Have you ever noticed how stories can be so formulaic? It’s easy to notice it in movies, particularly. Take romantic comedies, for instance. They all follow a formula. It starts with the meet-cute: two people collide in an embarrassing way. Then they discover some connection and quickly fall in love. Then one realizes the other one has some horrible secret and they break up. Then they discover it was all a big misunderstanding, and in the final few seconds of the movie, they make up.
Or take horror movies. Everything starts out very innocently. A family moves into a new home or a bunch of friends decide to go hiking. Then slowly things start to seem “off”. You begin to suspect some malicious force is at work. Then one of the people disappears and you’re off and running. Usually, by the end, only one of the characters is left alive and the monster or ghost or deranged psychopath has either been killed or run away.
Or, take my favorite, the western. One person described the formula this way: “[a] two–fisted marshal…canters into Tombstone, outdraws Bad Brad on Main Street, and strides into the saloon for a shot of rotgut.” I might add that somewhere in there a townswoman falls in love with him only to have her heart broken as he rides off into the sunset.
These are the formulas our stories follow. And for the most part they mustfollow them. A rom-com without a meet-cute, a big breakup, and a reconciliation is simply not a rom-com.
Did you know that the Bible follows story-telling formulas, too? A common one is the meeting at the well. This is the Bible’s version of a rom-com. If two people meet at a well, you can expect that by the end of the chapter they will get married.
Did you know that the Bible also provides us with a formula for what conquered do after they’ve devastated another village and slaughtered all their enemies? It’s true!
We can find a good example of this in the First book of Maccabees. That’s right, the first one. You didn’t even know there was one book of Maccabees, let alone several! There are actually four Maccabeeses and they appear in the Apocrypha, which is that little collection of books that comes between the Old Testament and the New Testament (in some Bibles).
Maccabees is the story of a man named Judah “The Hammer,” (anawesome name, by the way) who fought for and obtained Israel’s independence from Greece about a hundred-and-fifty years before Jesus. At one point in the story, Judah demolishes a whole village of his enemies, slaughtering all the men, and then marching triumphantly through the ashes of the village, quite literally stepping “over the bodies of the dead” the scriptures say. Grizzly stuff.
Then Judah returns home from his victory and is greeted by his subjects with much rejoicing. They march straight up to Mt. Zion, and offer a thanksgiving sacrifice to God for their victory. And there’s the formula: after a big battle, the military champion enters the city, is greeted with shouts of joy and praise, and then marches straight to the temple to offer a grand and public sacrifice of thanksgiving (see also 1 Maccabees 13:51).
Does any of that sound familiar? It should. Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem looks an awful lot like Judah “The Hammer’s” grand return to Jerusalem.
It’s Passover, and Jews from all across Israel are flocking to Jerusalem to celebrate. Word gets around that Jesus is coming, too, and a crowd starts to form. As Jesus approaches on his donkey, the crowd starts to throw their cloaks on the road before the mule so that it doesn’t dirty its hooves on the road. The people wave palm branches in the air, and shout “Hosanna” which means something like, “Save us!”
They also quote Psalm 118, saying “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” Now, this isn’t terribly unusual. Psalm 118 was a common Psalm to be sung during Passover. But some people in the crowd get carried away. They improvise their own lyrics, shouting, “Blessed is the coming of our ancestor David!” which their way of saying that Jesus should be the new king of Israel.
The crowd has been whipped into a frenzy. They interpret Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as the arrival of their conquering savior and king. Sure, he hasn’t fought any major battles yet, but he’s following the formula for a conqueror. Surely this Jesus will come to Jerusalem, seize power, and lead a great slaughter against the Roman Empire! Then he will march over the bodies of dead Romans and return to Israel to offer sacrifice.
The crowds are excited because all the signs of the formula are there:
First, Jesus comes riding into Jerusalem on a donkey.
Military champion entering the city? Check!
Next the people wave their palm branches and offer praise to Jesus.
Military Champion champion greeted with shouts of joy and praise? Check!
Now all we need to complete the formula is that grand and public sacrifice of thanksgiving!
Verse 11 reads: “Then [Jesus] entered Jerusalem” [yes!] “and went into the temple;” [here it comes!] “and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.”
Come on, Jesus, you were so close! All you had to do was follow the formula, offer a sacrifice in the Temple and kingship was yours! It was right there and you blew it.
First century people would have expected Jesus to follow the formula, but he doesn’t. Instead, he acts like a tourist, taking a look at the temple, before leaving town to go to Bethany. This is Jesus’ so-called “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem and he doesn’t even spend the night there! He’s like Clark Griswold taking his two-second look at the Grand Canyon in the movie Vacation.
Can you imagine how disappointing this would be? The people following Jesus would be as disappointed as you would be if that rom-com you desperately wanted to see didn’t even end with the two main characters getting together.
And can you imagine how all the people following Jesus into Jerusalem would have felt? It would have been like that scene in Forrest Gump when Forrest decides to stop after three years of straight running. He turns to the crowd of followers running behind him and says:
“I’m pretty tired…I think I’ll go home now.”
And then that one guy in the crowd: “Well now what are we supposed to do!?”
So what’s going on here?
In Mark’s telling of the story, Jesus’ “triumphal entry” is a parody of “triumphal entries.” The whole thing falls flat in the last scene when Jesus fails to consummate his triumph with a sacrifice. Clearly this Jesus is not who people expected him to be. He can’t even follow the formula right!
You can imagine, then, why some in the crowd might be so willing to shout “Crucify him!” just a few days later. They think Jesus was leading them on, pretending to be the new King David when really he’s just…nobody. Whipped into such a frenzy, some became as angry as they had been excited. And then they called for blood.
I think we often end up falling into the same expectations that the crowd fell into. At least I know I do. We want to think of Jesus as triumphant. We just heard the tune to “Ride on, Ride on in Majesty!” We want a majestic conquering king, a mighty savior who crushes our foes. At one time, this was the prevailing understanding of the cross, and it’s still quite prevalent. Christ is the victorious, the one who, by the cross conquered death, which is to say, waged war against Satan and nobly won the battle! Instead of Judah “The Hammer,” we have Jesus “The Hammer” who crushes death.
But as we’ll see in the coming week, the story doesn’t go anything like that. At no point does Jesus take up a sword. As a matter of fact, when one of his followers does take up a sword, Jesus tells him in no uncertain terms to put it away. Jesus does not inflict violence on anyone, rather he becomes the one upon whom violence is inflicted. Jesus does not parade around in victory, rather he drags the instrument of his execution up a hill in shame.
Jesus never does anything through conquering or violence. He accomplishes what he accomplishes only through love.
I think this is still true of Jesus. There have been times in my life, many times in my life, where I’ve wanted Jesus to sweep in like a mighty conqueror and fix all my problems. In those moments I have cried out, “Jesus take this away from me!” as if Jesus would march in, battle ready, and defeat all my problems.
But guess what. Not once has he ever done that for me.
He’s never come saddled upon a warhorse, a spear in his hand, and a battle cry on his lips.
He’s only ever come pinned to a cross, a spear in his side, and sour vinegar on his lips.
Because that’s what Jesus does. He dies. He joins us in our sufferings and hangs there on his cross, showing us just how much he loves us. He doesn’t take away our pain. He joins us in it.
It’s true that we believe in the resurrection to come. We know that death is not the end of Jesus’ story, nor is it the end of our story. But that salvation doesn’t come by Jesus inflicting violence: just the opposite—it comes by Jesus bringing new life.
Jesus’ so-called “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem is the antithesis of all the triumphal entries that have come before. It breaks with the formula in a really important way. The other triumphal entries have been the result of violence and death, conquerors returning home from war, walking into the temple with boots caked in human blood, to slaughter an animal upon an altar.
If that is the savior you want, then you’ll have to look elsewhere. Because when Jesus comes to Jerusalem, he comes offering life, not death.
So in the Holy Week ahead, look not for Jesus the conqueror with a sword in his hand. For those who live by the sword, die by the sword. Look instead to Jesus the lover with a nail in his hands. For those who die by the cross will find life.
 Credit for this comedic interpretation due to C. Clifton Black: https://www.workingpreacher.org/theology-and-interpretation/marklarkey-or-whats-so-funny-about-the-second-gospel