Alone Together: Lent 6

Posted Fri, 03/26/2021 - 12:07 by Robert

Alone Together: Palm Sunday

CCJ's Lent series 'Alone Together' remembers Jesus alone in the wilderness and reflects on the ways we are sharing a sense of isolation. In the next piece in the series Revd Gareth Jones talks about Palm Sunday. Gareth is Minister of St Andrews Psalter Lane LEP, Sheffield, and Co-Chair of Sheffield CCJ. Read Gareth's reflection below:

Among all the passages the Christian churches look at during Holy Week, the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is the episode in which he appears to be least alone. We find him acclaimed as king by the crowd, and the Gospel narratives, indebted to verses in the Hebrew scriptures, also have messianic overtones. By riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, Jesus proclaims that his authority is to be a peaceful one, rooted in humility. This notion of messianic humility is deeply Jewish: we may think of the Mishnaic story of Rabbi Joshua instructed by Elijah that he will find the Messiah before the gates of Rome, sitting among the poor and covered with wounds.

There are two issues for Jewish-Christian relations in the Palm Sunday episode that I’d like to highlight. The first is the nature and significance of the crowd. Christian preaching on Palm Sunday and later in Holy Week has often focused on the apparent fickleness of the crowd, which acclaims Jesus as he rides into Jerusalem and then turns on him at his trial. In the Christian imagination, this has usually been a substantial crowd, and the image of a large number of people calling for Jesus to be crucified has been one of the factors in the Gospels on which, in the past, pernicious Christian anti-Jewish polemic has fed.

However, there’s nothing to suggest that it’s the same crowd on each occasion. Nor is there any reference in the Gospel accounts to the size of the crowd at Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate, and it’s likely that it was relatively small. As far as the Palm Sunday crowd is concerned, the Gospels are ambiguous and inconsistent. Was this really a multitude or a fairly small gathering? And are they people who have come to greet Jesus as he enters the city, or disciples who have accompanied him on his journey? There’s no justification for the idea that, on Palm Sunday and at Jesus’ trial, there is a large crowd representative of the people of Jerusalem, who become antagonistic to Jesus and call for his death.   

The second issue is the quotation from Zechariah, an example of the numerous verses from the Hebrew scriptures which the Gospels quote as prophesying, or being fulfilled in, Jesus:


Look, your king is coming to you…

   humble, and mounted on a donkey,

      and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.


This verse, generally considered by Jewish commentators to be messianic, is quoted by Matthew and John and implied in Mark and Luke. Matthew, typically, explicitly interprets Jesus’ actions as fulfilling this prophecy. But might Christian readers interpret this and similar texts quoted in the Gospels in a subtly different way, with full attention to, and respect for, their original context and meaning? Instead of using the language of fulfilment, can we speak of such passages as being ‘echoed’ in the story of Jesus? And might this open up a richer shared reading of the Hebrew scriptures that our Jewish and Christian faiths have in common?