Palm Sunday (Year B)
Those who have waited for salvation welcome joyfully the coming king.
The Revised Common Lectionary splits the traditional Palm Sunday in two. For the same Sunday, it offers two liturgies, one focusing on the Palm Sunday triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the other focusing on the entire Passion narrative. These are called respectively the Liturgy of the Palms and the Liturgy of the Passion.
I have made it my practice to separate these two, to give only the Palm Sunday readings here and to save the full Passion narrative for a Good Friday set of readings. The Good Friday readings will be in the next issue of the Common Good Network.
The Liturgy of the Palms involves only two readings, the great Entry psalm reflecting rituals led by the Davidic king going back to the First Temple era in Israel, and the re-enactment of those ancient symbols by Jesus at Herod’s temple around the year 30 CE.
Psalm 118:1–2, 19–29.
The Psalm reading is the call to worship (verses 1–2) and the last half of the psalm that ends the Egyptian Hallel, the group of praise psalms (113–118) used at all the Jewish festivals in Jerusalem. In the rituals of the psalm, the people (and priests) inside the city respond to the royal procession coming to the eastern gate of the temple.
The approaching king speaks (quotes are NRSV throughout).
Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them
and give thanks to the Lord (verse 19).
The gatekeepers reply.
This is the gate of the Lord;
[only] the righteous shall enter through it.
Having reached this gate, the goal of his earlier struggles, the king speaks his thanksgiving to God, showing that he is among the righteous.
I thank you [singular] that you have answered me
and have become my salvation (verse 21).
The people inside declare the significance of this occasion.
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Save us, we beseech you [hōshī’ānnā], O Lord!
O Lord, we beseech you, give us success! (verses 22–25)
The answer to the people’s cry for deliverance (“Hosanna!”) is the king’s actual passage through the gates (a passageway through a thick city wall, sometimes with side chambers within the gate).
The gateway leads to the outer court of the temple (the only one accessible to non-Israelites). As the king passes into this court, those who receive him joyfully declare,
Blessed in the name of the Lord is the one who comes! [NRSV margin]
We bless you [plural] from the house of the Lord.
And they continue in praise, directing the liturgical action toward the center of the temple.
The Lord is God [literally, “Yahweh is El.”]
and he has given us light.
Bind the festival with ropes [literal translation],
up to the horns of the altar (verse 27).
[The precise action involved is uncertain.]
The king figure has now reached the inner court of the sanctuary where the altar of animal sacrifice stood. There he makes a final declaration of his thanksgiving for deliverance.
You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
you are my God, I will extol you.
That thanksgiving offering (which will provide feasting for the group, including the poor) concludes the liturgical action of the psalm, and the master of ceremonies repeats the opening summons, calling on all to “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good…”
The Gospel reading is Mark’s version of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.
The geography is made explicit: Bethany is about two miles from the temple, Bethphage much closer, but both villages were on the slopes of the Mount of Olives. Jesus comes to the temple from the east. (In Ezekiel, God’s departure from the temple in judgment is through the east gate and over the Mount of Olives, Ezekiel 10:18–19; 11:22–23, and his return to the restored temple is the same route in reverse, Ezekiel 43:1–5. These show the standard liturgical traditions of the first Temple.)
Getting the Donkey. A large part of Mark’s narrative is taken up with the details of how the donkey colt for Jesus’ ride is procured. There is an element of secrecy, almost of conspiracy, here, but Mark does not bother to explain. A similar mysterious procedure is followed to find the upper room for the Last Supper (14:12–16), and some scholars think these passages (and the appearance of Joseph of Arimathea to bury Jesus) show that Jesus has previous connections and collaborators in Jerusalem. Beyond that the important points seem to be, (1) that this is a colt that has never been ridden, thus fitting for a king to ride in a coronation, and (2) that the explanation for taking the colt is that “the Lord needs it,” an unusual use of “the Lord” in Mark’s Gospel. (However, in Aramaic, the same word means both “lord”—of a servant—and “owner” of an animal.)
The Entry. The garments and branches are spread in the road by those around Jesus as a royal carpeting, a rather modest case of “preparing the way of the Lord.” What the people shout is clearly from Psalm 118, though there is an important variation in the phrasing: Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. That is, the coming is in the name of the Lord, not the blessing. This is much more applicable to Jesus as God’s Anointed One coming to Zion.
The Davidic king. The second part of the people’s acclamation has no direct connection with Psalm 118. “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David.” This must be understood as a popular expectation attributed to the crowds a few days before the festival.
In the larger context of Mark’s Gospel, this acclamation is ambiguous: there is one sense in which Jesus fulfills the promises to David, but in so far as it expects a restoration of political and military independence for Judah it is misleading. It reflects yet another case in Mark of a misunderstanding of who Jesus is, or of the nature of the kingdom that he brings in. The rest of the Passion narrative will make abundantly clear that this is a misunderstanding.
The ancient liturgy (Psalm 118) is followed when Jesus completes the entry into the city by going into the temple. There is no song of thanksgiving uttered here, but there is an inspection (he “looked around at everything”), and a return to Bethany for the night. The purging of the temple from its abuses will take place on the next day, framed before and after by the episode of the cursing of the fruitless fig tree (Mark 11:12–24). (The Gospels According to Matthew and Luke differ here from Mark, making the temple cleansing the climax of the triumphal entry, turning the whole action into a victory of prophetic reform.)
If the entry of Jesus into the city is read against the background of the whole of Psalm 118, there is an added depth to it. The figure who enters in triumph is a redeemer figure, who in the psalm has already suffered for sins and is now delivered. In Mark, the suffering is foreshadowed and still lies ahead, as does the victorious deliverance from death, which in Mark is signified initially by an empty tomb.
“Compassion and justice are companions, not choices.”
—William Sloane Coffin, Jr.