Jerusalem was in ferment. Knives were being sharpened. Well-worn grooves were smoothed and oiled. Loose tongues wagged. Accusing fingers jabbed. Small children either ran for the cover of their mother’s apron or picked up stones ready to join in the excitement. Nobody knew what was happening, but everyone had a theory. They said he was coming: the man, Jesus. They said he was on the road today: the one who restored the sight to that beggar, Bartimaeus (that will put him out of business!); the one who lifted Lazarus from the grave; the one the Pharisees are petrified of. He was coming to Jerusalem, coming to keep the feast. What will he do when he gets here? What will he say?
In a small village near Bethany, close to the Mount of Olives, an unknown man tethered an unridden colt by the first dwelling you would come to if you walked in from the east. Unaware of its place in history, it yawed and brayed, irritated to be tied up and abandoned. And on the road to the east, just small specks on the horizon of a day that had hardly started, a little crowd was gathering and jabbering and coming towards Jerusalem. If you could hear them, then you would hear all sorts of things: laughter, raucous speculation, intrigue, political dissent, religious fervour. All of it was filled with a zealous and uncomfortable intent.
Walking with them, neither at their front nor at their rear, leading them, yet in the midst of them, was Jesus; and while everyone else looked at the road in front of them, or to left and right as if they feared something was about to jump out at them, his gaze was fixed on the distance that was gradually coming towards them, reduced inexorably by every step; his whole life, and the many meanderings of many journeys, converging and fixing itself on this last journey to Jerusalem. He had prepared for it carefully. Mused, not so much on how this day would pan out – how could anyone know that? – but on what it would mean. Today was the day when things would be said by the things that he did.
At Bethphage he stopped. It was still early, still a few miles to travel; the fiercest heat of the day was not yet upon them. In the hedgerows corn parsley and rock rose grew in springtide abundance. The fields beyond were speckled red with lilies and poppies. A breeze stirred in the cedar trees behind him. ‘Keep on, keep on,’ it seemed to say to him, a still small voice fixing his resolve. He turned to two of his followers and whispered to them urgently, the purpose of the day starting to unfold. He said to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you get there you will find a donkey tied up, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them tome. And if any one says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord has need of them.” And he will send them immediately.’
They looked at him blankly, incomprehension masking fear. They knew they were coming to Jerusalem for a reason, but they didn’t know what the reason was. Now this strange request. It wasn’t what they were expecting, but at least it was something to do. They hurried off into the village and, when they were out of earshot, let their embarrassment turn to gossip and chatter. After all, who was this Jesus? They had seen him do remarkable things; and how could anyone not be impressed when blind men see and evil spirits crouch in fear? These things he did were brilliant, compelling, magnetic. The crowds flocked to him and asked for more. They cheered his every move. They said he was a saviour, a king, someone the Romans would fear, someone who could lead them to freedom.
But now what he said seemed different from what he did. He had started to speak darkly about what might happen to him in Jerusalem. He told a grim story about a vineyard where the workers rebelled against the owner and one by one killed off the messengers and servants that the owner sent to collect his dues, and then killed the owner’s son as well, thinking the vineyard could be theirs.
What did this story mean? Did it mean that Israel was a vineyard? That prophets sent by God were killed, and we had killed them? And was Jesus more than a prophet? Not just a messenger, not just a worker of mighty deeds, but a son? And would we kill him as well?
Yes, they knew he was from God – no one else could do such things; but a messiah, a king, a son, these were weighty things to carry.
He would only call himself a ‘Son of Man’, but what did this mean other than one of us? Though those who knew the Scriptures well would whisper that the prophet Daniel had said that ‘one like a son of man’ would come on the clouds of heaven.
Now, in the days that had led to this day, he had said other uncomfortable things as well. He had taken the Twelve to one side and said to them, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death.’ Or this was what Peter and the others had said he had told them. There was so much speculation in the air. You didn’t know what to believe.
Nevertheless, these words had spread like wildfire through the camp. Some just didn’t believe it. Others said, ‘So why go to Jerusalem?’ Others slunk into the shadows, concocting their own plans, either messianic fantasies about Jesus in which he showed people who he really was, blowing them away with some fantastic show of supernatural power, or political revolution, the people rising up and making him king and the Romans forced out the door.
Being asked to fetch a donkey fitted neither picture. Perhaps Jesus was losing it. After all, when James’ and John’s mother had asked a favour –albeit quite a selfish one – requesting places of honour for her two sons in this kingdom Jesus still spoke about so often, he seemed distracted, irritated, as if his mind were somewhere else entirely. Maybe she didn’t know what she was asking for, but what was he going on about when he asked whether they were able to drink the cup that he was going to drink? And come to think of it, what were they going on about when, grinning like Cheshire cats, they had said yes? But even that wasn’t enough. ‘You will indeed drink my cup,’ he said, ‘but to sit at my right hand and my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.’
Everything about these words was strange. What was going to happen in Jerusalem? What cups were going to be drunk? What destinies fulfilled? Even his quirky use of the word ‘Father’ to describe God suddenly jarred with them. How could God be Father? Many people winced at the intimacy and bravado of such a description for God. But Jesus seemed to get away with it, because with him there was such an intimacy with God; and if there wasn’t, well how did all these things occur?
But now their minds went round in circles. It was getting to the point that whenever Jesus was present they hardly said anything. What was there to say? And when he was out of the room they would argue passionately, putting forward one theory after another, making Jesus what they wanted him to be. But if God is Father, then Jesus is a son. And if Jesus tells me to call God ‘Father’, then I am a brother and a sister too.
They knew this, but they didn’t really know where it led. But most of them kept following. The intrigue and expectation in the air led them to believe something was happening; some sort of denouement was upon them. Clarity was around the corner.
So the two of them went into the village. They found it just as Jesus had said.
As they were untying the animals, a few bystanders questioned them. A theft seemed to be taking place under their noses, and they were sure they should do something. But the two of them said what Jesus had told them to say, and the people shrugged and went back to their business. Isn’t it always so?
They led the animals back to Jesus, pleased that they had done the job well. He looked at them and smiled. This was something he often did: smiled. It made a difference, especially when the clouds of doubt and confusion engulfed them.
They smiled back. Not saying anything, just throwing their cloaks over the animal for a saddle and handing him the reins.
He took them and turned to everyone else as if to say, it’s time to go now. And so the little pilgrimage continued, the day getting hotter, the levels of anticipation rising.
For Jesus, this was a calculated move. None of them understood this. How could they? They didn’t understand him. But he reckoned there would be enough people in the crowd who would. It might take a little time. But like a small spark in the dry grass could devour a forest, so it would only take one person to make the connection and the word would spread. Not his word this time, but the words of the Scripture that would come to life and take flesh in him and in the things he did. He would steer a path between the religious and the political fanatics who flanked him and goaded him.
His plan was decisive and humble. It had to be both. The crowds needed–even with help – to come to their own conclusion; and he still needed to be meek. There was no other way for the earth to be inherited. For those who had eyes to see, his actions and their meaning would be plain; and for those who didn’t, well, this might open them.
He breathed deeply; the scent of jasmine and wild thyme filled his nostrils, propelled him forwards. He recited the words in his head, the words of a plan and a purpose that had been forming in him for a lifetime: for this is what it meant to be the one who does what no one else could do; to be the one who was God’s Messiah, an anointed one, who achieves God’s purposes of love by confronting the powers and principalities of death and evil; who becomes the sacrifice that takes sins away. And walking again towards Jerusalem, surrounded again by laughter and intrigue, he didn’t know exactly how this would work out in the days that lay ahead of him, and that was hard. Everyone seemed to think he could see into tomorrow. But all he could see was what he had to do. He knew it was of God; that God had called him to this hour. But he didn’t know where it would end, except in confrontation and vindication: ‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and . . . riding on a donkey.’
These were the words that had seized him, and over the years, as he had searched the depths of his vocation, it had come down to this journey and all that would be announced in the manner of his impending arrival.
And so he rode the colt towards Jerusalem. As he rode along, other people came out, and some of them began to spread their cloaks on the road. They chattered to one another about what this entry into Jerusalem might mean, and the gossip spread through the crowd. This is what the prophet foretold. This is how the king arrives.
And others built upon it. Like all good stories it spread and grew with the telling. He may look meek and gentle. But kings come to sit upon thrones and to establish kingdoms. That is what he is coming to do.
From the path into Jerusalem down by the Mount of Olives the crowds were getting larger and stronger, more confident and more vocal. Some went ahead of him singing and shouting. Others followed him. Right at the front, a young man turned cartwheels and another walked on his hands. Tearing down branches from the trees, the crowds laid these in his path, along with their cloaks. Children waved palms. Everyone sang lustily and praised God joyfully, shouting out the deeds of power they had seen, and whipping each other into a frenzy so that they would expect more. ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!’ they shouted. ‘Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven.’ And then, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David. Hosanna in the highest heaven!’
These hosannas echoed through the air. It was like a little army was entering into a city to make it their own. Or was it just a carnival, a happy, boisterous parade, and tomorrow the town would be back to normal?
There were Pharisees in the crowd. They observed the procession towards Jerusalem with a grim and restless discontent. This Jesus was trouble. They had known it for a long time. Now they could ignore it no longer. They had tried to contain him, like you might shut the door on a hornet, keeping it in one room and preventing its invasion of the house. But this strategy was no longer working. What had they expected? That he would fly around in circles and drop exhausted from the sky? Or sting himself to death? Something had to be done, for now – or so it seemed– others were forcing open the door and a whole swarm of locusts was about to descend.
They folded their arms and drew their cloaks tightly around themselves. They would not be contaminated. They would not be invaded. They would not have their power questioned or their authority undermined. Their carefully constructed detente with Rome, which was, after all, for the sake of this people who now seemed set on making someone else king, would not be disrupted so easily.
How fickle is the human heart. How lonely is the exercise of power. They felt the burden of the moment and its heat, and in that moment resolved to act – though how and when they didn’t yet know. Standing in Jesus’ path they said to him, ‘Teacher’ – for they still had this much fear of him – ‘order your disciples to stop.’ But he answered, smiling defiantly: ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out!’
When they came to that bend in the road where the holy city in all its marvellous beauty is laid out before you in the shimmering sunlight of a bright day, he stopped. He stopped as if some invisible force were pinning him to the spot. He dismounted and looked around him as if suddenly confused by his surroundings and the rising tide of the acclaim. He stopped, and his whole body convulsed with a violent and terrible sorrow. Weeping, he cried out: ‘O Jerusalem. Jerusalem, if you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.’
The tears ran down his face. Nothing could stop them. At first he was just mumbling, repeating the same words over and over. But then he raised his voice and said it again, how Jerusalem itself and all it stood for had somehow failed and would be cast down.
Those who were closest to him, who heard him say to the Pharisees how the stones would sing out God’s praises if the people stopped, and then how these same stones would be broken and crushed because they did not recognize God when he came, were confused and fearful. A shadow passed across the brightness of the day. Compared to his anguish and this inundation of his tears, the thunderous acclamation of the people that still echoed in the air seemed but a whisper.
Crowds that quickly gather, just as quickly disperse. He had known it before. It was already starting to happen again. People looked at each other and shrugged their shoulders. ‘What now?’ they seemed to be saying. And the weeping man, like the earth, required nothing.
The colt that had been brought unwillingly into the centre of the day’s drama brayed furiously. It broke the tension in the air. Some people started laughing. A small child cried and ran to find its mother. Others too looked around for the security that he had appeared to offer but had now, with these tears and these words, suddenly withdrawn. They wanted him to be their leader, and surely that was what this day meant, coming into Jerusalem on a donkey just as the prophet had foretold. That was what had scared the Pharisees; that much was sure. But there wasn’t much else to hang on to. He didn’t look like a leader now. He walked towards Jerusalem as if in a dream, and the salt of his tears lay unwashed upon his face, plain for all to see.