The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13 So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—
the King of Israel!”
14 Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written:
15 “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion.
Look, your king is coming,
sitting on a donkey’s colt!”
16 His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him. – John 12:12-16
In the days of the Roman Empire, military generals who had won important victories were often welcomed back to Rome with elaborate parades called “triumphs.” Triumphs involved a great procession of soldiers, flag and torch bearers, musicians, captives, and other spoils of war. The focus of the parade, though, was on the victorious general usually riding in a high-sided chariot pulled by four horses. After less significant battles, the triumphant leaders would ride on horseback. The crowds, of course, cheered and celebrated their military leaders for their great contribution to the stability and honor of the empire.
The setting for today’s Scripture passage is similar to a typical Roman triumph in some ways and very different in others. The scene is Jerusalem instead of Rome, but the elated crowd is there rejoicing over a perceived great victor who is entering the city. The people recognize Jesus as the anointed one they’ve been waiting for, the Messiah. As their words of celebration reveal, the crowd sees Jesus as the new “King of Israel,” and they surely believed he would soon raise up an army to overthrow the hated oppressors of the Jews, the Romans. How strange, though, that Jesus has no chariot or warhorse, but is instead riding on a donkey, the humble transportation of commoners.
On this side of the cross, we recognize what the crowds obviously didn’t. Jesus had no intention of starting an earthly revolution, because the Kingdom he preached and initiated was spiritual. Instead of rallying an awesome army to defeat the Romans, he submitted to the Father’s will that those Romans try and execute him on the shameful cross. In light of those events, it makes much more sense to see Jesus humbly ambling along on a donkey amongst people who terribly misunderstood his mission. Of course, we know that the cross was not the end for Jesus as he defeated death in resurrection only 3 days later! Praise God that we will join Christ one day in the heavenly triumph that never ends!