The occasion of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem before facing cross and crucifixion, observed by Christians as Palm Sunday, is a pivotal event in the Gospels. It is important to know how the passage containing this Palm Sunday story in the Bible is titled, particularly the passage from Matthew 21: 1-11, that is, “Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem” (NRSV).
Other Biblical translations give slightly different versions: “Jesus comes to Jerusalem as King” (NIV), “Jesus triumphant entry” (NLT). When I read this text from Matthew, I understand it text as Jesus’ contestation of political triumphalism. I would also call this passage Jesus’ anti-empire procession”, or “Jesus counter-hegemonic ride.
Jesus lived at a time when Rome’s oppressive regime was at its heighth. Jesus’s community was under occupation and had been subject to exploitation by rulers, governors, priests and other religious authorities. It was a usual practice of the Roman army to conduct a military parade with horses on the streets of Jerusalem prior to the festival of Passover as a sign of its authoritarian power and might. Their arms and weapons were at public display to frighten and intimidiate people who might consider insurrection.
Year after year, the occupied people had witnessed these military parades and grown frustrated with this kind of rule. Therefore, Jesus’s own procession can be seen as a display of counter-hegemony, contesting the legitimacy of the oppressive regime, by riding in on a donkey with people waving palm branches, signifying their yearning for the coming of an alternative kingdom as against the kingdom of Rome.
Jesus’ procession into the city was a pre-planned. He ordered the disciples to go and fetch the donkey and the colt and prepare for his entrance. Jesus’ mounting the donkey symbolizes his anti-imperial stance, displaying an alternative form of kingship, as against the pomp and royalty of the Roman emperors and the domain. His performance was a public, symbolic statement of the colonized in opposition the colonizer.
That is the reason there was “turmoil” at the end of the procession, as recorded in verse 10. “When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil.” It was a dramatic gesture that stirred the city. Although it ended in upheaval, Jesus’ reception demonstrated the angst of the colonized against the oppressors. Towards its conclusion, the identity of Jesus was revealed, which wasn’t in any way kingly, but it is recorded in verse 11. The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Here is the Jesus movement, run by an ordinary man from a village called Nazareth in Galilee who was running an anti-imperial demonstration in the capital city of Jerusalem. The crowds beheld “a prophet” in Jesus.
Jesus’ political spectacle in the streets of Jerusalem was well supported by the masses of citizens who were shouting: “Hosanna to the son of David, Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven.” These exclamations are of noteworthy, for the citizens of Roman empire were compelled to proclaim “hail Caesar” to the Roman rulers, who claimed themselves to be sons of God if not gods themselves. The other popular slogan during the times was “there is no other name under the heaven by which men can be saved than that of Caesar”, a phrase that was later applied to Jesus.
In contrast to this imperial slogans, the followers of Jesus were shouting “Hosanna son of David”, exalting the scion of the great Jewish king over Caesar himself. This was the genuine yearning of the citizenry as they were looking for “freedom” from their political overlords. The empire forcing its citizens (if we are to understand it in today’s terms) to call out, ‘Roman Mata ki Jai’ (Mother Roma be hailed). But instead they exclaimed “Hosanna, save us”. The crowds could have been arrested under sedition laws. It was in such a context, the citizens of a small territory in Judea were subverting the whole understanding of empire.
Thus, the call for us this Palm Sunday is to commit our faith communities to join with Jesus in his anti-imperial, counter-hegemonic processions, shouting “Hosannas” and “God save us from these oppressive regimes of our times.” Jesus’ alternative kingship and his alternative to the “Roman” empire, in which the “kingdom of God” should be our public faith, narrative, aspiration and paradigm.
Join with Jesus, this Palm Sunday in creating a turmoil in the context of empires, manifested as caste, class, patriarchy, race, religious nationalism, etc. Join with Jesus this Palm Sunday in the mission of liberation that he has embarked against Caesars everywhere and their policies.
Join with Jesus and his co-citizens of the kingdom, who boldly and courageously shouted “Hosanna” against the dominant ideologies and stood undeterred even to the extent of being blamed as “anti-nationals”. Join with Jesus in a procession against the “honor killings” that keep happening unabated in the name of caste. Join with Jesus this Palm Sunday to publicly express our solidarity in action with exiled citizens, refugees, migrants, undocumented asylum seekers, the homeless, the excluded, the marginalized, and join with them in their struggles for justice.
Raj Bharat Patta is currently a doctoral student at the University of Manchester and formerly the General Secretary of SCM India. He is also a Lutheran minister. As SCM general secretary, his role was to explore different creative ways to translate faith into practice and bring relevance to faith among college students across India. After completing his theological education, he worked as a parish pastor and subsequently with the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI) as the Executive Secretary for Commission on Dalits, Mission and Youth.