Jesus’ Hopes for Jerusalem: Re-Telling the Triumphal Entry Story to Combat Anti-Semitism

I was fortunate to get to lead a teaching among Unitarian Universalists this Palm Sunday. It’s always a treat to spend time outside of my own denomination, and I’m grateful for the conversation with my UU friends. 

Reading: Luke 19: 37-44

Above, The Triumphal Entry by Van Dyck, 1617, depicts Jesus, wearing rich blue and red robes, riding a donkey foal.

Thank you, Jonesboro Unitarian Universalists, for hosting me today. I’m so grateful for the chance to spend time with your congregation. 

Today is one of the most important days of the western Christian calendar: Palm Sunday. If you live in the US and your faith life doesn’t revolve around the Christian calendar, though, you might not know it. It gets nowhere near the attention of Easter, which is next Sunday and which generates the third-most holiday revenue, after Christmas and Halloween. We don’t have parades for it, don’t buy new clothes to show off in church, don’t scour cooking magazines for the perfect menu for the day. We don’t have greeting cards or really any holiday traditions outside of the Sunday service. So if you aren’t familiar with the holiday, that’s not all that surprising.

But if you live in other parts of the world where Christianity is popular, you would be very aware of what Palm Sunday means, because, especially in countries where there are many Orthodox Christians and Catholics, it is the most important time of the year.

A statue of Jesus on a donkey, being pulled in a procession, in Spain

Statue of Jesus processing on a donkey in Torreviejo, Spain. Image by Miguel ángel villar, Pixabay

Now, let me back up a bit: I mentioned that Palm Sunday is this week for western Christianity, which operates on the Gregorian calendar. For eastern Christianity–that associated with the Orthodox Church–the liturgical calendar is based on the Julian calendar. Every two to five years, the Gregorian and Julian calendars line up, giving us the chance to celebrate these holidays on the same day. But not this year.

But still, that means that many of the world’s peoples–roughly 2 billion Christians–are beginning the walk through Holy Week, which is what Palm Sunday marks and which overlaps with Passover, one of the holiest times in the Jewish calendar, which is luni-solar. 

As we heard in today’s reading, the story of Holy Week begins with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the city where many first-century Jews would have gathered in preparation for Passover.

Holy Week includes a commemoration of the Last Supper–Jesus’ final meal with his friends and which Christians cite as the source of the rite of communion; that is commemorated on Thursday.  The next day, Good Friday, marks when Jesus was crucified. Saturday, Christians around the world will wait vigil on the day between Jesus’ death and resurrection, many attending services that last until midnight, when they begin to celebrate Easter. Others will remember Jesus’ resurrection with a sunrise service on Sunday. 

But let’s begin with Palm Sunday. Judea–the southern half of Israel, which was all that was left after previous revolts and invasions–was a backwater of the Roman empire, a buffer against threats to Rome from the east. Because Judea was so far from the Roman capitol, Rome ruled rather lightly at first, unwilling to invest in the infrastructure that would have been required to maintain a strong military presence there. But, over time, as Rome vanquished its nearby enemies, it began to use greater force in Judea. And that prompted backlash. Herod the Great, a Jew who served as a puppet king for Rome, used brute violence to maintain his power. When he died around the time of Jesus’ birth, Jews who opposed his willingness to compromise with Rome saw a chance to push the faith toward purity and nationalism. After his death, they demanded a spot in the high priesthood, the punishment of Herod’s insiders, and a reduction in the heavy taxes Rome forced on them–basically, a significant change in the religious, political, and economic order. Revolts to Roman rule began to spread across Judea, including attacks on Roman garrisons and the burning and plundering of palaces. Roman authorities killed thousands of Jews to quell the revolts. And they also burned towns and hurt everyday people to drive the message home: Judea was Roman territory, and the empire was not afraid of brutalizing subjugated people into accepting Roman rule.

This was the world that Jesus was born into. On the one hand, some Jewish leaders were pushing for a more conservative version of their faith, one that would distinguish it from the Roman empire–even at the cost of their own lives and the lives of everyday Jews. On the other hand, some Jewish leaders understood that the challenge to Roman rule would only produce more brutal oppression. Better to quell Jewish uprisings and save the Jewish people, even if they had to live under oppression, than to challenge Roman rule and be utterly destroyed. 

Jesus preached another way, in word and deed: a world in which the hierarchies of the day weren’t either reordered or protected, but in which the hierarchy itself was dissolved. In Jesus’ vision of the world, the lamb doesn’t devour the lion–they lay down together. 

We know that this was a radical vision because of how people responded to it. The Jewish authorities trying to keep the peace by accommodating Rome were frustrated by him. Some of his closest disciples were frustrated with him–both because he served outside of the Jewish community, violating boundaries and suggesting God’s love was for all, and because he told them to put away their sword against the Roman empire. He wasn’t here to accommodate empire or install himself as king or reinstate a more exclusionary form of the Jewish faith. He was able to do “great deeds of power,” the people saw, but that only made him a threat to religious leaders pushing for accommodation and a frustration for those pushing for greater exclusivity and nationalism.

Now, entering Jerusalem, Jesus knew the danger of the situation. He knew that one of the messianic uprisings of recent memory had happened in this very city, at Passover, and that the newly appointed Roman leader had crushed it, killing 3000 men, according to the historian Josephus. Given that context, consider what danger the words of those who greeted him posed:

“Blessed is the king

    who comes in the name of the Lord!

Peace in heaven,

    and glory in the highest heaven!”

They boldly called him a king–the last thing those Jewish leaders who were trying to avoid a Roman crackdown wanted to hear. Would-be Jewish messiahs had been cropping up for years, and each time, they caused trouble not only for the Romans but for the local population, as their followers fought among each other. 

So no wonder that some of the local religious leaders–some of the Pharisees, a Jewish sect that highly valued the oral tradition of the Jewish faith and that promoted personal piety, not just among priests but among everyday people–asked Jesus to hush his followers. They weren’t concerned about the noise level in a city full of revelers. They were tired from playing a game of whack-a-mole with every wingnut messiah who walked into town. They didn’t need a king “coming in the name of the lord.” They needed to make it through Passover without an uprising that could easily have led to a massacre at the hands of the Romans. No wonder they instructed him, “Teacher [Rabbi], order your disciples to be silent.”

And, in response, Jesus delivers one of the coldest disses in the Christian scriptures: “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would cry out.” 

Christ and the Pharisees by Lawrence L. Ladd, 1880, American
Lawrence W. Ladd’s Jesus and the Pharisees, 1880

Not an apology, not an argument, almost a shrug, a statement of an inevitable truth: that creation itself recognizes the Divine, that peace on earth and the glory of heavens go hand-in-hand, that when we make peace on earth, we witness the glory of the Divine. 

The stones themselves–silent, enduring, any one of them possibly older than humanity itself–speak of this. We think that the oldest rocks are older than 4 billion years old, but even the average ones are over a billion years old–far older than the first animals. And here they are, all around us, both some of the oldest and the most ordinary reminders we have of our own desire to attest to the enduring goodness of the Divine and our need for peace on earth. 

We don’t know what the Pharisees who have confronted Jesus say in response. Often well respected by religious believers, they might have been shocked by Jesus’ audacious response. Or perhaps they were humbled, reminded that they are not the gatekeepers to God’s glory, that nature itself speaks of it. 

The city comes into view. Jesus pauses as he looks out over it. He is overcome by love for it. He sees something in the city, from this distant view, that grieves him. The people who have greeted him wish for peace, yet something in the city prevents it. “If you had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!” This is Jesus’ desire for this city he loves, now filled with Jews from all over Judea: for them to recognize what would give them peace. The word recognize here implies that the source of peace is there–and even that they can see it. But they cannot seem to understand–to cognize–what they are seeing. What is it? We see later that they “did not recognize the time of your visitation from the Divine.” They did not recognize that God was already with them. The poor people who greeted Jesus along his way recognized it. Even the stones recognized it. But the city of Jerusalem, as desperate as it was for peace, could not recognize that Divine Love was there. People were searching for a king, a revolutionary leader, or a way to blend into Roman culture and thus avoid persecution. But they were not, as a whole, looking for Divine Love. 

Here, for the second time in only a few verses, Jesus invokes stones. Because the people have not been able to recognize the truth that the Divine is already with them, they will not be able to survive. “The days will come upon you when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you and hem you in on every side,” he warns, describing how everyone will be killed, “and they will not leave within you one stone upon another.” This image is of total destruction: all people dead, even the unborn, all structures so thoroughly destroyed that every stone is torn for its place, every wall, every road, every well, and strewn about, so that stones that had been placed by a mason generations ago next to each other were now far apart. When we talk about a society being destroyed, we sometimes talk about the very fabric of the society being torn; how much more damage must have been unleashed for the rocks of its foundation to be scattered. 

This is a harsh turn coming from a teacher rather famous for a vision of a future where the meek inherit the earth and those who cry are comforted. Is this just Jesus being petty? After all, he said that all of this suffering will happen because the people don’t recognize him as a bearer of Divine Love. Is he calling down a curse as a scorned lover might? 

I don’t think so. I think he’s making a prediction based on what he sees happening at the current moment, which is what we mean when we talk about prophecy. This isn’t a vision of an event in the distant future, imagined out of nothing. It is an observation: this city is hurting. It’s hurting because it does not recognize the call of Divine Love toward peace. For the same reason it is hurting, it will also be hurt: because ignoring the call to Divine Love always results in more suffering. 

And Jesus is right. In another generation, in the year 70 CE, just three days before Passover, the Roman army laid siege to the city in an effort to subdue revolts that had been threatening Roman rule there. The siege was brutal, lasting five months. The Roman-Jewish historian Josephus reported that a million people died, not just from the Roman attack but from murder, famine, and cannibalism. Other historians put the number at 600,000. Another 97,000 more were sold into slavery. Josephus describes the destruction this way [adapted translation]:

Now as soon as the Roman army had no more people to slay or to plunder, because there remained no people to be the objects of their fury, and, anyway, the soldiers would not have spared anyone… Titus Caesar gave orders that they should now demolish the entire city and Temple, but should leave as many of the towers standing as they were of the greatest eminence…in order to demonstrate to posterity what kind of city it was, and how well fortified, which the Roman valor had subdued. As for all of the rest of the wall around Jerusalem, they leveled it to the foundation; indeed, it was so thoroughly leveled with the ground that there was left nothing to make those that came later believe that the city had ever been inhabited. This was the end which Jerusalem came to…, a city otherwise of great magnificence, and of mighty fame among all humanity. No one who had known the place before, if he came upon it suddenly now, would have recognized it, and if a foreigner were in the city itself, he would still have had to ask where it was.

The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus, A.D. 70 by David Roberts, 1850
The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus, A.D. 70 by David Roberts, 1850, showing the city on fire, the Second Temple burning.

Jesus’ words come true, not because he hated Jerusalem and cursed it but because he saw that this city dear to him and his Jewish faith was itself walking away from the Divine Love he seeked to lead it toward. His own experiences–a prophet treated without honor in his own land, treated as a religious traitor for violating gender-based purity laws and crossing ethnic boundaries–confirmed to him that Jerusalem was not listening to the call of Divine Love. That call demands solidarity across class, racial, and gender divisions, as Jesus modeled in his ministry. Without that solidarity, the city was simply too tumultuous for the Romans to ignore and too weak to defend itself against an attack. 


Now, you may be asking, why are you, Rebecca, a scholar of hate and religion, whose research focuses on contemporary hate groups, speaking to us about the political history of a place most of us will never visit? 

Here is why: because the story of Holy Week continues to be told in churches in a way that harms Jews. 

Here is why:

  • Holy Week has too often been a time of anti-Semitic violence. At the worst times in Christian history, Christians have used the occasion to invoke violence against Jews, blaming them for the crucifixion of Jesus. We hear it in extremist anti-Semitic religious teachings, but it also creeps into mainstream churches. On Friday, countless churches will engage in a dramatic reading of Christian scripture that requires audience members to take on the role of the Jewish crowd. And they will yell “Crucify him! Crucify him!” in that role, reinforcing the idea that it was Jews who ordered the execution of their Christ. Does that necessarily translate into violence? No, and most Christians who participate in this ritual will not engage in violence or disparaging of Jews. But for those Christians who do, the idea that “Jews killed Jesus” is often learned at church. An astonishing 27% of Americans agree with the statement that Jews killed Christ according to research by the ADL in 2020.
  • Even in liberal forms of Christianity, we don’t hear a nuanced story of Holy Week. As a consequence, the word Pharisee is synonymous with hypocrite–even if you’ve never set foot inside a church to hear the word said there. This reduces an important Jewish sect, which helped form the rabbinic tradition and maintain Judaism through some of the religion’s toughest moments, to a caricature. It also ignores the many times when the Christian Scriptures speak positively about Pharisees, including Nicodemus and the Apostle Paul
  • Christian violence against Jews has often been justified as a response to “blood libel”–the myth that Jews steal and murder Christian children to drain their blood for use in Passover rituals. From the middle ages on, some Catholics venerated these imaginary child victims, a practice that was only banned by Catholic leadership in the 1960s but that continues to circulate.

a relief of the mythical story of St. Simon of Trent

Above, a relief in Italy depicting the myth of the murder of former St. Simon of Trent at the hands of Jews who would use his blood in their Passover ritual. See Magda Teter’s impressive study of this myth at Blood Libel: On the Trail of an Anti-Semitic Myth

Above, a handmade sign calling attention to child trafficking appears in the hands of a conspiracy theorist. The #savethechildren campaign–not to be confused with the legitimate Save the Children charity–launders conspiracy theories about child trafficking by appealing to real concerns about child sexual abuse. In February 2023, former president Donald Trump accused Republican primary rival Ron DeSantis of grooming teenage girls when he was a high school teacher. Notably, Trump himself has been accused of child sexual abuse in court.

Today, I hope you heard a retelling of the story of Palm Sunday that acknowledged the complexity of the situation for Jews during Jesus’ life and at the time of his death. I share it as a way to understand the challenges that his followers and his critics faced, the things they yearned for and the things they feared. We hear in his first words, as he descends toward the city, a call to cry out, like even the stones do, in response to Divine Love and to hear others as they call out to and for that Love. And we hear as he grows closer to Jerusalem a warning to a society that denies a people’s need for peace. I pray, always, that we choose the first.


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