Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Year A: Matthew 21.1-9

Year B: Mark 11.1-11 or John 12.12-18

Year C: Luke 19.28-40

Palm Sunday

Other texts:

I will offer a few comments about the Palm Sunday text(s) [Mt 21:1-9; Mk 11:1-10; Lk 19:28-40; Jn 12:12-18].

What were the crowds carrying?

Only John mentions branches [baion] of palms [phoinix]. In Mark the disciples cut leaves [stibas] from the field [agros]. In Matthew they cut off branches [klados] from the trees [dendron]. There are no branches of any kind in Luke!

Whatever they crowds were carrying, what do they mean? There is nothing quite like this in the OT.

One suggestion is that the actions described by John resemble one of the standard processions of Tabernacles where the people carried twigs of myrtle, willow, and palm. Originally these were used in the construction of booths (Nehemiah 8:13-18). Later some of them, at least, were bound together into a sort of festal plume, called the lulab, to which a citron was also attached. The lulab was a symbol of rejoicing and was carried ceremonially during the daily singing of the Hallel (Psalms 113-118).

Another connection -- a stronger one, I think -- is with 1 & 2 Maccabees. I'll quote the appropriate sections from the Contemporary English Version (with my emphases in boldface)

1 Maccabees 13:49-52 -- Capture of the Pagan Fort in Jerusalem

The enemy troops in the Jerusalem fortress still could not go into the country to buy food, and many of them starved to death. Finally, the survivors begged Simon for peace. He agreed, then ordered them to leave the fortress, so he could remove everything that made it unclean according to their religion.

On the twenty-third day of the second month in the year 171 [141 BCE] of the Syrian Kingdom, Simon led his soldiers into the fortress. They carried palm branches [baion] and praised God with all kinds of songs and musical instruments. God had completely crushed their powerful enemy! Simon decided that a joyous festival should be held on this same day every year. He strengthened the wall on the side of the temple hill that faced the fortress. Then he and his troops made the fortress their headquarters.

2 Maccabees 10:1-8 -- The Rededication of the Temple [Hanukkah]

The Lord led Judas Maccabeus and our troops into battle, and they recaptured the temple and the city of Jerusalem. Then they destroyed the places where the foreigners had worshiped, including the altars they had built in the public market.

Judas and his followers made the temple an acceptable place of worship once again. They built a new altar for sacrifices and started a fire on it by rubbing flint rocks together. After this, they offered sacrifices for the first time in two years. They burned incense, then lit the lamps and brought out the sacred loaves of bread.

When all of this was done, the troops lay face down on the ground and prayed, "Our Lord, please don't let us suffer such terrible troubles again. If we should ever turn from you, don't correct us so harshly. And please, never again hand us over to these foreign savages, who insult you."

The dedication of the temple took place on the twenty-fifth day of the month of Chislev -- the same day of the same month that the foreigners had made the temple unfit for worship. We celebrated a joyful festival for eight days, and it was just like the Festival of Shelters. In fact, while our people celebrated, they kept remembering the recent Festival of Shelters, when they were forced to roam the hills and live in caves like wild animals. But now they walked around carrying sticks [klados] decorated with twisted ivy and holding up branches, including some from palm trees [phoinix]. They sang hymns and thanked the Lord for making our holy temple clean again. Afterwards, everyone decided to make this a yearly festival for our whole nation.

The use of palm branches in Maccabees was related to military victories. Is that what the people were expecting from Jesus? When they shout "Hosanna" = "Save us" (not part of the shout in Luke); do they consider that "salvation" to be like that of the Maccabees -- driving out the occupying forces from Jerusalem? If so, then Jesus failed miserably to live up to their expectations.

What about the animal? What does it symbolize?

Only Matthew and John make reference to Zechariah 9:9. John's shorter quote avoids the strange situation of Jesus riding on a donkey AND on a colt. It is one of Matthew's themes that Jesus actions fulfill OT texts. Because we know what will happen to Jesus in Jerusalem, we have tended to emphasize the "humble" aspect of the king who comes riding into town on his donkey. However, the context of Zechariah's oracle in ch. 9 is one of "defeat and destruction for the foreign nations and return and restoration for Israel" [Harper's Bible Commentary].

Given this context of Zechariah's humble king riding into town and the use of palm branches when the Maccabean forces defeated the foreign nations and rededicated the temple, I would assume that similar expectations were in the minds of the crowd on the first "palm" Sunday.

Robert Capon in Hunting the Divine Fox maintains that the typical American paradigm of the Messiah is not Jesus, but Superman. We don't want a savior who does a stupid thing like rising from the dead. We want one who never dies.

A contrast between the Palm Sunday's crowd's expectations (as well as our own) of the superstar, saving (meaning: helping us avoid pain) Jesus and the real, suffering and dying messiah who promises life on the other side of pain, may be the message we need to proclaim on Passion Sunday.

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran, Marysville, CA