The Palm Sunday puzzle

The ‘Golden Gate’, now sealed, in the east city wall of Jerusalem

There’s a story that goes as follows: In the early 7th century Persian armies attacked Jerusalem and stole part of the True Cross. The Byzantine Emperor Heraclius recovered the fragment of the Cross and was proudly riding into Jerusalem on his warhorse to replace it in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. But each time he approached the city gate it shut firmly in his face and he could not get through. Eventually he ‘twigged’ – if Jesus had entered Jerusalem seated merely on a donkey, it was not appropriate for him, Heraclius, to seek to enter on a horse. So he dismounted and walked through the gate. But ever since that gate (the ‘Golden Gate’) has remained sealed, as a visible reminder of the need for humility, even on the part of human kings and emperors.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe


I have never quite got used to the tradition, which in my experience has become much more prevalent in Anglican Churches during the last 30 years, of having two Gospel readings on Palm Sunday. The first of course is the story of Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem, told in one of the four Gospels; the second is the account of his Passion, told through the lens of whichever of the  Synoptic Gospels is the lectionary Gospel for the year. (The Gospel of John is normally ‘saved up’ for Good Friday).

I know the good practical reasons for the custom: it is sometimes said that at least it ensures that people who do not attend church on Good Friday hear the complete reading of the passion narrative. But I still find it jarring – not least as a biblical scholar. Somehow having the two Gospel readings in such proximity and during the same service seems to elide the account of the last week of Jesus’ earthly life – after he had entered Jerusalem. It also means that if, as here, one is trying to write a blog on the lectionary Gospel for the day, it is not immediately obvious where we should focus!

I wonder if the tradition will happen this year, certainly in services which are ‘on line’?  In my experience the need for online worship to be shorter and simpler than worship in ‘normal’ times, might encourage some churches this year to opt for either the palms or the passion.

All the same, the tradition of the ‘two’ Gospels got me thinking. What is it that they specifically have in common? Other than both being about Jesus of course!  The answer (or one of them) seems to be that both the Palm Sunday Gospels and the accounts of Jesus’ passion explicitly focus on the meaning of kingship. Both in ways that may be quite subversive.

Although the four Gospels differ slightly in their wording, in each case the Palm Sunday reading alludes to Jesus’ kingship:

  • Tell the daughter of Zion,
  • Look your king is coming to you (Matthew 21.5)
  • Hosanna to the Son of David (Matthew 21.9)
  • Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David (Mark 11.10)
  • Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord (Luke 19.38)
  • Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord – the King of Israel (John 12-13)
  • Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look your king is coming sitting on a donkey’s colt! (John 12-15)

In three of the Gospels the word ‘king’ is used; Mark refers to ‘Son of David’, but this is a clear allusion to the tradition of a coming king from the royal line of David. Explicitly in the Gospels of Matthew and John, and implicitly in the other two there is an allusion to the text of Zechariah 9.9-10, which foretells the coming of a king who will bring ‘peace to the nations’.

 It is often suggested that by choosing to ride on a ‘donkey’ rather than a ‘horse’ – an animal used frequently in warfare – Jesus is unexpectedly subverting earlier conventions about the arrival of a messianic king. However the subversion of referring to a donkey is found also in the text of Zechariah, and even in the Blessing of Judah in Genesis 49.8-11 to which the text of Zechariah itself may allude.

The other clear Old Testament reference in the Gospels is to Psalm 118.26, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord’. It is not quite clear who the psalm intends to refer to by this ‘one’ though it is possible it is a royal figure: it is however interesting to note that the following line in the psalm is ‘We bless you from the house of the Lord’ (Psalm 118.26) which  make the implications of  Jesus’ actions after his entry to the city – his ‘cleansing of the Temple’ even more telling.

A homemade ‘palm cross’ from bamboo in our garden, for Palm Sunday 2020

In all four Gospels the passion narratives refer to Jesus as ‘king’. In Luke one of the charges brought against him before Pilate states in detail, ‘We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.’ (Luke 23.2). In all the Gospels the charge ‘King of the Jews’ is placed as a mocking inscription on his cross (Matthew 27.29; Mark 15.18; Luke 23.38; John 19.19). For all the Gospel writers these words, though intended as a mocking parody, are ultimately and ironically correct. This perhaps comes out most strongly in the Gospel of John; in this Gospel the cross itself is pictured as a throne, ‘lifting up’ the King it bears.

So in the Gospels, both at the time of the palms and the passion, Jesus’ kingship is important. Albeit kingship with a twist.

What however does this mean for us today? How can the biblical language of kingship speak into our context? It is interesting to reflect on it in light of our situation in Europe. Most of the countries in our continent and our diocese no longer have a king or monarch as head of state. Even those that do, such as the United Kingdom, understand ‘kingship’ in a very different way to how it was perceived in ‘biblical’ times. Autocratic monarchy, in which life or death could depend on the whim of a royal personage, has gone out of fashion in Europe, certainly after the first couple of decades of the 20th century.  There are still a few corners of the world where it can be found – but they are hardly places that I would want to emulate.

How far does biblical imagery and theology depend on an understanding of ‘kingship’? It is certainly true that ‘President’ or ‘Prime Minister’ does not have the same kind of ring! What are we seeking to say when we describe Jesus as ‘king’? What is it important not to lose? There is also the question that a number of Christian theologians and writers are unhappy with the hierarchical overtones of Christian ‘kingship’ language and argue that it is not appropriate to use in our time. The hymnwriter Brian Wren, for example, challenges what he calls KINGAFAP (King, Almighty Father, All Powerful) images in theology and hymnody. (See Brian Wren, ‘What language shall we borrow?’) I myself have something of an internal battle each year when we get near the Feast of Christ the King.

I would genuinely be interested to hear what readers of this blog might want to say on this. It is not an issue where I have a worked-out theological position of my own. I do however think it is a challenge that Christian theology in our day needs to engage with. There are two strands of the biblical understanding of kingship that I think are intrinsic and essential to our Christian faith.

The first is the deep understanding of the king as the mediator between the divine and human realms. Linked to the ‘Davidic covenant’ tradition, and alluded to frequently in the psalms, this role is two- directional – mediating the blessings of God to the wider nation, and interceding before God for the well-being of the people. This may, and often does, involve the king in a sacrificial role.

The second is closely linked to it – the sense of the king as a corporate personality, so that the boundaries between king and people, king and nation, begin to blur. The life of the one, and the life of the many are interwoven.

Both these aspects can be found in Psalm 22, certainly if understood as a ‘Psalm of David’. I do not think it is an accident that this particular psalm has been so influential in our interpretation of Jesus’ passion.

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