Palm Sunday – entry to Jerusalem

We have been on our way to the city of Jerusalem from the opening words of the Gospel of Mark: “The beginning of the good news/gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1).

April 1, 2012

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Commentary on Mark 11:1-10, Mark 14:3-11 

We have been on our way to the city of Jerusalem from the opening words of the Gospel of Mark: “The beginning of the good news/gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1).

Like the opening words in Genesis, the evangelist Mark is establishing an identity with the first beginning, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1), with a new beginning, a new beginning of God’s good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ, God’s Son.

The Gospel of Mark has been characterized as a passion narrative (11:1-16:8) with an extended introduction (1:1-10:52). We enter the passion narrative of the Gospel of Mark having just heard the cry of blind Bartimaeus identifying who Jesus is: “Son of David, have mercy on me!” His first cry is followed by rebuke and Bartimaeus cries out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me” (10:47-48). Jesus responds to his request for sight and says: “Go; your faith has made you well (Greek: or “saved you“).  Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way” (10:52). This is the first occurrence of Jesus’ identity as the Son of David in the Gospel of Mark and leads us into Jerusalem, the city of David, in our first text for today (11:1-10).

As Jesus and his disciples make their way from Bethphage and Bethany near the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem, he commissions two of the disciples: “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it” (11:2). Once again Mark draws our attention with the word, “immediately,” and follows up with a second occurrence: “If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately‘” (11:3).

The immediacy of the stories that lead into and inaugurate the passion narrative is signaled by the three occurrences of the adverb immediately (10:52; 11:2, 3). The passion narrative is the “opportune time” (Greek: kairos) of the immediacy of God’s reign breaking in through the death and resurrection of God’s Son, the Son of David, in David’s city. As the sighted Bartimaeus “followed him (Jesus) on the way” (10:52) into the city of Jerusalem, so we are called to follow in the procession that now commences to the cross.

The colt is brought, which has never been ridden to Jesus (see the messianic prophecy of Zech. 9:9), and they “threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it” (11:7). The evangelist describes the procession as festive with many people spreading their cloaks and leafy branches on the road. The acclamation of God’s blessing is shouted or screamed out (Greek: krazo): “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (11:9-10). Who among the bystanders wouldn’t recall the words of Psalm 118:25-26,  proclaiming the hope of God’s reign coming to restore David’s kingdom? Is this the long awaited fulfillment of God’s Anointed, the Messiah?

We fast forward in the passion narrative, from this festive celebration of the coming King, to the alternate text for Palm Sunday (14:3-11). The setting is now two days before the Passover and the conspiracy of the chief priests has been put in place to arrest and kill Jesus (14:1-2). In between the Palm Sunday story (11:1-10) and this text, Jesus has been teaching in the temple and challenging the religious authorities (11:11-12:44), and has stepped outside the temple to teach about the signs of its imminent destruction (13:1-31) and his own death (13:32-37).

As we move to the second text in Mark 14:3-11, Jesus is once again in Bethany where the passion narrative began (11:1). Jesus is at the table in the home of Simon the leper when an unnamed woman comes with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, breaks open (Greek: suntribo, to crush) the jar, and pours out the ointment over Jesus’ head (14:3). The bystanders respond with anger and question: “Why was the ointment wasted in this way?” (14:4). The expense of the nard was seen as too extravagant to be poured out when it “could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor. And they scolded her” (Greek: embrimaomai “to snort in anger”) (14:5).

From their positions of wealth, their protest belies their true concern for the poor. A year’s wages in denarii would have been the least of their concerns. Jesus’ response to the protesters is simply to back off:  “Let her alone: why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me” (14:6). The poor are always present and kindness can be shown anytime, but the truth of Jesus’ response is that they “will not always have me” (14:7).

With these words Jesus discloses the significance of the extravagant act of devotion: “she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial” (14:8). What she has done is a sign that wherever the good news of the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world “what she has done will be told in remembrance of her” (14:9).

In contrast to what she has done, the story of Judas Iscariot will also be remembered for a quite different reason. As one of the twelve he will be remembered as the one who betrayed Jesus. Creating a conspiracy with the chief priests, who are greatly pleased with Judas’ intention to betray, they promise to give him money, and from this time Judas looks for “an opportunity (Greek: “eukairos“) to betray him” (14:10-11).

From a triumphal entry of Jesus as God’s Anointed Son of David into the city of David, to his anointing for burial, we have cut deeply into the passion narrative of the Gospel of Mark. The story includes false political expectations and betrayal, and a final meal with those who are Jesus’ closest followers. They will hear him announce words that will be spoken for all time. “This is my body.” “This is my blood” (14:22-25). Come Lord Jesus, Come.