The event traditionally known as Palm Sunday is fraught with meaning. It is hard to think of any close contemporary equivalents that would parallel the mood of this entry and presentation. It could be compared to a political convention where the party leader is selected and proclaimed to the nation. The figure is usually known to the public before the selection, but at the convention the campaigning gets serious: the leader is now an official candidate. Another analogy would be the "coming out" of a debutante at a ball. As the young woman is officially presented to larger society, there is a public recognition that a new and significant stage in her life has arrived. We could also think of a regal coronation ceremony, but that does not work in this case, because Jesus is being presented as a regal figure but not crowned as one.
Of course, the event is crucial and transitional for Luke. He has built up the journey to Jerusalem as full of significance. Jerusalem is the city of Jesus' fate and destiny. From Luke's perspective Jesus is still approaching the city and has not officially entered it, since his condemnation of Jerusalem's rejection in verse 41 takes places as he approached. Events move quickly from this point, so that after the procession and the lament over Jerusalem, Jesus moves inexorably toward his death. Announced as the king, he is rejected as king.
Luke continues the journey motif as he introduces the entry: After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. As he approached Bethphage and Bethany . . . Still outside the city, moving through villages just a few miles to the east, he prepares to enter the capital. He takes control of events as well, instructing two disciples to procure an animal for him. Jesus' riding of the young colt fulfills Zechariah 9:9, though Luke does not mention this text specifically. The fact that the colt is young may suggest purity (Num 19:2; Deut 21:3; 1 Sam 6:7). The animal is commandeered because "the Lord needs it." Here culture and divine design meet. In the culture a major religious or political figure could request the use of livestock, a custom known as angaria (Derrett 1971:243-49). Someone who knew Jesus or his disciples might well have been ready to lend an animal to them. The detail with which the Lord prepares the disciples to find the colt adds another note: for him the coming events will include no surprises. He has announced the sequence of events. When the disciples' experience exactly fits what he has predicted (vv. 32-34), this theme is strengthened.
Outer garments are laid over the animal to make a saddle, and Jesus is placed on it. The language used to describe Jesus' riding the animal recalls 1 Kings 1:33 and David's selecting of Solomon, while the mention of the colt alludes to Zechariah 9:9. The imagery is regal and even messianic, though it is a humble Messiah who makes the ride.
As the people spread their garments (NIV: their cloaks) on the road, a "red carpet" of sorts is produced. This part of the entry recalls Jehu's entry for royal accession in 2 Kings 9:13. Luke makes no mention of branches, possibly because they may have had revolutionary, nationalistic overtones he wishes to avoid connecting to Jesus (2 Maccabees 10:7-9; L. T. Johnson 1991:297). The entry is regal without being revolutionary or threatening.
As often in Jesus' ministry, word and deed are hand in hand. The event suggests a regal entry, while the praise points to God's presence. God is being praised for the mighty works he has done through Jesus. The concept of works of power (NIV: miracles) is frequent in Luke (4:32-33, 41; 5:17; 6:19; 8:46; 9:1; 19:37; Acts 4:33; 6:8; 8:13; 10:38). For the crowd the miracles mean Jesus is a great prophet (7:16; 9:7-9). But for the disciples Jesus is the promised King (9:18-20). Only Luke inserts the reference to a king into the quote from Psalm 118:26: "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!" These events signaled a unique time and a unique figure (Lk 11:29-32; 13:10-17; 14:1-6; 17:11-19; 18:35-43; Acts 10:38).
The use of the psalm is significant, because in Jewish worship it was seen ultimately as celebrating God's plan. One day the one greeted as coming in the Lord's name would be the Messiah (Bock 1987:118, 125). The psalm was used in the Feast of Tabernacles for just this reason (m. Sukka 3:9; 4:5). So joy and cries of peace surround the verse's use here. Just as heaven rejoices when a lost sinner is found, heaven rejoices as the King enters the city.
But the moment is not so triumphal in the minds of some. The religious leaders regard the crowd's claims as excessive. They approach Jesus to get him to calm the disciples' enthusiasm. Maybe these followers have gone overboard, as zealous supporters often do: "Teacher, rebuke your disciples!" Using an urgent Greek aorist imperative (epitimeson), the leaders ask that the eschatological demonstration be stopped by Jesus' rebuke. They have again failed to see the sign of the times (12:54-56; 13:31-35).
Irony drips from Jesus' response. He cannot silence his disciples, for if he did, then creation itself would take up the song: "If they keep quiet, the stones will cry out." Even inanimate creation understands events better than the leaders do—so deep runs their blindness. All the way back to Abel's blood crying out to God, when rhetoric portrays the creation as speaking, there has been serious misunderstanding of God's ways (Gen 4:10; Hab 2:11; Jas 5:4). The blindness is tragic, as a weeping Jesus will reveal in verses 41-44. Only Luke notes this exchange between the Pharisees and Jesus.
So the candidate has entered the city. His supporters have acknowledged his role. But opposition stands in the way. A divided Israel receives the king into its capital, just as humanity is divided over Jesus today. If one listens to Jesus and to the creation, Luke says, it is obvious who is on the side of truth and right.
The entry encompasses the different kinds of responses to Jesus. Some know who he is and serve him, following his instructions. Others are open, but not with much understanding. Still others are hostile toward him. Even the creation has a response to what is occurring. A famous saying goes, "All the world is a stage and we are merely players in it." Yet as the heavens watch, the question remains: which response do we support (Eph 3:8-10)?
The rejection causes Jesus so much pain that he is weeping as he draws near to the city. "If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace." The nation is missing its moment. Peace with God is not possible for those who reject Jesus. Though this rejection produces Jesus' tragic death, the national consequences of the people's blindness are even more tragic and staggering. Peace is now "hidden from your eyes" (Ps 122:6; Jer 15:5). What follows is a "searing oracle of doom" (Tiede 1980:80): national sin will pay its price in judgment on covenant unfaithfulness. The oracle is introduced with the foreboding phrase days will come (1 Sam 2:31; 2 Kings 20:17; Is 39:6; Jer 7:32-34; 33:14; 49:2; Zech 14:1). When this phrase appears, judgment follows.
What Jesus proceeds to describe is a Hellenistic military siege that will slowly choke the city to death. This anticipated disaster recalls the judgment that befell the pagan nations when God acted against them and the judgment Israel experienced in going into exile (Ps 137:9; Is 3:26; 29:1-4; Jer 6:6-21; 8:18-22; Ezek 4:1-2; Nahum 3:10; Hab 2:8). The enemy "will cast up a bank around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side, and dash you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave one stone upon another." The defeat will be total. The city and the temple will be destroyed. Josephus's description of the defeat of A.D. 70 shows just how true Jesus' prediction was (Jewish Wars 5.11.4 466-72; 5.12.2 502-10; 7.1.1 1-4; 7.8.7 375-77).
The reason for the destruction is simple—"you did not know the time of your visitation." Messiah has come and Israel has said no. Opportunity for peace has come, but the nation has opted for destruction—a destruction that will not be permanent, as later texts like Acts 3:18-22 and Romans 11:27-29 make clear. Still, this soon-to-come destruction will be devastating. What Jesus has hinted at in Luke 13:31-35 is now described in graphic and painful detail. Israel's house will be desolate. A first-century Auschwitz awaits it. Unlike the twentieth-century version, where repulsive ethnic hatred brought death, the Jewish nation of the first century brought catastrophe on itself. The ancient Jewish historian Josephus blamed the nationalists, the Zealots, for the nation's demise, but Jesus has a different answer. By rejecting him, Israel has chosen the way of judgment. It has missed the day and the moment.
What was true of the Jewish nation can also be true of individuals. To miss Jesus is to miss the time of visitation and face accountability before God.