Every year in Melbourne, on the Sunday before Easter, we have the Palm Sunday Peace March. Some years we fill a block or two of the main drag in Melbourne; other years it’s just a handful and a megaphone borrowed from some political group. I like the eclectic mix that makes up the Palm Sunday Peace March—old lady Catholics in rainbow-colored clothes, university students with messy hair and lots of badges, aging socialists with worn red banners. Often members of clergy stroll along with the crowd, hands clasped neatly behind their backs.
I like marking Palm Sunday in this way. There is not normally any ritual attached to Palm Sunday—unlike the way we share communion the following Friday, or exchange eggs the next week. Yet for me, the story behind Palm Sunday marks one of the most significant moments within the four gospels.
Jesus enters Jerusalem mounted on a donkey, while lots of people make a pathway for Him using their coats and palm branches. The story is so important to the life and ministry of Jesus that it’s one of the few stories that makes its way into all four gospels (Mt 21; Mk 11; Lk 19.18; Jn 12.12). Perhaps it deserves a little more of our time?
To understand the Palm Sunday story, we have to understand that it doesn’t end there! In all gospels but John, the entrance into Jerusalem is followed by the famous “turning the tables” scene. Jesus goes into the Temple in Jerusalem and drives out the traders and moneychangers, turning over their tables. And of course, the story doesn’t end there either—for not so long after, Jesus is executed.
What does all this mean? It helped me to understand that Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem actually echoes a custom that would have been familiar to people living in the Greco-Roman world, when the gospels were written.
Simon Maccabeus was a Jewish general who was part of the Maccabean Revolt that occurred two centuries before Christ, which liberated the Jewish people from Greek rule. Maccabeus entered Jerusalem with praise and palm leaves—making a beeline to the Temple to have it ritually cleansed from all the idol worship that was taking place. With the Jewish people now bearing the brunt of yet another foreign ruler (this time the Romans), Jesus’ parade into Jerusalem—complete with praise and palm leaves—was a strong claim that He was the leader who would liberate the people.
Except that in this case, Jesus isn’t riding a military horse, but a humble donkey. How triumphant is Jesus’ “triumphant entry”—on a donkey He doesn’t own, surrounded by peasants from the countryside, approaching a bunch of Jews who want to kill Him?
And so He enters the Temple. In the Greco-Roman world, the classic “triumphant entry” was usually followed by some sort of ritual—making a sacrifice at the Temple, for example, as was the legendary case of Alexander the Great. Jesus’ “ritual” was to attempt to drive out those making a profit in the Temple.
The chaotic commerce taking place—entrepreneurs selling birds and animals as well as wine, oil and salt for use in Temple sacrifices—epitomized much more than general disrespect. It also symbolized a whole system that was founded on oppression and injustice.
In Matthew, Mark and John, for example, Jesus chose specifically to overturn the tables of the pigeon sellers, since these were the staple commodities that marginalised people like women and lepers used to be made ritually clean by the system. Perhaps it was this system that Jesus was referring to when He accused the people of making the Temple “a den of robbers” (Mt 21.13; Mk 11.17; Lk 19.46).
Jesus’ words and actions remind us of Jeremiah, a prophet in the Hebrew Bible. He relates these words:
“Do not trust in deceptive words and say, ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!’ If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave to your forefathers for ever and ever.” (Jer 7.4-7) (NIV)
And he goes on to write, “Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the Lord.” (Jer 7.11).
Jesus has been watching. The turning of the tables is a premeditated symbolic action signalling that this unjust system needs to end.
So what, then, do we make of this story, its celebration so close to Easter? Could there be more to the beginning of the Easter story than remembering Christ as simply a “sacrificial lamb”?
Last year on Palm Sunday, people who believed in peace—Christian and otherwise—gathered at the State Library, which is the usual place Melbournians meet for social and political actions. A police car or two quietly rolled beside us as we marched along the street.
A tinny voice broke through the Sunday traffic: “Peace is possible!”
“End the waste of war!” we all replied. Impassioned we were, but perhaps not all that triumphant.
We arrived at Bourke Street Mall, which is a key shopping area in the city. Somebody called out the names of countries at war, and each time a place was read out, a person would fall to the ground as a way to symbolize the deaths inherent in these systems of war.
I lay on the cold concrete, while shoppers passed by. After a while we got up, brushed our pants clean and kept marching. Our symbolic action was finished.
We weren’t arrested and we certainly weren’t executed—unlike Jesus, who turned the tables and confronted the systems that oppress the poor and dishonor God’s name, to the point of death.
Andreana Reale is a writer, researcher and member of an intentional Christian community in Melbourne, Australia. She has a special interest in radical discipleship, sexuality and aid and development.