Author Topic: "Palm" Sunday texts  (Read 446 times)

Brian Stoffregen

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"Palm" Sunday texts
« on: March 17, 2021, 02:56:24 AM »
The following are "notes" that I compiled for the triumphant entrance texts.

Palm Sunday: Exegetical Notes – Matthew 21:1-9; Mark 11:1-10; Luke 19:28-40; John 12:12-18.

Biblically, “Palm Sunday” is probably not a good title for the day. “Palms” are only mentioned in one gospel during the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem.

Only John mentions branches [βάϊον - baion] of palms [φοῖνιξ - phoinix].
In Mark, the disciples cut leaves [στιβάς - stibas] from the field [ἀγρός - agros].
In Matthew, they cut off branches [κλάδος - klados] from the trees [δένδρος - dendron].
There are no branches of any kind in Luke!

Whatever they crowds were carrying, what do they mean? There is nothing quite like this in the Old Testament.

One suggestion is that the actions described by John resemble one of the standard processions of Tabernacles where the people carried twigs of myrtle, willow, and palm. Originally these were used in the construction of booths (Nehemiah 8:13-18). Later some of them, at least, were bound together into a sort of festal plume, called the lulab, to which a citron was also attached. The lulab was a symbol of rejoicing and was carried ceremonially during the daily singing of the Hallel (Psalms 113-118).

Another connection – a stronger one, I think – is with 1 & 2 Maccabees. I’ll quote the appropriate sections from the Common English Bible (with my emphases in boldface and additions in {brackets}.

1 Maccabees 13:49-52 – Capture of the Pagan Fort in Jerusalem

49Those who were in the elevated fortress at Jerusalem were prevented from moving around to buy and sell in the country. So they were very hungry, and many perished from famine. 50They appealed to Simon to make peace with them, and he did. But he expelled them from there and cleansed the elevated fortress from its pollutions. 51On the twenty-third day of the second month, in the year 171, the Jews entered it with praise and palm branches {βάϊον - baion}, with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs. A great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel. 52Simon declared that they should celebrate this day annually with rejoicing. He strengthened the defenses of the temple hill alongside the elevated fortress, and he and his soldiers lived there.
2 Maccabees 10:1-8 – The Rededication of the Temple {Hanukkah}

1The Maccabee and his companions, with the Lord leading them, recovered the temple and the city. 2They demolished the altars that the foreigners built near the marketplace, as well as the sacred precincts. 3They cleansed the temple and made another altar. Then they struck flints to make fire and they offered up sacrifices after a lapse of two years, and they prepared incense, lamps, and the sacred loaves. 4After they had done these things, they bowed to the ground and pleaded with the Lord that they would not experience such misfortunes again, but if they should ever sin, they would be disciplined by him with fairness and not turned over to slanderous and barbaric nations. 5On the anniversary of the temple’s defilement by foreigners, on that very day, the sanctuary was purified, on the twenty-fifth of the month, which is Kislev. 6They celebrated eight days with cheer in a manner like the Festival of Booths, remembering how during the previous Festival of Booths they had been roaming about in mountains and caverns like animals. 7So they held ivy wands, beautiful branches {κλάδος – klados}, and also palm leaves {φοῖνιξ - phoinix}, and offered hymns to the one who had made the purification of his own temple possible. 8They voted and issued a public decree that all Jews should celebrate these days each year. 9And so the matters concerning Antiochus called Epiphanes came to an end.

The use of palm branches in Maccabees was related to military victories. Is that what the people were expecting from Jesus? When they shout “Hosanna” – “Save us” (not part of the shout in Luke); do they consider that “salvation” to be like that of the Maccabees – saving us from the occupying forces in Jerusalem – driving out the enemy from city and temple? If so, then Jesus failed miserably to live up to their expectations. Roman soldiers remained in Jerusalem. They will force Jesus to go out of the city to Golgotha.

What about the animal? What does it symbolize?

Only Matthew and John make reference to Zechariah 9:9. John’s shorter quote avoids the strange situation of Jesus riding on a donkey AND on a colt. It is one of Matthew’s themes that Jesus actions fulfill Old Testament texts. Because we know what will happen to Jesus in Jerusalem, we have tended to emphasize the “humble” aspect of the king who comes riding into town on his donkey. However, Zechariah’s oracle describes the king as “triumphant” and “victorious”. He “cuts off” chariots, war-horses, and battle bows. The Harper’s Bible Commentary says that the oracle in Zechariah 9 is one of “defeat and destruction for the foreign nations and return and restoration for Israel.”

Given this context of Zechariah’s king riding into town and the use of palm branches when the Maccabean forces defeated the foreign nations and rededicated the temple, I would assume that similar expectations were in the minds of the crowd on the first “palm” Sunday.

Robert Capon in Hunting the Divine Fox maintains that the typical American paradigm of the Messiah is not Jesus, but Superman. We don’t want a savior who does a stupid thing like rising from the dead. We want one who never dies. We want one who will supernaturally defeat all our enemies like Superman did in every ½ hour show.

A contrast between the palm Sunday’s crowd’s expectations (as well as our own) of the superstar, saving (meaning: helping us avoid pain) Jesus, and the real, suffering and dying messiah who promises life on the other side of pain, may be the message we need to proclaim on Passion Sunday.
"The church … had made us like ill-taught piano students; we play our songs, but we never really hear them, because our main concern is not to make music, but but to avoid some flub that will get us in dutch." [Robert Capon, _Between Noon and Three_, p. 148]