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Sunday, April 9, 2017

Who Is This? And What Does He Want? (Matthew 21: 1 – 11)

It may be difficult for us to admit or to accept, but it may not be possible for us to fully understand what is happening in this story, or what was intended by the one who recorded the oral traditions about Jesus into the form in which we have received them. Too much has been left between the lines, too much has been assumed. Relevant details that were still known and simply understood by the audience of the oral traditions were not recorded and we are left attempting to fill in the gaps. (Albright 251) The gospel writers rarely describe Jesus’ motives. The gospels give us his words and actions, but leave it to us to interpret, to figure it out; it’s up to us to supply the meaning. But we can only speculate. (Johnson 500)

Why did Jesus go to Jerusalem? Did he go intending to provoke a political conflict in the holy city? Did he go to challenge the religious leaders? Did he arrange the rental of the donkey with it owner beforehand, or was this an act of spontaneous generosity? Was Jesus making an open declaration of his messiahship after keeping it a secret for so long, or was that something only understood afterwards in 20/20 hindsight? The question asked by the people of Jerusalem that day is still with us: “Who is this?”

And when was that day? As recorded, this triumphal entry into Jerusalem took place in the spring just ahead of the celebration of pesach, that is the Passover celebration. But many of the details (the few details that are recorded for us) are connected to the autumnal festival of sukkot – the celebration of Booths or Tabernacles. The palm branches (Johnson 502), the shouting of “hosanna,” (Pope 291) and the hallel of Psalm 118 (quoted in Matthew’s story) were all part of the sukkot celebration. Did Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem actually happen in the fall rather than in the spring? And if so why did the gospel writers move it? If so, what does that change mean?

And that word, “Hosanna,” what does it mean? As used by Matthew it seems to be a word of praise in a cry of honor. “Hosanna to the Son of David! … Hosanna in the highest heavens!” But the Hebrew word is not an expression of praise, it is an imperative – a command: “Save us, now!” (Pope 291) Of the 31 times it is used in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) 29 of those are addressed to the deity – to God, and the others are addressed to the King – God’s anointed agent. (Pope 290). Are we to understand that the people on that morning in Jerusalem were crying out to God and to God’s anointed one, the Messiah, to Jesus of Nazareth, for deliverance and salvation? “Save us, O Son of David! Save us, O Highest Heaven!”

Jesus was relatively unknown in Jerusalem. He’d spent most of his time in the region of Galilee. The gospel of John records at least four trips to the Holy City, but the synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) describe only this final visit. Did the owner of the donkey and her foal somehow know “the lord”? Did they make arrangements for Jesus to use the animals?  Did the shouting crowds gathered with palm branches recognize and acclaim Jesus as their king? Did Jesus ride upon the donkey and the foal specifically and deliberately in order to fulfill the ancient prophecy – reading it like a checklist of tasks to accomplish or did his actions (intended or no) fulfill those words? Or was it only applied after the fact?

It may be difficult for us to accept or to admit, but it may not be possible for us to fully understand what is happening here. Who is this? Who is this? And what does he want?

He comes riding into Jerusalem (whether in the fall or in the spring) as the victorious king – but this is a strange king and a strange victory. He is victorious with no shot fired and no swords drawn. A king proceeded and followed by palms instead of spears and pilgrim praise instead of warrior shouts. He is a king in lowly pomp (Milman). A king who banishes chariots and horses from Ephraim and Jerusalem, a king who puts away forever the bow and arrow and proclaims peace to the nations (Zechariah 9: 9 – 10).

This is not the kind of king we’d understand, or the victory we would expect. We’d anticipate that the king would launch a round of Tomahawk missiles at his enemies, launch another wave of Hellfire attack drones. We would assume that it would not be long before he sent troops to invade and put boots on the ground. The king we understand would not ride in lowly pomp, but would travel in comfort and in style fitting his status and his office, with dignity and honor and swelling pride.

Who is this? Who is this strange victorious king that does everything backwards and wrongway round?  He is Jesus the prophet king of Nazareth. He is the one who saves us from our sin, from our despair, from our death, the one who saves us from the miserable circumstances of our lives. We wave our branches and we shout hosanna! Rescue us! Save us from our anxiety, fear, poverty, and illness. Save us! Rescue us from our debts and doubts, our ignorance, enslavement, oppression and addiction. We shout hosanna! in praise and in supplication Save us, Son of David, we praise you. Rescue us, God of highest heaven, we praise you.

Who is this? This is Jesus the prophet king – who wins by losing, lives by dying, and defeats his enemies with love and forgiveness. Who is this? This is Jesus of Nazareth, the prophet king, who brings peace to the nations and peace to our lives.

Albright W. F. & C.S. Mann, Matthew: Introduction, Translation and Notes. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc. 1971. Print.

Johnson, Sherman E. “Matthew: Exegesis” The Interpreter’s Bible Volume 7. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. 1951. Print.

Pope, Marvin H. “Hosanna.” Anchor Bible Dictionary Volume III. New York, NY: Doubleday. 1992. Print.

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