Matthew 21:1-11, The Prophet Jesus

[April 13, 2014] The beginning of Holy Week. In the passage that immediately precedes this, as Jesus left Jericho he healed two blind men who had cried out, “Eleēson hēmas, kyrie, hios David (“Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!”) and they followed him. In my commentary I said that they represented the spiritual recovery of Israel and Judah at the coming in glory of the Messiah. Chapter 21 seems to mark the beginning of a new section. Jesus enters Jerusalem and prophesies against it. (He is called “the prophet Jesus” in 21:4.)

From 13:54 to the end of chapter 20 Matthew had presented narrative, teaching and figures of the kingdom of the heavens’ foothold in the present age; thus most of it concerned the Messiah’s qahal (his summoned gathering) in the light of the kingdom.

Chapters 21 to 25 concern the judgment of the kingdom: on Israel, on the church and on the gentiles. In each case, judgment is given and hope is offered. The Temple will be desecrated by the gentiles and abandoned by God, but when the Messiah comes the tribes of the Land will mourn (repent) and he will gather his elect (the Twelve Tribes) from the four winds, from one of heaven to the other (24:30-31). His believers will be brought before him and judged and sorted according to their performance; many will be barred from the wedding feast and will not enter the kingdom of the heavens, instead being cast into the outer darkness. Some, however, will. The gentiles too will be gathered before him (25:32) and will be divided between the righteous and the unrighteous, on the basis of how they treated “the least of my siblings” (his emissaries, in effect being every disciple; see 10:40-42).

It begins with his procession on the tenth day of Nisan. “On the tenth day of this month each man must take an animal from the flock for his family: one animal for each household … It must be an animal without blemish, a male one year old; you may choose it either from the sheep or from the goats. You must keep it till the fourteenth day of the month when the whole assembly of the community of Israel will slaughter it at twilight …” (Exodus 12:3-6). Jesus, who is the heavenly high priest, is also the Lamb of God (the Agnus Dei) whom he sets aside this day for the Passover Seder on Thursday evening and the Feast of Unleavened Bread (also called Passover), which begins that evening. Matthew focuses on Jesus as the Passover lamb.

Yet when the crowd cut branches from the trees and shouted “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (from Psalm 118:25-26) we recall the Autumn Festival of Sukkōt (Booths) when they process to the horns of the altar with branches in hand (Psalm 118:27), which in its celebration of light foretells the Winter celebration of Hanukkah. Sukkōt, coming at the end of the harvest, recalls Israel’s wilderness wanderings after they left Mount Sinai; it also looks forward to their dwelling in the Promised Land (Leviticus 23:33-44; Numbers 29). Palm Sunday takes place in connection to the coming Passover, but its connection to Sukkōt is unmistakable. Perhaps it means that for those who believe, their wilderness wanderings are coming to an end; that Joshua (Jesus’ name) is bringing them into the Promised Land.

This allusion is implicit, yet Luke tells us that the people “thought that the kingdom of God was about to appear at once” (19:11). John tells us that Jesus had been anointed with oil the evening before; the people of Bethany witnessed this and would have spread the word. Jesus had not rejected this sign but insisted on it. Anointing was the mark of kingship, as when David was secretly anointed by Samuel. And now the same crowd (though Matthew does not tell us that Jesus came from Bethany that morning; in his narrative Jesus was coming from Jericho; and he saves the anointing scene for 26:6-13 to connect it directly to the Passion) hails Jesus as “the Son of David.” Israel failed to possess the Promised Land in the days of the judges. David, the Lord’s anointed, obtained it for them (at least in type). Jesus was to fulfill the promise that David foreshadowed. It was not, alas, to be as the people of Jesus’ time expected; not until his coming in glory. Nevertheless, Jesus does indeed fulfill the type of David for those who will give him their fidelity. He is the Promised Land (the kingdom of the heavens comes near to all people in him) and gathers his believers into the “place” where he is in his relationship to the Father. When Jesus makes himself the Passover Lamb, and rises from the grave on Easter, he becomes this fulfillment to all who believe in him.

Let us explore this further. Jesus chooses to ride on a donkey and a colt into the city. Luke and Mark opt for the colt. John has a young donkey. In verse 7 the disciples put their garments on both animals and Jesus sat on the garments (grammatically “them” agrees with garments, not with donkey or colt). Jesus may have ridden first one animal and then the other, but all four gospels agree that he at least rode on a colt. Matthew often records pairs when the other gospels only mention one; for example, Matthew has two blind men while the others have only Bartimaeus. In Matthew the two animals ride side by side with Jesus riding upon one of them. Whatever else this signifies, Jesus honors the animals by involving them in the redemption that he is about to accomplish. Being two, they are witnesses to his honor, which he rightly receives, for as Luke records Jesus as saying, “If these [people] keep silence, the stones will cry out.” But they are more than witnesses; they honor Jesus by carrying him into the City as the royal King, the King of all creation. By being given this privilege, they also are honored.

In Numbers 22 the donkey prevented the prophet Balaam from being slain by the angel of YHWH who stood in Balaam’s way. “Why did you strike your donkey three times like that?” the angel demanded. “I myself had come to bar your way … The donkey saw me and turned aside because of me three times. You are lucky she did turn aside, or I should have killed you by now, though I would have spared her.” Animals sometimes can see what we in our spiritual blindness cannot see. The prophet Balaam’s donkey turned aside. The colt that the prophet Jesus rode into Jerusalem was honored to serve and accompany him.

There is more about this donkey. In 1 Kings chapter 1, Adonijah tried to seize the throne from the son of David, Solomon. When David was very old, Adonijah got the army commander Joab and the priest Abiathar to support his attempt, and invited all the royal princes—except Solomon—to the coronation. He threw a big festival where he declared himself king. “Long live King Adonijah!” the people shouted.

When David got wind of it, thanks to the prophet Nathan and the wise Bathsheba, the queen, he summoned Zadok the priest, Nathan and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada and said, “Take the royal guard with you. Mount my son Solomon on my own mule and escort him down to Gihon. There Zadok the priest and the prophet Nathan are to anoint him king of Israel; then sound the trumpet and shout, ‘Long live King Solomon!’ Then you are to escort him back, and he is then to assume my throne and be king in place of me, for he is the man whom I have appointed as ruler of Israel and of Judah.” They did so, and when Adonijah heard, he took fright, got up and ran for his life.

So Solomon was anointed by the spring of Gihon in the Kidron Valley alongside the wall of Jerusalem, and rode a mule into the City to sit on the throne of David to be king in his place. Zechariah wrote long after this and said, “Rejoice heart and soul, daughter of Zion! Shout for joy, daughter of Jerusalem! Look, your king is approaching, he is vindicated and victorious, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (9:9). Centuries later, Jesus—as we said—was anointed by Mary in Bethany and rode on a donkey into Jerusalem as people hailed him the “son of David.”

Solomon (Sh’lomoh from shelomo, peaceful) comes from the word shalom, peace, and Jeru-shalom is the City of Peace (in Greek it is the priestly or holy City of Peace). Jesus, also the son of David, is the Prince of Peace. In Luke 19:41-42 when, as Jesus rode the road around the shoulder of the Mount of Olives and Jerusalem came into view, he wept over the City, he said, “If only you knew, on this day, the way to peace (ta pros einēn)! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” By choosing the greed of the Sadducees (the chief priests and the Jerusalem wealthy elite) and the zealotry of the Pharisees they had rejected peace and were setting themselves up for the coming catastrophe. Jesus offered to Israel an alternative, and in his own person had provided them with the grace—the vehicle—needed for repentance.

The crowd of people who ushered Jesus into Jerusalem on that day were not the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Some of them were, for sure, but most of them were people from Galilee and other parts who had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, and people from Bethany and the nearby villages. They were people who had seen Jesus before, seen his miracles and heard his parables and teaching. Jesus was a superstar to them, a celebrity, and some of them followed him. But the people of Jerusalem also had experience with Jesus and they did not like him. According to John, three or four months earlier they had tried to stone him. They thought Jesus was arrogant to the point of blasphemy. They were probably not happy to see Jesus again.

Crowds of people poured into the City gate, so the people of Jerusalem may or may not have noticed the parade around Jesus, but Jesus was soon about to make his presence felt, at least to a few of them. In four days the Romans would supply the high priest’s father-in-law, Annas, a very powerful man, with some soldiers, and late at night they would come and arrest Jesus. They bullied Jesus all night and in the wee hours of the morning there was a mock trial. By nine o’clock in the morning, Jesus was on the cross, before most people had any idea of what happened. This was exactly the end that Jesus had predicted for himself.

Jesus entered Jerusalem as a King and as the rightful heir to the ancient throne of King David. Jerusalem had no king at the time. The last king was Herod. He was replaced by a Roman governor, whose seat of government was in Caesarea on the coast. The governor of Jerusalem now was Pontius Pilate; the only king was the emperor of Rome, Tiberius. Yet Jesus asserted, for the first time publicly, that he was the king. It was a bold move and it would get him killed.

His controversy, however, was not with the Romans. They were ignorant pagans. It was with the ruling class among the Jews that he had his controversy: the chief priests and the elders and the leading scribes. They were trying to take from God (from YHWH) what belonged to him, the fruit of the Lord’s vineyard. They were acting as if the religious rites, the Temple, even the City, belonged to them. But the people of Israel were the Lord’s vineyard. As the tenant farmers, they thought they could steal the vineyard from the Lord. They were false shepherds of the Lord’s sheep. They were the Lord’s stewards but were betraying him. (Adonijah was a prince but sought to take the throne from Solomon.)

Jesus accused the elite of attempting to steal from God. The Temple was the heart of the City’s economy and the wealthy took advantage of the hordes of pilgrims who came here to worship to make for themselves a profit. Their position, wealth and privilege was protected by the Roman overlords as long as they maintained law and order (with their help when necessary). Yes Jesus accused them of a kind of practical atheism. Everything they did served themselves and was to their own advantage. If they grew wealthy at other’s expense, it was God’s reward. (They did not believe in the resurrection: the rewards of this life proved who God approved of.) It was a system of injustice, not unfamiliar to the injustice of our own time in which the wealthy assure themselves that all their wealth is merited, due to their own virtue and wisdom, and was a reward they could enjoy (not share with those who had made them so wealthy). Any system of injustice is inherently unstable. At present the wealthy Pharisees collaborated with the Sadducees, but the tension between the party of the Zealots (whose ideology of intolerance was encouraged if not conceived and developed by the Pharisees) and the aristocracy would eventually erupt in civil war and turn into a war against the Romans. The ideology of greed, then, was the Adonijah of Jesus’ time.

The prophet Jesus had come to Jerusalem, and from this moment on, Jerusalem was to hear God’s judgment against it.

In the meantime, Jesus welcomed and desired the recognition of his kingship and the acclaim of his followers. It had been a “secret” out in the open (as it were), but who he thought he was—at least on earthly terms—was a secret no more. Those whose eyes had been opened saw recognized that he was their king, and the king of Israel, and even the king of the kingdom of God, and as the Son of Man, even the king of kings. We who believe today also acknowledge his kingship. This one, though unacknowledged by the stewards and shepherds of the people, has come to the City as God’s prophet, to pronounce God’s judgment against it.

On the one hand, as the rightful king and the true Shepherd of the people, by condemning the leaders of the people and even the holy City, was disavowing their claim on the people and claiming the people for himself. On the other hand, he was preparing himself to take the people’s judgment upon himself, and in doing so, to take upon himself the judgment of God on all of Adam’s children. By offering up himself as the Pascal Lamb, and thus the Savior of the people, he was enacting and fulfilling his role of their Defender-King and Shepherd.

Hosanna (Save now, we implore you) Son of David! As the king of Israel, you are also king of all the world’s people. We all have dwelt in darkness far too long.

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