Although this account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is more modest than the parallel accounts found in Luke 19:28-38 and Matthew 21:1-9, it has nevertheless, as we shall see, great significance for understanding Mark’s portrayal of Jesus.
The two villages mentioned in v. 1, Bethphage and Bethany, lie about one and a half miles apart on the road up to Jerusalem. They have no particular significance for the following account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, other than that Jesus and the twelve will then apparently stay in Bethany (v. 11). The Mount of Olives, however, does have significance. There is a tradition, based on Zech. 14 (vv. 3-4 Then the Lord will go forth … On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives … .), that in the last times, the Messiah would appear there. That tradition, combined with the mention of the colt that recalls Zech. 9:9, shows that Mark did see messianic significance in this story, even if Jesus is not hailed as such by his followers.
It is not clear from v. 2 to which of the two villages, Bethphage or Bethany, Jesus sent his disciples to get the colt. It further underscores the insignificance of these villages for Mark’s story. Jesus’ command to fetch the colt, and the fact that everything happened just as Jesus had said (vv. 2-6) shows (unless it is intended to demonstrate Jesus’ prophetic, even omniscient, powers) that Jesus was more familiar with Jerusalem and its surroundings than Mark’s narrative has indicated. There is however no hint in Mark that Jesus had made these arrangements beforehand. In any case, it shows that none of this was sheer happenstance. All things in Mark related to the passion happen in accord with God’s plan, something the reader already knows, based on the three prior predictions by Jesus of his passion in Jerusalem (8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34).
Jesus’ riding on a colt, rather than a horse, an animal associated with war, shows he is a messenger of God’s peace, and the gesture of spreading garments on the road announces Jesus as king (see 2 Kings 9:13). The cry of the people is taken from Psalm 118:25-26, and is part of the Scriptures read by festival pilgrims during their morning prayers. But the cry addressed to Jesus, “Hosannah,” which in Hebrew means “save us” (cf. NRSV Ps 118:25), has its ironic overtones. Jesus will do just that, but in a way that will cause his followers to forsake him (cf. 14:50) in the very act that ultimately will save them, i.e., his death (cf. Mark 10:45).
This cry as narrated in Mark shows that Jesus’ followers (there is no mention of crowds from Jerusalem in Mark) do recognize Jesus as one blessed by the Lord, but their reference is to the Kingdom of David rather than to the Son of David (as it is in Matthews’s account). This shows his followers at this point did not recognize Jesus as David’s heir and hence messiah. This is typical for Mark — people do not recognize who Jesus is until he has been crucified. The account concludes with a mention of Jesus visiting the Temple precincts, but then returning to Bethany where he was staying (v. 11).
This is a somewhat more modest entry into Jerusalem than the one narrated in Luke or Matthew. There is no indication that people from Jerusalem came out to participate in the procession to greet Jesus, as in Matthew (e.g. Matt 21:10: the whole city of Jerusalem was stirred up), nor is there any mention of anyone other than Jesus’ followers who participate in the procession (cf. Luke 19:39, where even some Pharisees are apparently part of the procession.) Nor is there any reference to Jesus as king, as in Matthew and Luke. Rather, the followers refer to the coming of David’s final kingdom (v. 10). Even the palm branches are absent; people spread their own garments along with rushes from the fields in Jesus’ path (v 8).
Yet even in this more modest form, the story is rich with references to the Old Testament Scriptures, and it points to the heart of the Christian Gospel, namely the lowly messiah, whose death is to redeem people.
We have already seen the significance for the O.T. prophets of the Mount of Olives, where the Lord will appear in the last times (Zech 14:4). The act of spreading garments in Jesus’ path is a way of acknowledging him as king (see 2 Kings 9:13). The cry of the followers is taken from Psalm 118, Scriptures read by pilgrims to the holy city. The choice of a colt reflects Zechariah 9:9: Lo, your king comes to you … humble and riding on a donkey. This point is made explicit by Matthew, who, as he often does, amplifies Mark’s narrative with direct references to the fulfillment of prophecy. Yet even if not explicit, it is still clearly implied in Mark’s account.
The story also points to the heart of the Christian Gospel, namely the humility displayed by Jesus, even to the point of his shameful death on a cross. Yet it is in that very death on the cross, followed by his resurrection, that God’s saving power is displayed. Such weakness is portrayed in this entry into Jerusalem, where Jesus enters Jerusalem on a colt, “meek and humble,” as Zechariah says. Paul gave this humility and weakness particular emphasis when he wrote to the Christians in Corinth about God’s response to his prayer that he be delivered from his “thorn in the flesh.” God answered: My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. It is reliance on that grace that strengthens every Christian during the period of Lent, and that stirs anticipation of the glorious Easter morning.
Paul J. Achtemeier is professor emeritus of biblical interpretation at Union Theological Seminary (now Union-PSCE) in Richmond, Va. He is the author or co-author of 14 books, as well as the former editor of the quarterly, “Interpretation.”