This Sunday Christians around the world will celebrate Palm Sunday. This observance recalls Jesus’ arrival into Jerusalem at the beginning of what would be the last week of his life.
Jesus arrives in Jerusalem riding humbly on a colt. His disciples and others line the road with cloaks and branches from trees. Eventually a crowd of some magnitude gets involved, and the event, whatever Jesus meant it to be, suddenly takes on a life of its own.
According to Matthew and Mark, the crowds that greeted Jesus were enthusiastic and began shouting “Hosanna.” Hosanna basically means, “Save us, we beg you.” These two Gospels also record that the crowd referred to Jesus as the Son of David.
The title Son of David had a very specific meaning for the Jews in the first century, a meaning that connected with a specific hope. David was Israel’s greatest king. He was a warrior king who defeated Israel’s enemies. Under David, and later Solomon, the nation of Israel attained its greatest prosperity and power. David was the symbol of Israel’s golden age.
The meaning expressed in the title Son of David was the hope that an heir of David would arrive at some point in history, once again defeat Israel’s enemies, and restore to the nation its autonomy and dignity. At the time of Jesus, Israel had been the pawn of one great kingdom or another for nearly 600 years. As Jesus rode into Jerusalem, it was Roman standards waving in the breeze atop the walls of the city.
And so the crowd’s enthusiastic embrace of Jesus as Son of David was a collective cry for help. They were hoping for another great king who would set them free from their oppressors. They wanted a new David to defeat their enemies using the same sort of violence that was used against them.
While the record certainly indicates that Jesus was a relative of David, he did not take for himself the war-weighted title, Son of David. Instead he called himself by the more humble phrase Son of Man. This title could be rendered “the Man” or simply the human one.
And what the crowd did not know or refused to understand about Jesus is that he also rejected the violence implied by the Son of David title. Jesus certainly understood the cruel indignities inflicted on the Jewish people by Roman occupation. Anyone who has studied the life of Jesus closely is acutely aware of his appreciation of Israel’s political situation.
But Jesus taught a nonviolent approach to resisting Roman tyranny. His words about going the second mile and turning the other cheek were aimed primarily at Roman cruelty. Jesus’ words were designed to restore to an oppressed people a sense of power and autonomy without provoking their opponent to violence. Jesus’ way was to humiliate and humble the Romans, not kill them.
But in the end, his way was rejected. If he would not live up to the expectations inherent in the Son of David title, the people would be content to wait for someone who would. Ironically, within 35 years of Jesus’ death, just such a person led Israel to their destruction.
This is the lesson of Palm Sunday. Trying to make Jesus be who we want him to be, bear the name we want him to bear, only sends him to the cross over and over again. Once, just once, we should try his way.