Mark 11:1-11 is one of the possible Gospel readings in the Revised Common Lectionary for the Liturgy of the Palms, Palm Sunday. This reading is, unfortunately, decontextualized in the Lectionary because the previous Sunday readings in Lent do not give us an indication of the events that precede the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem.
Jesus Comes in Peace
We get the impression from another source, John’s Gospel, that Jesus and the Apostles were hesitant, or circumspect (at the very least) about entering Jerusalem during the Holy Week. This debate plays out in John 11:7-9 and 11:54-57. When Jesus finally decides to go to Jerusalem, he rides a donkey, fulfilling a prophecy in Zechariah 9:9. The choice of a donkey, rather than a horse, is itself symbolic, as it indicates that he comes in peace. Were Jesus a soldier or conqueror, he would ride in on a warhorse.
I should be careful about my use of the term “donkey,” since the Marcan passage says he rode in on a “colt.” But the Greek term is πῶλος (polos – Strong’s 4454), which means colt, or foal, or the young of a horse or donkey. John’s Gospel (12:15) tells us that Jesus rode in on a “donkey’s colt,” πῶλον ὄνου. While Matthew’s Gospel (21:7) suggests that both a colt and a donkey, possibly the donkey and its young, were requisitioned. Note the fidelity to the Matthean passage in Flandrin’s painting, above.
His arrival in Jerusalem reminds us that King David, nearly a thousand years previously, returned to Jerusalem via Mount Olive (2 Sam 15:30), and that he too, secured a donkey to enter the city (2 Sam 16:1-2). David’s choice of a donkey is associated with the fact that he entered Jerusalem unopposed, just as Jesus would nine hundred years later.
Jesus the Branch
Why do the people spread palms, or “branches” before Jesus in verse 9? Liturgically, reeds, palms and green branches are used on days of celebration. Consider Leviticus 23:40: On the first day you are to take choice fruit from the trees, and palm fronds, leafy branches and poplars, and rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days. It would be wrong to assume that the “palm” frond is, in the Old Testament, a sign of kingship. Actually, we have no evidence that such is the case, since a search of any biblical concordance will not correlate “palm branch” with kingship.
Spreading palm fronds before a king may be a Roman tradition, but it is not a Jewish tradition. However, the Jews view King David’s descendant and successor to be the “Branch,” an offshoot of David’s line. Isaiah, in particular, speaks of the Messiah as root, stump, or branch. The Messiah is the “Root of Jesse,” (Isaiah 11:10) or the “Stump of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:1). God’s Kingdom, the new Zion, is known as the “Branch of the Lord” (Isaiah 4:2).
This theme is continued by the prophets Jeremiah and Zechariah. In Jeremiah 23:5, the prophet says I will raise up to David a righteous Branch. In verse 33:15, I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line. In Zechariah 3:8, we are told I am going to bring my servant, the Branch. And most astonishing is this prophecy from Zechariah 6:12, Here is the man whose name is the Branch, and he will branch out from his place and build the temple of the LORD.
Thus the use of palms or branches is a symbolic double-entendre. From the perspective of Roman culture, it symbolizes kingship or victory. But, more importantly, from the perspective of Hebrew tradition, there is the subtle implication that Jesus is the “Branch,” the one who fulfills the prophecy about the coming of the Messiah from the line of King David.
11:1 When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples
11:2 and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it.
11:3 If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.'”
11:4 They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it,
11:5 some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?”
11:6 They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it.
11:7 Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it.
11:8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.
11:9 Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
11:10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
11:11 Then 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.