When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 2and said to them, ‘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. 3If anyone says to you, “Why are you doing this?” just say this, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.” ’ 4They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5some of the bystanders said to them, ‘What are you doing, untying the colt?’ 6They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. 7Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. 8Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. 9Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’
11 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
Translation: When they were drawing near into Jerusalem, into Bethphage and Bethany, by the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, and said to them, "Go into the village, the one before you, and immediately as you enter into it, you will find a colt tied there, upon which no human being has sat. Release it and bring it. And if anyone says to you, 'Why are you doing this?' say 'The Lord needs to have it' and immediately he will send it back here.'"
And they went and found a colt tied to a door outside on the street, and they were releasing it. Some of the ones standing there said to them, "What are you doing, releasing the colt?" But they said to them according to what Jesus had said, and they let them go.
And they brought the colt to Jesus and they threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it. And many people spread their cloaks into the road, but others cut off leafy branches out of the fields. The ones leading forth and the ones following cried out, 'Hosanna! Blessed (is) the one coming in the name of the Lord! Blessed (is) the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!' And he entered into Jerusalem and into the Temple and he looked around at all. Late already is the hour, he went out into Bethany with the twelve.
Background and situation: As Marcus Borg and J.D. Crossan point out, Jesus was approaching Jerusalem from the east. Bethany and Bethphage are just to the east of Jerusalem. The Mount of Olives is just east of the Temple. The reason this is significant is because there were two processions into Jerusalem during the time of passover. One--the Roman army--came from the west. The other--those with Jesus--came from the east.
The Roman army was coming to maintain order during passover, a time when the population of Jerusalem would swell from around 50,000 to well over 200,000. Moreover, passover was a celebration of liberation from Pharoah in Egypt, and Rome was uneasy about its anti-imperial content and associations.
The Romans were headquartered at Caesarea Maritima, a city to the west of Jerusalem, built by Herod to honor Caesar and provide a state-of-the-art harbor for the region. (Herod built monuments to Caesar at every opportunity.). The harbor featured the use of new engineering techniques, such as a formula for concrete that would harden under water.
The harbor's purpose was two-fold: (1) provide a harbor for the swift transport of troops to the east in the event of war with Parthia, and (2), more efficient export of agricultural products from the region.
The procession of the Roman army would have been an imposing sight--Legionnaires on horseback, Roman standards flying, the Roman eagle prominently displayed, the clank of armor and beating of drums. The procession was designed to be a display of Roman imperial power. Message? All hail Glorious Rome! Resistance is futile!
Street theater: With thousands of people pouring into Jerusalem, it would have been easy to arrive inconspicuously. Simply join the mass of people and become one of the anonymous horde.
Jesus didn't do it that way. He entered Jerusalem with an inspired splash. Rome had made its demonstration of power from the west. Jesus would stage a counter-demonstration from the east. He would come from "the opposite direction" and would do so in more important ways than geography.
Jesus comes to the city not in a powerful way, like the Roman army, but in a ludicrously humble way. He incites not fear, as in the Roman procession, but cheering crowds who clear his way and hail his presence. The procession of Jesus brilliantly mocks the Roman procession. (Sarcasm and irony are often the only mechanisms available for the oppressed to express themselves.)
The secret password: Just before Jesus makes his final approach to Jerusalem, he sends two people into a village--not Jerusalem, in other words, but a village nearby.
This is not accidental. The Jesus movement is a movement of peasants who mostly reside in small villages. In Mark's gospel, Jesus is never in a particularly large town--never, that is, until now, the final week of his life.
In Mark, the largest "city" visited by Jesus--he may even have lived there--was Capernaum, but it was perhaps only about 5,000 in population, at the most. Other cities in Galilee, such as Tiberias and Sepphoris, were both much bigger, but Mark never mentions Jesus in one of these cities. He's always in the countryside and the small villages. (Note also that, in this episode, some of Jesus' followers cut "leafy branches out of the fields," yet another indication of Jesus' connection with agricultural peasants.)
The two disciples are instructed to go into the village and, as soon as they get there, they'll see a colt. They are to take this colt and, if anyone asks them about it, they are to give the "secret password": "The Lord needs it and will return it immediately." Sure enough, they go into town, see the colt, take it, and are interrogated. They say the magic words, and they are left to go on their way.
Mark thus indicates that there was a network of Jesus supporters operating "under the radar." The people in the village who question the two disciples appear to be in on whatever is going on. (The intriguing episode may also indicate that Jesus had other supporters who were known to Jesus, but unknown to the Twelve.)
Moreover, this network of Jesus supporters reaches even to a village just outside Jerusalem. The Galilee-based Jesus movement reaches even into Judea, even to the very gates of the city of Jerusalem itself!
The cloak of royal power:
And they brought the colt to Jesus and they threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it. And many people spread their cloaks into the road, but others cut off leafy branches out of the fields.
"Cloaks" had just been referred to in the episode previous, the one in which Jesus heals a blind begger named Bartimaeus (10: 46-52). (For a full interpretation of this episode, one would need to be familiar with the "Timaeus" of Plato, written about 360 BC, a text which was widely-known and widely-read, among those who were able to do so, in the time of Jesus. "Bartimaeus" means "son of Timaeus.")
Bartimaeus becomes a model disciple--he follows Jesus "on the way." This is a true rarity in Mark's gospel. Contrast Bartimaeus, who is said to "see," with the Twelve. In Mark's gospel, the Twelve were anything but model disciples. They never really see. They never really "get it." Even when they follow, they do it hamhandedly and without a clue--at least, that is the story that Mark tells.
At being called by Jesus, Bartimaeus threw off his cloak (10:50). In the procession into Jerusalem, the word "cloaks" appears twice. Many threw their cloaks on the colt upon which Jesus sat. Others put their cloaks "into the path"--eis ton hodon. In 2 Kgs 9:13, strewing cloaks onto the path was a sign of royal homage.
This prompts the question: Why did the model disciple, Bartimaeus, throw his cloak away while Jesus' followers throw theirs at Jesus' feet?
Bartimaeus was throwing off the "cloak" of royal and hierarchical power. Jesus had explicitly condemned such power in 10:42: "...those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them, but it is not so among you..." Bartimaeus is throwing off the way of power-striving, and, instead, follows "on the way" of Jesus which is opposed to hierarchical power.
The crowd, by strewing cloaks onto path of Jesus, is treating the humble, donkey-riding, egalitarian Jesus as true royalty. Royal power is not with top-down and oppressive Rome, but with the "one who comes in the name of the Lord." The crowd hails Jesus and compares him to the greatest royal figure in Israel's history, King David the Great:
The ones leading forth and the ones following cried out, 'Hosanna! Blessed (is) the one coming in the name of the Lord! Blessed (is) the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!'
The crowd, however, is quite wrong on one important point: Notice that Jesus was not welcomed by the people of Jerusalem. These crowds were not composed of Jerusalem city dwellers, but rather "the ones leading forth and the ones following." Most likely, this refers to the disciples and those who joined the movement along the way to Jerusalem.
This crowd is enthusiastic, shouting "hosanna" to the "coming kingdom of our father David." The crowd seems to have in mind for Jesus the kind of kingdom now held in hallowed memory, the Golden Age of David, a time of prosperity, yes, and also one of military power and territorial expansion.
Yet, for Mark, Jesus is not committed to a path of "glory," as in a Davidic-style kingdom, but rather a path of defeat. He will not reign from a palace, but from a cross.
True, Jesus had been hailed as "son of David" (twice) by Bartimaeus (10:46ff), but this is before he "sees." The story of Bartimaeus is at least partly about how a blind begger gets it, and Jesus' own disciples don't. After Bartimaeus "sees" he no longer says anything about Jesus as "son of David." Instead, he follows Jesus "on the way."
Jesus enters the Temple for the first time:
And he entered into Jerusalem and into the Temple and he looked around at all. Late already is the hour, he went out into Bethany with the twelve.
Jesus will make three forays to the Temple in Mark's gospel, of which this one is the first. The crowds yelling "hosanna!" are on the outside of the city. It is only after the crowd hails him that Jesus actually enters the city.
When he does, he goes directly to the Temple--"...he entered into Jerusalem and into the Temple..."--whereupon he does...what? He "looked around at all (panta)." Then he left. Given all the hoopla leading up to it, one might have expected something different.
The Mount of Olives was, in Israel's Sacred Memory, the place from which an assault on Israel's enemies was to begin (Zech 14: 2-4). Ched Myers notes the similarity of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem with that of Simon Maccabeus (1 Mc 13:51) and Josephus' account of Menachem, a leader of the sicarii, or "knife men," as he "returned in the state of a king to Jerusalem" and prepared to do battle. (Myers, p. 294). One might have expected, then, that Jesus might storm the Temple and take it by force.
Instead, Mark says that Jesus went directly to the Temple. He confronted it. While there, he saw everything--he "looked around at all." In "seeing all," Mark wants us to know that Jesus saw the Temple's corruption and its complicity in Roman power.
Then Jesus left. Unlike Simon Maccabeus, Jesus does not assault the Temple. Instead, in another inspired piece of "street theater," he will take on the Temple the following day, non-violently, by driving out the money-changers (11:15).
In driving out the moneychangers, Jesus is subverting the Temple's economic base. By forbidding anyone "to carry anything through the Temple" (11:16), which meant vessels for religious use, he would also impede the religious function of the Temple. For Jesus, the Temple was corrupt and not fit for religious use.
Image: John August Swanson, Entry into the City