March 28, 2021 Matthew 21:1-11
OK, let’s get this straight right away. When the gospel writer refers back to the ancient words of the prophet Zechariah to show their fulfillment in Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, somehow he makes the mode of transportation quite awkward and almost impossible. As Santos read this morning, Matthew tells us that Jesus sat on a donkey and a colt at the same time! Or perhaps it was a later scribe of the gospel who goofed up the quote from the prophet. In any case, Zechariah is clear that the animal which will be ridden by the coming king will be one young donkey. A donkey is a humble creature, normally a beast of burden, one who works in the fields. A donkey is far from the glory and power of a magnificent steed that would be assumed to be used by a king. Not only is he riding a donkey, but a young donkey at that! Even more humble.
Listen to the words of Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Calling the people of Judah “daughter Zion” and “daughter Jerusalem” was a term of endearment, used by several other Old Testament prophets as well, usually indicating a message of deliverance to this special city, seen as a child of God. In many languages, cities are referred to in the feminine. Interesting, since women throughout history have usually been judged as less important than their male counterparts.
So, Jesus is riding into the city on one animal, a young donkey, an expression of his humble and meek demeanor, a sign of the kind of king he really is. I am imagining this is a short parade with one person on a young donkey and a group of disciples walking alongside him. As the crowds welcomed him with the red carpet treatment by laying down their coats and branches or palms before him, perhaps they began to join the parade themselves, falling in behind Jesus and his disciples, adding to the festive nature of this entrance into Jerusalem.
The message shouted by the crowd is key to understanding the import of this entrance. They are crying out, “Hosanna!”, which means “Save Now!” They were ready for a change, they were ready for the words of the prophets to truly be fulfilled, and for their king to be victorious over the Roman leaders of their day. Maybe it was kind of like the political rallies we have become accustomed to, where a candidate for office gathers a noisy crowd of his or her supporters together in one place to express their hopes that their candidate will be victorious over all opponents, taking control of the government a few months down the road.
The shouts of the crowd call to mind a cluster of psalms of praise, Psalms 113-118. These psalms extol God’s greatness because of the mighty works God has done in the past, in contrast to the impotence of idols, with thanksgiving for personal healing, and a resounding song of victory over all enemies. Listen to the words from Psalm 118:25-29. I am reading from Eugene Peterson’s The Message Bible, but the meaning of the words should sound familiar—these shouts are repeated by all four gospel writers—and the list of items which are included by all four of them is fairly short. They should also sound familiar because we use a portion of this text them on a regular basis when we share in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Listen:
Salvation now, God. Salvation now!
Oh yes, God—a free and full life!
Blessed are you who enter in God’s name—
from God’s house we bless you!
God is God,
he has bathed us in light.
Adorn the shrine with garlands,
hang colored banners above the altar!
You’re my God, and I thank you.
O my God, I lift high your praise.
Thank God—he’s so good.
His love never quits!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed are you who enter in God’s name. In our day we might be holding up placards that say something like “Jesus is the best! Vote Jesus!”
The amazing thing here is that this one who comes in God’s name, this one who is treated like a powerful king, demonstrates a power that looks like weakness. He will not usher in a military machine to crush the Romans once and for all. Actually, Zechariah’s words continue on to describe this king as one who will demilitarize Judah, cutting off the chariots, the war-horses and the instruments of battle bows. He will command peace to the nations – it sounds like to more than only Judah. This echoes words from the prophets Micah and Isaiah which effectively announce: “We ain’t goin’ to study war no more.”
Matthew tells us the city of Jerusalem is in turmoil. As Jesus descends into the city from the village of Bethphage at the Mount of Olives, word is spreading quickly. “Come look at this guy riding into town on a donkey! Who could he be?” The crowds, gathering steam as they get closer and closer, answer them: “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” That must have gone over like a lead balloon. Any city dweller would look down on a man from the little country village of Nazareth. It reminds me of the common vernacular that I hear used by our relatives in Chicagoland. When you live in the city of Chicago, you never bother to identify a particular suburb you might be planning to visit—even though they all do have their own names. You just say to your fellow city dweller—”I’m going out to see my aunt and uncle in the suburbs.” I read into that—the suburbs are a different kind of place, not like this city we live in with all of it’s amenities and activities. And the reverse is also true. When you live in a suburb of Chicago, and have to take the train into the city or fight snarls of traffic on the spider-web of highways, and you want to go visit your friend in Chicago, you would say to your husband or wife: “Tomorrow I am going into the city.” No mention of the name of the city. There is no need. Everyone knows exactly what city you mean. I read into that—the city is a different kind of place, not like this quiet, peaceful suburb we enjoy.
Jesus, this king, not only rides into Jerusalem on a young donkey, but he is identified as being from a small village in the hinterlands, even more of a country bumpkin than any suburb dweller today. What a contrast are the words we often sing on this Palm Sunday, with the classic hymn lyrics written in England almost two centuries ago by Henry Hart Milman and the well known tune composed also in England 35 years later by the renowned hymn composer John Bacchus Dykes. Milman was a historian, a poetry professor, and only wrote words for one famous hymn. Dykes was a talented organist who began his career as an assistant to his uncle at age 10! He authored multiple articles about theology and church music, and composed over 300 hymn tunes, including such favorites as “Holy, Holy, Holy”, “The King of Love my Shepherd Is”, ”Nearer my God to Thee”, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” , “We Plow the Fields and Scatter”, and “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name”.
The words of Milman’s Palm Sunday hymn highlight the stark contrast between the majesty of King Jesus and the humble manner of being a Prince of Peace. They are written from the perspective of an observer, not a participant in the parade. Listen:
Ride on! Ride on in majesty! Hark! All the tribes Hosanna cry; the humble beast pursues its road with palms and scattered garments strowed.
Ride on! Ride on in majesty! In lowly pomp ride on to die; O Christ, thy triumphs now begin o’er captive death and conquered sin.
Ride on! Ride on in majesty! The hosts of angels in the sky look down with sad and wondering eyes to see the approaching sacrifice.
Ride on! Ride on in majesty! In lowly pomp ride on to die; bow thy meek head to mortal pain; then take O God, thy power, and reign.
And so we begin this Holy Week…anticipating this majestic king’s terrible death and then victorious resurrection. A blessed Holy Week to you all. Amen.