March 29, 2015
John 12: 12-16
Iona College, New Rochelle
“When the great crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, they took palm branches and went out to meet him, and cried out: ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, the king of Israel’” (John 12: 12-13).
Did you know that John’s Gospel is the only one that specifies that the crowd waved palm branches to welcome Jesus into Jerusalem? I didn’t, until I read a commentary earlier this week. Matthew and Mark speak of “leafy branches,” probably from olive or fig trees, which are found near Jerusalem, whereas palm trees aren’t; and Luke doesn’t mention branches at all.
The palm is rich in symbolism. The Jews regarded it as sacred, using it in temple and synagog ornamentation. It was, as well, a sign of victory, and in Christian art it came to symbolize martyrdom. The psalms speak of the just man who flourishes like a palm tree.
No doubt St. John means to capture some or all of these allusions by speaking of palms waved in Jesus’ honor: Jesus is the most sacred Word of God, entering the holy city to win victory for God over Satan’s powers. The most just of men, he’ll shed his blood in martyrdom to lead all of humanity back to God. A few verses earlier, John quoted Caiaphas the high priest prophesying that “one man should die instead of the people” (11:50), and that why Jesus “comes in the name of the Lord” (12:13). He will conquer Satan by shedding not the blood of his enemies but his own.
The crowd cries out, “Hosanna!” which means “Grant salvation!” or “Save us!” To that they add a verse quoted from Ps 118 (v. 26), “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” They welcome Jesus as the one who will save them in God’s name. To the verse from Ps 118 they add, “the king of Israel.” You may remember that in John’s account of the multiplication of the loaves and fish, the crowd “were going to come and carry him off to make him king” (6:15), causing Jesus to flee, alone. Now, in Jerusalem, they acclaim him as king, the Anointed One of God (Messiah). This time he doesn’t flee. His hour has come, the hour when he will indeed assume his rightful throne—the cross; and will be crowned—with thorns; and will claim the sovereignty of truth (John 18:37).
He does counter the crowd’s expectations, however. “Jesus found an ass and sat upon it” (12:14). Kings don’t ride donkeys. They ride powerful horses or roll in on chariots as a sign of their authority and military might, perhaps of their having won some great battle. When Queen Elizabeth goes to address Parliament, she doesn’t ride a donkey, does she? She takes a majestic coach drawn by magnificent horses—a vehicle of state. But Jesus takes a lowly beast of burden, slow and peaceful. Yet even this speaks of the true sort of kingship that Jesus exercises. The prophet Zechariah had written, “Rejoice heartily, O daughter Zion…! See, your king shall come to you; a just savior is he, meek, and riding on an ass” (9:9), which John cites (12:15) both to demonstrate Jesus’ fulfillment of the prophecy and to indicate the nature of his royal rule. He rules with love and mercy, for he is the Good Shepherd who has come to save God’s flock.
“His disciples did not understand this at first” (12:16). This isn’t the 1st time that John refers to the disciples’ later understanding of what Jesus had said or done. It’s only when he’s “been glorified” (12:16), i.e., has risen and ascended to heaven, that they make the connections of what he said and did with the word of God expressed in the Jewish Scriptures. After events have completely unfolded they can put them all together into a complete picture and see what God has designed for the salvation of the world.
This short gospel passage—5 verses—is an invitation for us to reflect upon Jesus’ victory and upon his rule over our lives; on what makes him the model of the just man, on how he defeated sin and how he wishes us, his disciples, to follow his example of self-giving and mercy. It’s an invitation for us to reflect upon the events of our own lives in the light of God’s word and try to discern how God has acted for us in the past, what he’s doing now, what plan is unfolding, so that he might take us forward to a share in the salvation that Jesus, the king of Israel, has won for us.