– Palms are about welcoming a king.
– Riding on the donkey is about a king showing his “humility,” (of which most kings didn’t have much).
– “Hosanna” is both a cry for help, a prayer, and an adoration, meaning “save us now” or something similar.
All of things make sense if we take Palm Sunday as a protest against Roman rule. Since this is what Jesus seems to have been about, the event makes sense.
Did it happen? Maybe. If it did, there probably were not the crowds described in the story. I think Jesus would have been pretty insignificant to the Romans and was arrested - probably not tried - and crucified for some act like overturning the tables in the Temple. If the Palm Sunday event happened as described, he would have been arrested on the spot. Or, as Paul Verhoeven suggests with considerable evidence, there had been a warrant out for Jesus’ arrest for some time, making a noisy entrance into town rather risky. We really don’t know much about any of it, but again, his staging of an ironic entrance, a shabby rabbi being welcomed as a king by a small group of followers, perhaps viewed by some others ("Who's this guy?"), makes some sense. If Jesus had crowds of followers, I think he would have made it into a chronicle of the times.
I remember that my first sermon was on palm Sunday in 1970, entitled, “The Triumphal Exit.” That sermon is long gone, I think. It must have been more of a Passion Week sermon, about the supreme importance of the death of Jesus rather than the seductive triumph of Jesus in his entry into Jerusalem.
I’ve been struggling recently with Thomas J. Altizer’s classic book, The New Gospel of Christian Atheism (1965). He speaks (at length in 1 chapter) of Hegel’s work, The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807). Did I mention that Altizer’s book is dense, hard to read and comprehend? Basically, Altizer is telling us that anything in the gospels or in the churches that is about earthly empires or triumph or power or victory is FALSE. So much for Palm Sunday.
In another chapter about the incarnation he says that this is the ultimate point of the true gospel: you and I are or can be Christ. Altizer out-Kiergegaards Kiergegaard. Be Christ in the world if you want to be Christian. That is the meaning of taking up your own cross.
It’s like Bob Funk told us. He realized as a young man that he couldn’t follow Jesus’ teachings. If you begin to understand them, you realize you aren’t a follower of Jesus unless you are willing to die for his vision of the Empire of God. It wouldn’t be enough just to study his teachings. And pretending it’s all about victory is simply silly. (Actually, it’s very destructive to follow someone who is about power and destroying what he think's is immoral and un-American.)
The meaning of the Palm Sunday narrative is the end of kingship and lordship and ruling over others. It is the beginning of the end of the despotic father God and all the godlings we have made in the image of that old unhelpful idea. Jesus wasn’t a godling.