PRAYER FOR ILLUMINATION
As we retrace your steps through Holy Week, Jesus, open our ears and our hearts to hear and receive your Word that it might change us. Amen.
OLD TESTAMENT LESSONS Zechariah 9:9-11, NLT
Rejoice, O people of Zion!
Shout in triumph, O people of Jerusalem!
Look, your king is coming to you.
He is righteous and victorious,
yet he is humble, riding on a donkey--
riding on a donkey’s colt.
10 I will remove the battle chariots from Israel
and the warhorses from Jerusalem.
I will destroy all the weapons used in battle,
and your king will bring peace to the nations.
His realm will stretch from sea to sea
and from the Euphrates River to the ends of the earth.
Because of the covenant I made with you,
sealed with blood,
I will free your prisoners
from death in a waterless dungeon.
Psalm 37:11, NLT
but the humble will possess the land
and enjoy prosperity and peace. Isaiah 62:11-12, GNT
Isaiah 62:11-12, NCV
11 The Lord is speaking
to all the faraway lands:
“Tell the people of Jerusalem,
‘Look, your Savior is coming.
He is bringing your reward to you;
he is bringing his payment with him.’”
12 His people will be called the Holy People,
the Saved People of the Lord,
and Jerusalem will be called the City God Wants,
the City God Has Not Rejected.
GOSPEL LESSON Matthew 21:1-11, NRSV
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
5 “Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
SERMON Jesus Risked Entering Jerusalem
Maybe you don’t usually think of Lent and particularly Holy Week as a parade, a pilgrimage possibly but not a parade. Yet Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem does feel like a parade, with Jesus riding into the city followed by his disciples, perhaps more friends with them, and crowds of townspeople and travelers lining the streets shouting and waving branches.
Did you know this wasn’t the only grand entrance into the city that day? Pontius Pilate was also arriving with his entourage to take charge of the city during the Jewish Festival of Passover, one of three festivals that required coming to the Temple in Jerusalem for sacrifice and worship. It was a crowded time in the capital of Judea. Pilate’s parade would have been a show of force to remind the Jews that this land was Roman territory and not a free state. I found a sermon by Terry Gau that describes it this way:
Gates open and the procession begins. Thousands line the street, throwing flowers and laurels, waving madly, reaching to touch power as it passes them. Security guards watch the crowd for dissidents, agitators, and zealots, intent on doing harm. The man coming through the gate sits tall in the saddle, looking every bit the champion he is meant to be. A mantle of authority rests easily on his shoulders as he climbs higher to the center of the city, taking his rightful place as lord protector of this people.
Jesus and Pilate, what contrasting images of power and authority! One is a teacher; one is a governor. They represent entirely different ideologies. The teacher embodies God as Suffering Servant filled with Compassion for all people. The governor symbolizes the law of the empire, backed by military might to keep the people in line. Jesus is viewed as the potential liberator of the Jews, especially as they remember Moses leading them out of slavery in Egypt; they hope Jesus will free them from Roman occupation. Pilate is there to remind them that they are not free to do as they please, that they are an occupied nation, and need to abide by Roman law, that practicing their faith is a present privilege without future guarantees. Two parades in one city on the same day. Two men whose influence and conflicting purposes will clash with the help of a high priest and his cronies who don’t want their own influence and authority to come to an end.
We’ll take a closer look at Matthew’s gospel account of the story. But first let’s note that all four gospels tell their own version of that day. Some of the details will be in common; other details will be unique. Amy–Jill Levine writes, “No one Gospel can tell the full story, and each should be savored for the story it tells.” (p. 22) While her book Entering the Passion of Jesus focuses this chapter on Matthew, she encourages us to read the accounts in the rest of the gospels on our own not just to compare, but to seek the richness of all the detailed perspectives.
One of the things we will gain from Professor Levine is a greater awareness of the historic Jewish background to our New Testament stories of Holy Week. Matthew especially writes for a Jewish audience and from a Jewish perspective. This Gospel quotes Old Testament scriptures more often than the others.
Jesus has come to Jerusalem with his disciples for Passover, as have Jews from as far away as Athens, Rome, or Babylon, everywhere Jews lived. The city is bursting at the seams with guests. Jesus has been here many times for the various festivals. John’s Gospel mentions Passover in John 2, Shavuot which we call Pentecost in John 5, and the Festival of Dedication we know as Hanukkah in John 10. Jesus has made friends in the area, among them Martha, Mary and Lazarus at nearby Bethany.
On this occasion, there are meaningful messages in Jesus’ mode of entering the city, not just as one of many coming on foot but in a manner others would recognize as the entrance of a significant person. As they approached the city, Jesus sent two of the disciples into a village to untie a donkey and her colt and bring them to him. Don’t be alarmed; this is not a theft. Jesus seems to know exactly where they will be tied and that the owner will be glad to loan them when told “The Lord has need of them.” (Matthew 21:3) Professor Levine’s suggestion that these animals belonged to one of Jesus’ local friends makes perfect sense to me. (p. 23)
As Matthew’s Gospel quotes the prophecy we read earlier from Zechariah:
5 “Tell the city of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you!
He is humble and rides on a donkey
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Matthew 21:5 from Zechariah 9:9)
If we look at the rest of that prophecy, if Matthew’s readers knew it, or if the Jews in Jerusalem that day remembered it, we find more to the meaning of arriving on a donkey as found in Zechariah 9:9. Verse 10 speaks of removing weapons and bringing peace. Verse 11 refers to the covenant God made with his people, sealed in blood. That reference is loaded with meaning.
- If the donkey brought this prophecy of Zechariah to mind, then the blood would remind them of the lamb’s blood spread on the doorposts so that the angel of death would pass over the Hebrew homes when the first born in each Egyptian household died before the Hebrews finally escaped from Egypt led by Moses. That is the very event they were in Jerusalem to commemorate as Passover.
- It might also remind them of the covenant God made with his people through the giving of the commandments and building the tabernacle, establishing the priesthood, making the ark of the covenant and other sacred implements. All these symbols of the covenant were dedicated with the sprinkling of blood.
- But as Matthew writes to Jews, who are now believers in Christ, the covenant sealed in blood would also call to mind the Last Supper Jesus shared with his disciples and the sacrifice he made upon the cross through the words added to the Passover blessing. “This is my blood, which seals God's covenant, my blood poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:28)
Let’s look further at the poetry in Zechariah 9:9.
- “Your king is coming to you.” The King rides a donkey. I remember from another study by Adam Hamilton that King David rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. Now Jesus, whom the crowd will call David’s Son, comes on a donkey symbolically claiming to be our king.
- “Righteous and victorious.” Some translations say “triumphant and victorious” which is why we refer to this story as Jesus’ Triumphal Entrance into Jerusalem. The word in Hebrew is tzaddik meaning a righteous person. I’ve often shared that in the Old Testament righteousness is paired with justice. Professor Levine points out that “the focus…is not on militaristic conquering, but on the power of justice.” (p. 27) That is the contrast between Jesus’ parade into Jerusalem and that of Pilate.
- The word often translated here in English as victorious also gives us the wrong impression. Literally it means saved or salvation and shares its root with Hosanna, Hosea, Joshua and Jesus. Jesus came to save; that’s what his name literally means. It isn’t about victory for a conquering hero; it’s about salvation for the rescued people of God. The same root word is found in Isaiah 62:11 “Tell the people of Jerusalem, ‘Look, your Savior is coming.”
- The next linguistic note was a surprise to me. “He is humble.” Levine says that does not necessarily mean meek or gentle or even lowly as we often think of it. “The Hebrew has the connotation of being ‘poor’ or ‘afflicted.’” (p.27) That fits the image of Jesus as suffering servant as we have applied language from Isaiah 53:4 “It was certainly our sickness that he carried, and our sufferings that he bore, but we thought him afflicted, struck down by God and tormented.”
- It is the humble in this sense that inherit the earth, as it says in Psalm 37:11 and as Jesus referred to in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:5). It is those who are poor and afflicted now who have this promise to live in peace and prosperity. These words “inherit…prosperity” may signal something individual and financial to us, as if to say we have a lot to gain in terms of personal wealth for the future. But to Matthew’s first century audience these words had a more communal context. Those who are humble, those who do not think too highly of themselves, those who have suffered at the hands of their foes will as a community possess their land, live peaceably, and prosper, because their Gracious God supplies their need. It is a message of hope!
I like the way Professor Levine sums up the contribution of these Old Testament prophecies to our image of Jesus who comes as King: Jesus is “a king who does not lord it over others, but who takes his place with those who are suffering…a king who is righteous rather than violent…a king who is strong in faith, not armed to the teeth.” (p.28-29)
As Jesus arrived, the crowd lined the streets shouting their welcoming words of praise. They used words from Psalm 118, the finale of the Hallel psalms 113-118 used for this and other major festivals, which we may also use liturgically on Palm Sunday or Easter. Hallel means “to praise” as Hallelujah means “Praise to God!” or “Praise the Lord!” (Levine, p. 33) You’ll recognize these words not only as we use them on Palm Sunday, but also as we sing part of the Great Thanksgiving when we celebrate Holy Communion.
- “Hosanna!” As said before the root of this word means salvation. The expression “Hosanna!” literally means, “save, please” (Levine, p. 31) It becomes a prayer of the people to Jesus, Please, save us! Specifically, the meaning of that word Hosanna would echo Psalm 118:25: “Lord, please save us! Lord, please let us succeed!”
- They sang their Hosannas to “the Son of David,” it is a reference to Jesus descending from King David, a hero of their history. Messianic prophecy also proclaimed the Messiah would be of the House of David. That’s why it’s significant that Jesus’ birth story took place in Bethlehem, the city of David and that he came to Jerusalem, David’s capital riding a donkey as King David did. The crowd is making this association as they welcome Jesus.
- Psalm 118:26 contains the next line these crowds chanted: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” The crowds are not only praying for a future salvation and visitation of God. They somehow, at least on that day, sensed that salvation and God’s Messiah were in their midst right there in front of them.
This story contains the longings of God’s people for salvation, for freedom. Yes, they wanted freedom from the military occupation and Roman rule of Jesus’ day. It is also true when we look at the story theologically that Jesus came to offer freedom from the slavery of sin just as Moses delivered the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. But there are other freedoms God’s people seek desperately in any age. Professor Levine suggests, “From sin, yes. But also, from pain, from despair, from loneliness, from poverty, from oppression. We are all in need of some form of salvation. Indeed, the idea of salvation for most of the Scriptures of Israel is not about spiritual matters, but physical ones.” (p.33) Every one of us has stood in need of salvation in one form or another.
How will we respond to what Jesus offers? Will we let the parade pass us by? Or will we join the throng in shouts of praise and prayers for salvation? What then? Will we go home with a happy memory but back to our dismal lives? Or will we try to live into that kingdom our Savior ushers into our world? Will we live into the “procession of justice, of compassion, of peace, or a vision of the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom as God wants it to be?” (Levine, p. 34) As we celebrate that ancient parade, we have a choice about how we intend to live.
The passage ends with this identification of Jesus. “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” (Matthew 21:11) It hints back to Deuteronomy 18:18 as Moses says farewell to his people before his death and their entrance to the Promised Land.
God promised this to Moses: “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command.”
Matthew has set up this scene wanting his audience to be reminded of both Moses and King David as they listen to Jesus’ story. We needed a little more help to see the connections. Just as Jesus must face conflict with Jewish leaders and Pilate, so Moses faced it with Pharaoh and with his own siblings Miriam and Aaron, so David faced it not only with Goliath, but with King Saul and eventually his own son, Absalom.
“Crowds are fickle” (Levine, p. 36) “Hosanna!” will turn to “Crucify Him!” The parade into Jerusalem will be lost in the dust and replaced by the slow walk carrying a cross to Golgotha just outside the city.
Amy-Jill Levine puts it honestly, “The Triumphal Entry cannot be separated from the cross, and the cross cannot be separated from the call of justice. And that call cannot be separated from risk, personal, professional, permanent.” (p. 36) Herod the Great killed baby boys for two years, as well as members of his own family, because he was afraid of the prophecy that a child born in Bethlehem would grow up to be king. Herod Antipas killed John the Baptist, because this popular and vocal teacher threatened his authority and his happy home. Caiaphas, the High Priest would make sure Rome killed Jesus, because Caiaphas’ priestly authority was threatened by the rabbi from Galilee.
Taking up God’s just cause is a dangerous business, and it will take Jesus to the cross. Yet Jesus accepted that risk, knew what would happen, and chose not to save his own life but to save ours. The story begs us to reflect, what then are we willing to suffer and risk for the cause of Christ, for God’s justice to rule in our world today?
John’s Gospel version of this story is the only one that specifically names the branches being cut down and waved or laid at Jesus’ feet as palms. Palms in Jewish tradition are not a Passover reference, the Festival background to this story. Palms belong to another Festival, Sukkot, in the Fall harvest season. Even today Jews build booths for Sukkot to remind them of their heritage as nomads when the rescued Hebrews wandered in the wilderness. As part of their worship during Sukkot Jews wave branches of date palm, willow, and myrtle held together in their hand following the festival commandment in Leviticus 23.
Sukkot is the setting for the Zechariah 9 passage foretelling the humble king who will come riding on a donkey. Zechariah continues in chapter 12:10, “I will pour out on David’s family and the people in Jerusalem a spirit of kindness and mercy. They will look at me, the one they have stabbed, and they will cry like someone crying over the death of an only child. They will be as sad as someone who has lost a firstborn son.” In 14:16, “16 Everyone who is left from all the nations that attacked Jerusalem will come every year to worship the king, the Lord of Armies, and to celebrate the Festival of Booths.”
The actions and words of the Passover crowds as Jesus entered Jerusalem, already anticipated the survival and return of those who would celebrate the Festival of Booths. Between these Festivals there will be a time of grieving as God’s own Son, David’s Son is killed for our sake. But amid that sorrow God will pour out on God’s people mercy and compassion. All these themes, our own call to action, and even risk are all present in one not so simple story of a man, Jesus, riding into town on a donkey.
We read that story and learn the deeper meanings behind it not just for its own sake, but for what it might say to us today. Where in our world does Jesus come in festive procession to offer the hope of freedom for all God’s people? Where does the Gospel take risks today? Where are you in the story? Are you standing along the sidelines? Are you shouting “Hosanna,” Lord, please save us? Are you following behind Jesus as one of the faithful, knowing you put everything at risk to do so? Where will you be when the rest of the story walks slowly toward Golgotha? Will you in your own life take up your cross of suffering and risk to follow him? These are the questions Lent challenges us to ask ourselves.
Today, let us offer our prayers and our praise, our Hosannas to Jesus our King, but let us not forget that Jesus invites us to follow him all the way to the cross and beyond to the freedom of a new Promised Land.