one. In spite of any references that might have been made to Him as the Son of David, and thus the upcoming King of the Jews, the position apparently included no local military force, and He had no attending commanders or troops. Jesus had accomplished no heroic exploits on a battlefield that anyone else could have seen. He had engaged no human opponent in a physical struggle and had slain no human enemy.
He had no diplomatic triumph to claim or celebrate either. There was no aspect of problematic Jewish foreign policy over which Jesus emerged victorious as the Jews’ premier statesman. He did not enter the debating halls to do verbal battle with Roman diplomats and attempt to win them over to His way of thinking. Neither did He confront the Greek philosophers in their academic halls and present His arguments in their arenas. He wasn’t an official representative of any organization, agency, or government. He wasn’t recognized as a leader of any currently recognized sect, party, or group. If this was a “triumphant” procession, it was definitely a peculiar one.
A Problem with Our Triumphant Heroes ~
Whether the crowd was a bit disappointed about any of that or not is pure conjecture but not outside the realm of possibility. After all, we want heroes to be larger than life, sporting a ride we can’t afford, exuding a commanding presence we don’t have, dressed in garments we could never wear, and displaying physical strength and intellectual genius totally beyond us. We want heroes who look like we want to be, not so much like what we are. The downside, in case you haven’t noticed, is that our triumphant heroes riding on the prancing stallions don’t invite us to be like them, quite the contrary. Instead, they are smug and content in the awareness that they are not like us and that we cannot be like them.
Jesus didn’t look like much by the world’s standards of His day, but that’s okay because His triumph was not “in” this world’s system, it was “over” it. Now, from His humble place on a simple donkey’s back, He calls to us in our ordinary clothes, and in our frustrating weaknesses, to come follow Him and be like Him, to find in Him, and through Him, eternal triumph over the sins that plague us and the death those sins demand. “Hosanna” is a prayer He will answer for us … here and now.
First published on Southern California Christian Voice.
In addition to his website, Gallagher’s Pen, where he publishes a weekly blog with a primary emphasis on unfolding responses to culturally relevant topics in accordance with Biblical insights, Ron Gallagher contributes regularly to Refresh Bible Study Magazine and various other freelance efforts.