One of the Gospels to be read for Palm Sunday is Mark 11:1-10. It is a well-known passage, perhaps too well known, recounting Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Usually it serves as a warning about how fickle crowds can be, joyously hailing Jesus as a king foretold by the prophets but within a week angrily calling for him to be crucified. As with so many well-worn biblical texts, it can become mere droning in the background, so that its layers of meaning become blurred. Beyond looking at the historical elements of this Gospel, there are also spiritual ways to see it.

First, we recall the historical details. Jesus and his disciples are at Bethany, variously translated as the House of Figs or the House of Affliction. The hometown of Lazarus and his sisters, it is a village on the Mount of Olives. It is not quite two miles east of Jerusalem, and diagonally across the road is another small town, Bethphage, meaning the House of Unripe Figs. Jesus tells two of his disciples to go into that town, and as soon as they get there, they will find a donkey’s colt tied up. They are to untie it, and, if anyone challenges them, to say that the Lord needs it, but he will give it back.

It is on this colt that Jesus rides into Jerusalem. People keep down the dust of the road by throwing down their cloaks and cutting off palm branches to pave the way. That historical scene has inspired numerous painters and filmmakers, and usually they depict Jesus riding the colt something like sidesaddle. If the image on the Shroud of Turin accurately records the appearance of Jesus of Nazareth, he was a broad-shouldered man about 5ʹ 11ʺ, and so, had Jesus straddled the colt, very likely his feet would have touched the ground.

Within that historical account we can see some spiritual aspects of this Gospel text. One of them I develop from insights found in a homily delivered on a Palm Sunday in the early 700s by the Anglo-Saxon Benedictine monk we know as the Venerable Bede. Easily following from his perspective come other spiritual interpretations that I will offer in due course.

Something Bede noticed was that Jesus sent two disciples into Bethphage. Since no detail of Sacred Scripture is frivolous, there must be, Bede reasoned, some significance to the fact that there were two disciples sent by Jesus. To Bede, it was clear that here we have an example of Jesus sending two men into the world to preach Jesus’ message. Moreover, for Bede this spiritual meaning of the text became more clear when seen in conjunction with its parallel in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, Matthew 21:1-11.

In Bede’s day, indeed for all the Church Fathers, Matthew’s Gospel came first, hence its placing in the New Testament, and they believed Mark abridged what Matthew had written. Today, biblical scholars see it as the other way round, that Mark wrote his Gospel first, and Matthew expanded upon it. For our purposes, it makes no difference which came first, because what matters is that they complement one another. In this case, Mark tells us of a colt, and Matthew mentions a colt and an older donkey.

In Bede’s prayerful reading of both Gospels, that detail shed invaluable light. Bede saw the two disciples as two preachers of Jesus’ message, and they go to two creatures, one older, another younger. That is, they preach to the Jews and to the Gentiles. They preach to the older people, God’s Chosen People, the first to hear the Word of God, and they also preach to the younger, newer people, the uncircumcised, uncovenanted, Gentiles.

Both peoples need to hear Jesus’ message, said Bede, because both are tied up, tied up and bound by sin. Only the word from Jesus can untie them and set them free from the dangerous spot that they are in. For, notice, the donkey and the colt are tied up not in a stable but outside the door of a house, out in the street. There they are vulnerable to anyone and anything passing by.

So, through his preachers, Jesus can free Jew and Gentile alike, and he himself takes them from a little town on the slope of the Mount of Olives into the great city of Jerusalem. This Son of David brings all peoples rejoicing into the City of David. In so doing, and here I move on from Bede, Jesus reverses his own story about the Good Samaritan.

In the early 200s, Origen interpreted the man in that parable as Adam. The man goes down from Jerusalem to Jericho, just as Adam went down from Paradise into the fallen world. Here, Jesus, as the new Adam, goes down from Bethany and up into Jerusalem. Jesus leads donkey and colt, Jew and Gentile, back to the symbolic, the allegorical, paradise of Jerusalem.

This reversal of the Fall of Adam, this salvation of the fallen human race, is indeed cause for rejoicing, for shouting “hosanna!” Yet, there is more to the story, much more. Yes, by Good Friday we will all be demanding that the government execute Jesus, but before we get that far into our story, we need to consider what comes right after this Gospel for Palm Sunday.

Once Jesus gets into Jerusalem, Mark tells us, he goes to the Temple, looks around, and goes back to Bethany. Next day, Jesus returns to Jerusalem and engages in a violent and uncompromising outburst that gets tidied up with the polite heading of The Cleansing of the Temple. En route, Jesus had already cursed a fig tree.

We can see this part of the Gospel as being about Christian conversion. By means of his Word, from our prayerful reading of his Scriptures, Jesus comes into our temple, and there he sees all the corruption that needs cleaning up to make it again a house of prayer. He does not withdraw and wait for us to decide that this is change we can eventually grow into. Rather, he himself, in the Word of our meditation, confronts and challenges us and turns the whole defiling enterprise upside down. And so often, we put everything right back where it was.

So much for being deep in the heart of our spiritual city, inside our very own temple for the Holy Spirit. Before getting to that point, Jesus had a warning for life outside the city. He has no time for a fig tree that only looks leafy and luxuriant, and for Jesus it is not enough if we only look like Christians. In season and out of season, we must be shaped by prayer, the grace that comes from praying with his Word becoming manifest by our good fruit.

Like a recurring theme in music, we have been hearing mention of figs. We hear of two kinds, as symbolic as the old donkey and the young colt. Whether the ripe figs of the Jews or the unripe figs of the Gentiles, Jesus has definite expectations.

After all, come Easter Sunday, Jesus will be revealed as a gardener, as the Gardener, the Son of the God who created the Garden of Eden. Just as corrupt temples need wholesale cleaning out, so do fig trees need diligent pruning and at times even more severe discipline. In a Psalm that Jews recite on the first day of Passover, a Psalm long attributed to David, shepherd and king, in Psalm 105 we hear about God striking the fig trees of the Egyptians. That violence visited upon those ancient Gentiles was part of a larger purpose, to free the Jewish people, from which freedom derives the salvation offered us by Jesus Christ.