Last Sunday was Palm Sunday, also known as Passion Sunday in some traditions. The Gospel reading, as one might expect, was this passage from Mark:
1 As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 3If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’”
4 They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, 5 some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” 6 They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. 7 When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. 8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. 9Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted,
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
The sermon I heard was a fine demonstration of how additional meaning can hide in even the most straightforward passages of the Bible. I’d certainly read and heard this passage many times in my life, but it never occurred to me to focus on the two things that the crowd did as Jesus approached Jerusalem. Some of them threw their cloaks on the ground in front of Jesus, while others threw branches. Mark doesn’t tell us what type of branch, but tradition accepts that they were palm branches. Other than the fronds of the date palm tree, the locals would not have had many green leaves available at that time of year.
Why cloaks? Why date palm fronds? Cloaks were important articles of clothing in that time. Your cloak was your main protection against the elements and getting a new one was not easy, especially for the poor. As for the date palms, if you stripped one of its fronds, you wouldn’t get any dates that year.
Thus, when members of the crowd laid cloaks and palm fronds in front of Jesus, they were making a substantial sacrifice of clothing and food, declaring that preparing the way for the coming Kingdom of God is more important than those two physical items. Interestingly, Mark’s Gospel does not contain the passage in which Jesus advises the crowd to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” rather than food and clothes. [Matthew 6:25-34] But this scene indicates that the crowd at Jerusalem was familiar with what Jesus has said. It also tells us that Mark himself was familiar with that teaching, since he otherwise would not have mentioned the cloaks and branches. Thus it provides us with further confirmation that the different Gospels draw a coherent picture from the life of the real Jesus Christ.