Brent Kinman has noted the resemblance between what happened on Palm Sunday and a typical Greco-Roman welcome ceremony for visiting dignitaries. When a king or royal official visited a city, its leading citizens would go out to meet him on the road and accompany the dignitary into town with great acclaim and ceremony.
In Luke’s gospel, the disciples not only praise God but explicitly cry out, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” The disciples welcome God’s anointed king Jesus into the holy city, but Jerusalem’s actual leaders do not.
If the city leaders had ignored Pilate the way they ignored Jesus, they would have brought the wrath of Rome down on their heads. One just did not snub important and powerful visitors, especially if they had the might of the empire behind them. It was the same all throughout the ancient world. Every king expected his subjects to welcome his officials just as they would welcome him. To mistreat those whom the king sent would certainly bring the king’s wrath, and could easily cause the city’s destruction.
Luke sees this same dynamic at work in Jesus’ welcome to Jerusalem, the city that did not recognize the time of its visitation.
And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” (Luke 19:41-44 ESV)
This builds upon the same theme that Luke introduces in chapter 13, which also makes the connection between Palm Sunday and the desolation of Jerusalem.
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is forsaken. And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’” (Luke 13:34-35 ESV)
Within the towns of Galilee, Jesus’ itinerant ministry forced townspeople to decide about him. Would they accept his claims – and thereby offer him hospitality – or would they reject him and close their doors on him and his followers? Within Luke’s gospel, then, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem functions in a similar manner; it forced the people of Jerusalem to decide. Does this fellow deserve a king’s s welcome or a Roman cross?
Jesus weeps and laments over Jerusalem. He refers to God’s judgment in passive voice and indirect language. His prophetic announcements do not thunder God’s judgments; they plead for repentance. It would be a mistake, however, to think that Jesus’ indirectness indicated a belief in some sort of impersonal process at work here. The idea that corrupt political powers naturally fall under the weight of their own injustices in a modern invention. Jesus was heir to a thousand years of tradition that said God judged the world in righteousness; there is no reason to believe that Jesus rejected this belief that was at the heart of the sacred story. The tragedy that Jesus saw coming on Jerusalem was not simply the natural outworking of its own sins (although it was that, as well); it was the judgment of a sovereign God on his people, a verdict that he had rendered time and again through the preceding millennium.
Jesus’ own ministry makes no sense outside of his preaching that “the kingdom of God is at hand,” a message that included an aspect of divine judgment. The kingdom’s coming will bring judgment on everything that oppose God’s kingly rule. How one receives Jesus now determines one’s standing in the future judgment and one’s status in the age to come.