The Gospel of Matthew presents Palm Sunday in the context of one of the Gospel’s many prophetic fulfillment citations, which demonstrate that Jesus was the promised one who would establish the kingdom of God. Matthew presents a free rendering of the prophecy from Zec 9:9 to explain Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Matthew produces neither the exact form of the Hebrew text nor of the Greek Septuagint, but he maintains two essential characteristics at the heart of the prophecy: the king is humble and the king rides into the royal city on an unassuming beast of burden.
It is a jarring prophecy because humility is not in the nature of kings. Kings ride into cities on war horses with pomp and displays of power. It is not only Jesus’ humility that is on display, however, but his intentions for Jerusalem and, more broadly, for humanity. A war horse signals the promise of battle; a donkey suggests the work of peace. Yet Zechariah promises a king: “Triumphant and victorious is he.”
Triumph and victory seemed to be on the lips of the crowd as Jesus rode into Jerusalem. The people lauded him, crying out: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Jesus knew the crowd’s acclaim was not the source of triumph and victory. Given Jesus’ true understanding of who he was and how his mission would be fulfilled, he realized in his ride into Jerusalem that fulfilling Zechariah’s prophecy would require a humility that would turn away from power, vengeance and war to allow God’s plan to come to fruition in his own suffering. The ride into the city, with cheering crowds lining the road, must have been bittersweet. He knew what was coming; he knew how the rest of the story would go.
The question is sometimes asked, does Jesus’ fulfillment of prophecy indicate true humility and willingness, if he has no choice in how the kingdom of God would be built? Does his foreknowledge of these events lessen the gift of his sacrifice? As Paul says in Philippians, though, Jesus “humbled himself” by taking on human nature, that is, he “emptied himself” and so chose to become human. Even more, as a human being, he “became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” In riding into Jerusalem, in giving himself up to death, Jesus displayed his humility and obedience, freely chosen.
It is possible, of course, to interpret Jesus’ passion as dependent upon the turn of the crowd. The fickle crowd turned from the rapturous welcome of the one they hoped was king to the rejection of the one whom they sought to disown. Yet Jesus himself knew this would happen and was able to grasp what had to take place for this crowd, and for his Roman executioners, to be saved. It is one thing to humble oneself; it is another thing to be humble on behalf of those who mock and reject you.
It is important, though, to recognize that not everyone turned on Jesus. Even though many could not understand why he would give himself over to death and what it could mean, some remained by his side until the end, even as others betrayed and denied him. His humility and obedience were gifts to all, even to those who could not accept it, then or now.
It remains the most stunning insight into the nature of God that God’s kingdom should be built on the broken body of the son, given freely for a humanity that turned away from this very son. God comes to us with humility, without force, to teach us that selfless love is the true nature of God. Jesus’ triumph and victory was not a display of power but of humility. Humility might not be the path Jesus desired to walk as he prayed in Gethsemane, but he chose to carry his cross obediently to the place we needed him to go.