Matthew 21:1-22, Jesus’ Entry into the City of God

[March 16, 2008] Until now Jesus had attracted large crowds but He had never allowed them to hail Him as their King or the Messiah. Until now. Jesus expected this to be His final entry into the city of Jerusalem. From the time that Peter confessed Him to be the Messiah, at the foot of the northern mountains of Hermon, Jesus had been predicting that He would suffer and die in Jerusalem. After the vision of the Transfiguration on Mount Hermon, a few days after Peter’s confession, Jesus had slowly been making His way to the City, moving from house to house, healing people, and teaching His disciples, the crowds and the religious leaders among the people, the Pharisees. There was a sense of climax brewing. He had led His disciples to expect that something momentous was going to transpire during the Passover in Jerusalem, though they were all in confusion about what this would be.

Jesus and His small band of disciples were in the crowd of pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem for Passover when He left the nearby city of Jericho (Matthew 20:29-34) and two blind men hailed Him by the title of Israel’s Messiah, the “Son of David.” Jesus opened their eyes, thus making a powerful parable of what was about to happen when He left the little town of Bethany at the beginning of the Passover week, the day when each household set aside a lamb to be slaughtered on Thursday for the Passover Seder.

He surprised His disciples with His royal entry into the city on that Sunday afternoon. They fetched the donkey and its colt at the crossroad of a small town just outside the wall of Jerusalem, at the foot of the Mount of Olives, and crowds of pilgrims followed them from the city when they returned to Jesus. By then He had left Bethany on the road that went around the Mount of Olives. Another crowd followed Jesus from Bethany and the two crowds met on the road. They were mostly pilgrims who had come to celebrate Passover in the city and were not residents of the city. What surprised the disciples was that now Jesus allowed this festive crowd to openly and loudly acclaim Him as the Messiah-King.

It was all in fulfillment of the great prophecies in Israel’s Scriptures. Daniel even predicted the coming of “Messiah the Prince” 69 weeks of years (to the day) after “the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem” (Daniel 9:25), after which “Messiah will be cut off” and the Romans would “destroy the city and the sanctuary” (verse 26) because Israel “did not know the time of [her] visitation” (Luke 19:44).

Zechariah predicted that the Messiah would come to the Mount of Olives and defeat the enemies of Israel (Zechariah 14:1-5) and others speak of how He would enter the Temple through the city gate and purify Israel. Jesus knew these prophecies. But He also knew that the Messiah would defeat the enemies of Israel only after Israel would own “Him whom they had pierced” and every household would mourn in repentance (Zechariah 12:10).

First another day must come. Jesus also recalled how David descended the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem while riding a donkey, mourning because his son Absalom had rebelled against him. Jesus too, at the same time that the crowd was hailing Him as the royal Son of David with shouts of hosanna (“save us now!”), wept out loud for the City because they did not want Him as their King. He entered the city according to the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9, which spoke of the Messiah entering “lowly and riding upon a donkey” and putting an end to Israel’s violence and speaking peace to the Gentiles. But neither Jerusalem, which collaborated with the Romans, nor His opponents from Galilee who resisted the Romans, would have Him who proclaimed the peace of the Kingdom of God.

For now, Jesus welcomed the praises of the righteous who were waiting for salvation and whose eyes were opened to see who He is. In the ancient world crowds welcomed kings by the waving of palm-branches, and this crowd also created a moving carpet for Jesus by laying their garments and their palms in front of Him on the road.

But the city was astir and not happy with what they saw. This parade was not good for the tourist industry! They knew that the Romans were watching. The Romans would not forget what they saw, and in less than a week the governor had a sign hanging above Jesus on the cross, “The King of the Jews,” to make an example of Jesus, to let Jerusalem know what he does to such “impostors.” Only, the governor made sure that the people understood that it was their own leaders— the high priest and his coterie— who did the condemning. Using a Jewish ritual, he washed his hands of the matter, feigning innocent.

Jesus’ concern, though, was not with the Romans. He had an issue with the keepers of the City, those who were stewards of the Temple and who pretended to be the shepherds of God’s flock.

The gate of the city led directly into the Temple precincts and there Jesus, walking into the bustling crowd, overturned the tables of the money changes, spilling their coins and knocking over their chairs, and releasing the animals that they were selling. He was angry, but He did not hurt anyone. It was not that what they were doing was illegitimate. The pilgrims came from all over the world and many of them could not bring their own animals. They needed to buy animals for sacrifice. And they could not use the Roman coins in the Temple because they had graven images printed on them.

This was rather a demonstration against the Temple establishment that used the worship of God for their own aggrandizement. The City thrived on the tourist industry and the chief priests made themselves wealthy off the offerings of the poor. It was as if God had no real claims here, it was all pomp.

Psalm 14 seems very appropriate in this setting. All was done in the name of God, yet it was as if “God” were a symbol they could use for our own ends.

The incident in the Temple was probably not a big scene. Jesus created a commotion and shouted in the midst of a crowd and it is not likely many could even see what was going on. The Roman soldiers could, because they watched from the rooftop, yet they did not react. Jesus upset the chief priests by what His actions were insinuating. He was bringing into question their whole management of the Temple and the City.

This week I was reading about how, early in the twentieth century, Karl Barth posed a radical question to biblical interpreters and Christian theologians: “What if God exists?” How would this change the way theology and interpretation should be approached? The article said that “Barth set out to do theology from a ‘new’ vantage point, a vantage point that assumed ‘God is’.” We might assume that most people who do theology or interpret the Bible assume that “God is.” I do not think this is really true. I would go further and say that it is not even true of pastors and of many lay people who attend church. If God could somehow be cut out of the picture, the whole machinery of religion would continue uninterrupted as though nothing had happened. In fact, many people, I am sure, would prefer it that way. God adds too much that is unpredictable and uncontrollable. God is not tame!

Churches are run like businesses trying to survive or to thrive. They use and depend on all the marketing strategies of the entertainment industries. But what if “God is” and God’s Word and God’s grace work the way the Bible says they do, and it is not all up to us to keep things afloat? What if God leads through His Word and Spirit and “God” is not just a commodity that we are trying to sell? The Christian Church accommodates to the world and hardly anyone takes the Bible seriously, as if it really is God’s Word to us. We need to ask if the Christian church has not become like Jerusalem.

Meanwhile the children continued to cry out, “Save us now (hosanna) Son of David!” and Jesus healed the blind and the lame in the crowd who by now had come to expect this of Him. Healing was a sign of the Kingdom. Jesus defended the children, quoting Psalm 8:2, which speaks of the Son of Man who will rule the creation and of children praising God because of Him.

In other words, Jesus entered the City with those who hail Him as the Messiah, but He entered it in order to pass judgment on it. This is what He did from the moment He set foot inside its gates. From here in chapter 21, to the end of chapter 25, He warned, examined, and condemned the City, and pronounced God’s sentence on it because it refused to recognize Him. In less than forty years the Temple and the city would be destroyed and its people taken captive and enslaved.

The next morning He acted out another parable. From a distance He saw a fig tree standing by itself on the side of the rode. It was full of leaves. The fig tree is one of those trees in which the leaves come out after the fruit, and the leaves do not usually come out as early as the beginning of April. One would have expected it to have fruit, at least winter fruit or new unripe fruit, both of which would have been edible. The fact that it had leaves attracted the Lord’s attention, who expected the leaves to be hiding the fruit. But there was none.

The fig tree is a symbol of national Israel, of Israel in its own land, and Jesus had used it a few times in parables to speak of the condition of Israel. Here it refers in particular to Jerusalem. Jerusalem had “leaves” for show: the Temple was bustling with activity and the Jews all seemed zealous for the Law. One would expect it to be a fruit-bearing tree, with fruit for God’s satisfaction. But as Paul would later show, they used their religion to try to justify themselves, instead of submitting to God who alone could justify them.

This judgment on the fig tree already took place. It does not mean that God has abandoned His people, the Jews. Indeed, the rupture between the Jews and the church should never have taken place. We Gentiles are grafted onto their tree, so we continue to look to them as the natural branches. One day they will be grafted back onto their own tree, when all Israel will recognize their Messiah. We look forward to this and welcome it.

The question Palm Sunday poses to us is this: Do we have a relationship to religion, or to God? Are we trying to justify ourselves to ourselves, our family and neighbors, and to that unconscious father-figure inside of us that we call “God”? Or are we willing to enter into a direct personal relationship with God that He is in charge of, and in which only He controls the justifying. Are we willing to submit to His judgment and condemnation so that He can justify us? God transcends us and our petty little egos and our ideas about God. Yet God is also far closer than we can possible imagine. People can tolerate religion, as long as it is polite and in its proper place. But the thought of having an intimate personal relationship to God scares most people. It is either crazy or fanatical and intolerant. Yet Jesus puts this choice before us.

Jerusalem rejected Jesus as its King and Messiah. In reasonable, worldly terms, it was not reasonable for Jerusalem to hail Him. But the choice with which it was confronted was not reasonable or worldly. It was God who confronted them and demanded a total choice, the same God who confronts us. This is altogether different than making a practical or political decision. God is at the root of our being and has everything to do with our destiny. Only for a moment can anyone pretend—for it is a delusion that we are maintaining—that God can be ignored while we take care of other, more pressing matters. Jesus must not be allowed to interfere—we think—with either the economy or the security of Jerusalem. These things have to come first, we say. However, if we think this way, we do so to our own destruction. What we think is in our heads. Jesus IS our reality and cannot be ignored.

With Jesus we have to do with God. We must choose. Either we let Jesus claim our entire life, or we choose a halfhearted religion—to our own destruction.

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