When they were merely a story, a rumor of a movement up north, I don’t imagine the Jesus people seemed quite real. After all, that was Galilee, the land of rebellion. Insurgents must have lined every major road, the way that Jerusalem folks imagined things, and no standing Roman garrison lay in wait to crush loose talk about “messiah.” But when the rumors started to get nearer, when the Doppler effect of a massive crowd headed for the already-crowded city drew the people into the streets to see what they had only heard of, the man riding on a donkey could scarcely have been more real. Many of the followers, chanting nationalist slogans in their hillbilly accents, threw their clothes in front of the animal, others dropping branches cut from nearby trees, providing a strange carpet for the processional. But the moment couldn’t be more public: this was no conspiracy to be kept quiet but a public declaration that these crowds, running in front of the donkey and bustling behind it, noisy even by the standards of a city who knew no shortage of religious festivals, intended for everyone to know that the one coming in was indeed the Son of David.
Inside the city, I imagine, must have been a scene of great anxiety. Jerusalem was no stranger to would-be revolutionaries, and their long history of throwing off foreign powers always stood alongside their long history of suffering violence at the hands of foreign powers. For every Tiglath-Pileser whose armies died trying to take Jerusalem there was a Nebuchadnezzar at whose hands a dynasty perished, for every Antiochus driven off a Mark Antony whose power did not turn away. When, in Matthew’s account, the people of the city ask, “Who is this?” theirs is not the question of the religious “seeker” or the scholar of Jewish history; they knew that a pretender could lead to the deaths of their own children, to the end of a life that their stories told them was always too precarious. The countryside seemed to grow zeal faster than vineyards could produce grapes, sending generation after generation of them on fools’ revolutions. But the people of Jerusalem knew better: whether for the hand of YHWH or for the wrath of kings, standing up rather than getting along was a deadly business.
Of course, the book of Matthew does not leave things simply with that contest of perceptions. On the contrary, Matthew, with customary focus on the career of Jesus as the culmination of all of God’s revelation, brings the prophets to bear on the moment. Biblical scholars make much of the probabilities and improbabilities that there was “really” a triumphal entry, that the animals might have been “assigned” ex post facto so that they would match up with the text of Zechariah, and so on, but those sorts of questions (largely because they’re not really susciptible to falsification–is there another extant first-century text that tells a contradictory story?) don’t interest me nearly as much as the way that Matthew pits not only the jaded, skeptical city of Jerusalem against the wild-eyed Galilean crowds but how both of them turn out to be at root right and in ultimate terms entirely wrong about the importance of the entry. For Matthew, the real point of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem is neither impending violence against Rome nor immanent counter-revolution that will destroy the city (in some sense the people of the city were right, but forty years early) but the bringing-to-fullness a much broader divine transformation, one which will ultimately make both the insurgent and the occupier sinners to be forgiven and which will invite both the agent of imperial power and the crusader for ethnic self-determination into confrontation with a salvation that emerges nowhere but out of the Torah and stops nowhere short of welcoming in all nations. The anxious urbanites and the fiery fishermen alike miss the point not because they’ve chosen the wrong side but because neither faction in their struggle has the vision to see the grand global revolution that reaches its culmination and begins its gospel march in the midst of the Jewish Wars.
I’d be a great fool to claim that I’m the only one (or one of the only ones) to have vision beyond my moment here in the early decades of the computer age. I’m just as near-sighted as the rest of us. But reading Matthew’s version of Palm Sunday does make me wonder whether, some day, folks will be able to tell truthfully the story of folks like me, so hung up on local and momentary struggles between my own moment’s political factions, that we missed something genuinely divine about to happen. I’m not confident that, as the crowds enter the city, I have the vision to see beyond the clash between kept congressmen and fast-food boycotters and social-network street-preachers and televised talking heads. But I do hold out hope that, somewhere and some time, there will be sight for folks, like me, who are blind to the really important stuff going down.
May Palm Sunday remind all of us to see what we can, to remember as God gives us help to remember, and to rejoice when Christ shows up, even if we missed when Christ did.