Palm Sunday commemorates what we call the “Triumphal Entry” of Jesus into Jerusalem. When I read this heading in my Bible, I almost think the editors were adopting a tongue-in-cheek tone. Why? In the Roman world, a triumph was a centerpiece of military success and almost a sacrament in civil religion. It was an exultant procession, a parade of spectacular grandeur to honor a conquering hero returning from a victorious foreign war. Actually, the event lasted an entire day, filled with speeches, prayers and testimonials for the commander being honored. The public flattery was so overwhelming and intense that a slave was assigned to accompany the general in his chariot, reminding him that he was-after all-only human.
When Augustus assumed absolute authority in Rome, he restricted triumphs to members of his own family. This is truly ironic since Augustus-unbeknownst to most Romans but well understood by intimates-was neither strong nor courageous. When he did go to battle, he would often fall ill and be confined to his tent. Adrian Goldsworthy in Augustus: First Emperor of Rome paints a picture of Augustus as sickly and conniving, at once ambitious and faint-hearted. These traits do not exactly merit a single day in his honor, much less the ongoing worship he received.
Granted, there was much euphoria when the Prince of Peace made his way to Jerusalem. The people greeted Him as the fulfillment (Zechariah 9:9) of prophecy (without really understanding His purpose). Still, in keeping with Jesus’ own teaching on servant-leadership, this entrance was modest and understated (though the proud donkey might have disagreed!). It was not a Roman-style triumph by any means. Our savior needed no slave to tell him he was only human…because he wasn’t only human. Whereas Roman triumphs were political stepping stones, the palms and cloaks set before the Lord marked his path toward His abasement and rejection.
In a world and era where clothes made the man, recipients of Roman triumphs were clad in the toga picta, a colorful wardrobe of distinction. By contrast, Jesus was eventually to be stripped naked, his garments distributed to others through a game of chance (Matthew 27:35) before He suffered the agony of the Cross.
Nevertheless, Rome fell and Jesus lives!
Rome’s power was finite, thus it had to grow its empire to absorb more people and collect more taxes. Christ’s power is infinite, thus He makes death null and void by dying Himself and rising again. Rome’s power was centripetal, leeching the resources of its citizens, slaves and vanquished enemies to sustain itself. Jesus’ power is centrifugal, flowing outward to save, heal and deliver broken sinners like ourselves.
Do not let appearances deceive you. His entry was in every respect a triumph. Ours.