The kingdom is coming
A reflection on the gospel for Palm Sunday by Dries van den Akker SJ
Mark 11:1-11 and 14:01 – 15:47
Jesus approaches Jerusalem and enters into the city as a king, cheered by the people, ‘Blessed is the coming kingdom of David, our father!’ He is seated on a colt. Just as the prophet Zechariah had announced (9:9):
‘Look your king is approaching,he is vindicated and victorious,humble and riding on a donkey,on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’
In the same way Solomon, king David’s son, had made his royal entrance into Jerusalem, seated on a mule (1 Kings 1:38). This event is supposed to be the climax of Mark’s story about Jesus.
Mark’s First Line
This is what Mark announced in the very first line of his gospel, ‘The Beginning of the Good Message [ed. 'news’ in most translations] of Jesus, Messiah, son of God.’ He derives the word ‘Good News’ (eu-angelion) from the prophet Isaiah. This prophet always uses the word ‘Good news’ as a verb, never as a substantive. There are three passages where Isaiah explains what the content is of the Good News. In 40: 9-10 the Good News is that God himself is coming to Jerusalem. In 52:7, that God is on his way to Jerusalem to definitively found his kingship there. In 61:1 that God will send his Anointed One (‘Messiah’) to found his kingdom. That Anointed One will be recognized by soothing the broken-hearted, by proclaiming liberty to captives and by releasing those who are imprisoned.
In the course of his gospel Mark shows that Jesus’ life precisely followed these prophecies of Isaiah. In the first part of his gospel he demonstrates that Jesus consistently performs Messiah works: he heals, he cures, he raises up oppressed and trampled people, he redeems. There comes a moment when he asks his disciples (8: 29), ‘What do you think of me?’ Saint Peter answers, ‘You are the Messiah!’ When this is clear for the people around him, he can do what Isaiah prophesized about the Messiah: to found God’s kingship in Jerusalem. So we hear that he is ‘on the way’ to Jerusalem (8:22 – 10:52). Breath-taking. Will this Jesus indeed be the Messiah that was announced by Isaiah? The one whom we have been waiting for since hundreds of years? According to the story of Mark, he is! That is what we hear in today’s gospel. Jesus is received as the king in Jerusalem. To be honest, it is he himself who organizes his coming to Jerusalem as a royal entrance. He had prepared the colt. But it is his followers who recognise this arrangement as the coming of God’s kingdom (11: 9-10): ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the coming kingdom...’
With this story the gospel of Mark should have been ended. This is what he announced in his first line. God, in the person of his Messiah, has indeed come to Jerusalem to found his kingdom. But to our surprise, the story has not come to an end yet. The story will end at the moment that the world power of those days, the Roman Empire, will recognize that he is the king. That will be the case when Jesus is delivered to Pontius Pilate, the representative of the Roman Empire. He says to Jesus (15:2), ‘You are the king of the Jews...’ It is not clear if this is either an observation or a question. It does not matter. The word is spoken. Jesus’ kingdom gains perspective when the soldiers mockingly cheer him as a king with a crown of thorns and a royal garment (15: 17-18). And the kingdom is definitively founded when Pilate nails an inscription above Jesus’ head on the cross (15,24), ‘The King of the Jews.’ Probably meant cynically, but in the eyes of Mark nevertheless true. It is the Roman officer at the foot of the cross who confirms (15:39), ‘In truth this man was Son of God.’ This is the moment that the prophecy of Isaiah becomes true. Jesus, the crucified king and Son of God: climax of God’s history with his people.
Who could ever have thought that the prophecies of Isaiah about the Good Message and the coming of God’s Kingdon, might be explained in this way?
Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem. With a crown to emphasize that it is a royal entrance. But the background is dark. And striking is the loneliness of Jesus. ca 1960. France, Taizé.
Mark likes frames. The story of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem is framed by the place names of ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Bethany’ (vss. 1 and 11). The name of Jerusalem means ‘Peace View’; the name of Bethany means ‘House of Misery’. In the first line Mark drops a third place name: ‘Bethphage’; the meaning of that name is: ‘House of the little (unripe) figs.’
Could Mark be playing with the meaning of these names?
Immediately after this story he will tell how Jesus passes a fig tree without figs (11:12-14). Exactly according to the meaning of the place name ‘Bethphage’. He will curse this fig tree and the day after, it is withered to its roots (11,20). Between Jesus’ curse and the withering of the tree, Jezus cleanses the temple (11:15-19). As if that fig tree was symbolic of the religious life of that time. As if the temple itself had become a ‘House of Misery’. Could that be the reason why Mark mentions those place names: are they an illustration of the events which happen on that very moment? Or are we seeking too much beyond the text?
Mount of Olives
There is yet another geographical name: ‘Mount of Olives’. In Mark’s gospel this name occurs only three times. This is the first time. The second time will be in 13,03, when Jesus is sitting on the Mount of Olives with four of his disciples. They are looking at the temple. And Jesus announces that all that beauty will be destroyed... The third time we hear about the Mount of Olives is in 14: 26. After the Jewish Passover meal which Jesus changed into his Passover meal, they left for the Mount of Olives. So the Mount of Olives marks three episodes of Jesus’ stay in Jerusalem before his Passion.
The word ’approaching’ is a charged word. In Mark’s gospel, we heard it for the first time when Jesus preached, ‘The Kingdom of God is approaching...’ (so the Greek text: 1:15). Since then we haven’t heard it anymore till now, the moment that Jesus is approaching Jerusalem, where he will be received as a king and the people shout, ‘Blessed is the coming Kingdom of David!’ ‘Approaching’ has to do with the Kingdom.
Mark uses the word ‘approaching’ only three times in his gospel. We will hear it for the third and last time when Jesus ‘began to feel terror and anguish’ (14:34), and where he prays to it his Father, ‘Take this cup away from me...’ (14:36). In the meantime his disciples had fallen asleep. He awakes them, ‘Rise up; let us go. Look, the one who hands me over is approaching...’ (14:42). Knowing that ‘approaching’ associates with ‘kingdom’, is it allowed to interpret this text: ‘The counterpart of the Kingdom is coming’?
Sending two of his disciples
‘Jesus sends two of his disciples.’ The verb Mark uses here is ‘apo-stelloo’ from which is derived the word ‘apostle’. He makes two of his disciples apostles to arrange the colt. We will hear exactly the same line in 14,13: there Jesus sends two of his disciples to arrange the Passover Meal, ‘Go into the city and you will meet a man carrying a pitcher of water. Follow him and say to the owner of the house which he enters, “The master says: where is the room for me to eat the Passover meal with my disciples?” He will show you a large upper room...’ There Jesus gives the impression that he had organized the situation already. Or is Mark suggesting that Jesus knew it all before, and that his Spirit had power over the (spirit of) the future?
At any rate, in the story of today we hear the same line, ‘Jesus sends two of his disciples...’ He foretells his disciples what will happen, and it does. Here, too, it seems that he has arranged it all before. Just as it will be the case when they have to prepare the Passover Meal. Or does Mark suggest that Jesus’ spirit has power over the events which will happen in the future?
However, in the meantime it must be clear that Jesus has the initiative. By using that colt he arranges his own Solomon-like royal entrance into Jerusalem. The moment which was the purpose from the beginning. That God would found his Kingdom in Jerusalem in the person of his Messiah. His disciples discern that sign and shout, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the coming kingdom of David...’
The exclamation ‘hosanna’ is not a cry of triumphant jubilation! It is a prayer, ‘Please help!’ It is the same word which was used by the people of Israel when it came to the king (2 Samuel 14: 4). With this word the people comes to JHWH (Psalm 12:2).
In the history of God’s people the word ‘hosanna’ became a liturgical formula particularly during the Feast of Tabernacles. During the first six days of the feast there was a prayer borrowed from Psalm 118:25. On the seventh day it was prayed seven times. In the procession, the people carried branches of willows and palm trees.
So the setting of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem has in fact to do with God dwelling among his people. The rituals are the same as during the Feast of Tabernacles, the feast during which the faithful celebrate that God has set up his tent among them. ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord...!’ After all these years God has come to Jerusalem to found his kingdom as promised to the prophet Isaiah.
Jesus sends two of his disciples... Here as an illustration of Luke 10,02. But it could have been an illustration of the preparation of Jesus’ Kingship. As is the sending of any disciple in any time... Ca 1840, tile. Netherlands, Goes, Museum