When We Get Past The Joke!

Posted: April 25, 2017 in Uncategorized

When We Get Past The Joke!

Palm Sunday 9.4.2017

Matthew 21: 1-4, 6-11

All three synoptic gospels contain the story of Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem, but only Matthew cites the passage in Zechariah 9:9 as providing the prophetic backdrop for the Triumphal Entry. Matthew’s rendering of the passage from Zechariah includes the parallelism reflected in the phrases “humble and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.” This parallelism leads to the very strange picture in verse 7 of the disciples putting their clothes on both the donkey and its colt and Jesus riding on both. It may be that the author misunderstood the nature of Hebrew poetic parallelism, which repeats an idea in different words, giving “sense rhyme” rather than “auditory rhyme.” On the other hand, the author may have pushed his narration almost to the edge of common sense (he doesn’t explicitly say how Jesus rode the two animals) in order to emphasize the parallels between prophecy and fulfilment in the life of Jesus.

Another dualism in the message is of course the dueling processions: Jesus was approaching Jerusalem from the east. Bethphage is just to the east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives is just east of the Temple. Here again we have the connection with the tradition. The Mount of Olives was, in Israel’s Sacred Memory, the place from which an assault on Israel’s enemies was to begin (Zech 14: 2-4). We note also that the direction of approach is significant for at least two reasons: (1) Coming to the city from the Mount of Olives is a prophetic and eschatological image, and (2) there were two processions into Jerusalem during the time of passover; one–the procession of the Roman army–came from the west; the other–those with Jesus–came from the east. The Roman army was coming to maintain order during passover, a time when the population of Jerusalem would swell from around 50,000 to well over 200,000–both conservative estimates. Moreover, passover was a celebration of liberation from Pharoah in Egypt, and Rome was uneasy about the anti-imperial message of this association.

The Romans were headquartered at Caesarea Maritima, a city built by Herod the (so-called) Great to honour Caesar Augustus and make money for himself. Herod built monuments to Caesar at every opportunity. Caesar Augustus was Octavian, Julius Caesar’s nephew and adopted son. During the Roman civil war, Herod had been an ally of Octavian’s enemy, Mark Antony. Shifting his loyalty to Octavian after Antony’s defeat was a nifty piece of political footwork on Herod’s part, and may also have added to Herod’s ebullient enthusiasm for all things Octavian. He even named the harbour Sebastos, which is Greek for “Augustus.” Sebastos was one of the finest harbours in the world. It was constructed over a 12 year period (25-13 BC) and was state-of-the-art for its day, rivaling both Athens and Alexandria. It was used primarily for the export of agricultural products from the region–or, to put it another way, it provided an efficient harbour for the plunder of the region–and could also be used to supply the Roman Army in case of war with Parthia.

The procession of the Roman army from Caesarea Maritima to Jerusalem would have been an imposing sight–Legionnaires on horseback, Roman standards flying, the Roman eagle prominently displayed, the clank of armour, the creek of leather, the stomp of feet, and beating of drums. The procession was designed to be a display of Roman imperial power. The message here is that resistance is futile!

The counter-demonstration of Jesus came from the east, the opposite direction. Jesus comes to the city not in a powerful way, but in a ludicrously humble way, inciting not fear, as in the Roman procession, but cheering crowds who clear his way and hail his presence. We should not underestimate the significance of this picture. Sarcasm and irony are often the only mechanisms available for the oppressed to express themselves. The procession of Jesus creatively mocks the Roman procession.

G K Chesterton captures Palm Sunday from the perspective of the donkey that Jesus rode.

G.K. Chesterton (1874–1936)

The Donkey

When fishes flew and forests walked And figs grew upon thorn, Some moment when the moon was blood Then surely I was born;

With monstrous head and sickening cry And ears like errant wings, The devil’s walking parody On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth, Of ancient crooked will; Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb, I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour; One far fierce hour and sweet: There was a shout about my ears, And palms before my feet.


Looking at the available texts we see that Mark has three predictions which are mirrored in Matthew (16:21-23, 17:22-23, 20:17-19), each with some Matthean additions. In the first prediction, Matthew adds to Mark a statement about the necessity of going to Jerusalem (16:21): “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem.” (Jesus doesn’t actually head south until 19:1.) In our text for Palm Sunday, he has arrived. But there is an important thing to note and it is that just before he makes his final approach to Jerusalem, Jesus sends two people into a nearby village. The two disciples are instructed to go into the village and, as soon as they get there, they “will find a donkey tied and a colt with her.” They are to take this donkey and colt. If anyone were to ask them about it, they are to give the “secret password” and say, “The Lord has need of them.” Here we have an indication that there is a network of Jesus supporters operating “under the radar.” Moreover, this network of Jesus supporters reaches even to a village just outside Jerusalem. The Galilee-based Jesus movement reaches even into Judea, even to the very gates of the city of Jerusalem itself!

In this passage, Matthew, for the first time, directly associates Jesus as king. (The magi were looking for the “king of the Jews” in 2:3, but here the association is more explicit.) Jesus is treated as a royal figure throughout. He doesn’t get on the donkey. He is “sat” on it by others. Therefore, when Jesus’ secret followers in the nearby village hear that “the Lord needs them,” from Matthew’s perspective, that is enough to say.

We recall here that Jesus is to ride two animals and maybe at once: And this had happened so that it might be fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Speak to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king comes to you, meek, and mounted upon a donkey, and upon a colt, a son of a beast of burden.” And the disciples went and did just as Jesus appointed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and they placed the garments upon them, and they sat him upon (them). Two animals have a significance to the story.

What Matthew has done here is insert the twelfth of fourteen “quotation formulas” from the Old Testament: “Speak to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king comes to you, meek, and mounted upon a donkey, and upon a colt, a son of a beast of burden.” The quote appears to be a combination of Isaiah 62:11 (“speak to the daughter of Zion”) and Zechariah 9:9 (the rest). This (mostly) Zechariah text is the interpretive centre of the passage. And from that Zechariah text, Matthew leaves out the phrase “triumphant and victorious is he.” Jesus is obviously not going to be that kind of king, at least not yet. As Matthew recounts it, the quote accents the humility and meekness of Jesus.

In referring to both a donkey and a colt–“humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey”–Zechariah was using a grammatical device known as “hendiadys,” which means expressing a single idea with two nouns. This parallelism is quite common in Hebrew poetry. For example: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path”. (Ps. 119: 105) The statement expresses one thought in two complementary ways.

At this point scholarly opinion is all over the place. Some say that Matthew flat misses the parallelism. Others say he knows about it but ignores it. In any case, Matthew does clearly refer to two animals, both a donkey and a colt.

Some have cited this as evidence that Matthew didn’t really understand the Hebrew language or the Hebrew people, but there is no evidence of this and it is reasonable sure that Matthew was Jewish, and knew full well about Hebrew poetry and the parallelism in Zechariah. He also knew full well that Mark, his source, clearly has only one animal involved in Jesus’ procession. Therefore, Matthew was deliberate in making the change to two animals–“and he sat on them” (epekathisen epano auton).

When he quotes from the Old Testament, Matthew like most Hebrew scholars feels free to tweak the texts he quotes in order to suit his purposes. This is not the style of a literalist. What we are left with is that Matthew quite obviously refers to two animals and everybody since has been scratching their head over why. Most likely, it was to underscore the fulfilment of the Zechariah text–not just one fulfilment, in other words, but a double one! Matthew knows full well that Jesus did not ride two animals at once and he doesn’t care. His point is not historical precision, but theological insight. His point is that “your king comes to you,” which is the fulfilment, in a complete and total way, of the prophetic Zechariah text.

Lets return to the entrance: We find a very great crowd spreading their garments in the way, and others were cutting down branches from the trees and were spreading them in the way. And the crowds, the ones going before him and the ones following, were crying out, saying, “Hosanna to the son of David. Blessed (is) the one coming in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.” And when he entered into Jerusalem, all the city was shaken, saying, “Who is this?” And the crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” Matthew anticipates the Hollywood “red carpet” by about two millennia. He shifts focus to the action of the crowds–“a very great crowd” spread both garments and branches onto Jesus’ path. In 2 Kings 9:13, strewing cloaks onto the path was a sign of royal homage. The crowd, by strewing cloaks onto his path, is treating Jesus as a royal and kingly figure, which is further underlined by their comparison of Jesus to the Great King David.

We notice here that Jesus was not welcomed by the people of Jerusalem. The noisy crowd is not composed of Jerusalem city dwellers, but rather “the ones going before him and the ones following.” Most likely, this refers to the disciples and those who joined the movement along the way to Jerusalem.

The composition of the crowd is suggested when Jesus actually enters into Jerusalem, Matthew says that “all the city was shaken.” Seio means moved, shaken to and fro, with the idea of shock or concussion. It’s the word for earthquake, and where we get our word “seismic.” An earthquake will also occur at the death of Jesus (27:54). The city shook with fear when Jesus was born (2:3)–Now, the place is roiled, shaken, and shocked when he enters as an adult.

Here we have a dialog between the city and the crowds. The city asks the question: “…all the city was shaken, saying, “Who is this?” The crowds answer that this is “the prophet Jesus.” In doing so, they are fulfilling the text of the prophet, Zechariah. They are telling “the daughter of Zion,” which is Jerusalem, who comes.


The crowds’ assessment is said to be lacking by many scholars because the crowds only identify Jesus as “prophet” and not as “king”–the assumption being that “king” is a higher title than “prophet.” Is a political title really higher than a Biblical and spiritual one? We have a question of Matthew here. Would that have been his point of view?

The crowds are also providing some cover for Jesus. The high regard in which the crowds hold Jesus, particularly as prophet, prevents the political authorities from arresting him in public (21: 46). Yet, we also know that this is also the city that kills the prophets (23:37), and we are under no illusions as to what will come next.

In summary then we have the entry linked to the tradition of the ancients, we have the use of Hebrew parallelisms to communicate the entry and Jesus to the tradition and we have the clear subversive political challenge of the mocking of Rome. And we have this set within the subversive network of Jesus followers.

The environment for this show is the other factor in the dramatic story about palm Sunday We need to remember that at the time Palestine was an occupied country.  It was ruled by the Romans. Nobody wanted them there. So Jerusalem was something like Paris during World War Two. People hated the Romans, despite the collaborators. And even the collaborators hated the Romans.

Jerusalem was a big city. There were at least 50,000 people lived in the city, and some people estimate it was a lot larger than that. At Passover each year, thousands more people would come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. The population would swell to four times its normal size… maybe more. Passover was so important, and so ingrained, that the Romans couldn’t stop it happening. It was easier to let it happen and try and manage things.

What is the resistance the Jesus movement was up against? Why would Rome want to stop the Passover? Well, let’s remember what it was about. It was about Israel being set free from Egypt. It was about God rescuing the chosen people from the overlords, and from Pharaoh, King of Egypt. We don’t have to be a genius to work out that at each Passover festival some firebrands would be suggesting that maybe a new Moses was going to arise, and with the help of God, set Israel free from the new overlords. This Passover, remember in Hebrew thinking is actually the revisiting of the stories from the past not just a symbolic remembrance. those wild preachers would say with some degree of certainty, God will set us free from the Romans.

The Romans would know the significance of this way of thinking even if not fully understanding it so, to make sure nothing got out of hand, the Romans would boost the Jerusalem garrison each Passover. The Romans had their base at a port called Caesarea, which was to the north west of Jerusalem. To avoid the mountains, they would march down the coast from Caesarea and then cross over into Jerusalem from the west.

Maybe you can begin to see what was happening. Each year at Passover, there was already a big procession into Jerusalem. What better challenge than to have an alternative and a sarcastic mocking of that tradition and its attending power assumptions. The two processions gave people a choice about which procession to follow, and highlights the fact that we too have a choice. In This case it is empire or people.

The authorities understood what Jesus was saying because he was dead in a week. The question is will we laugh at what he did, and just enjoy his street theatre, just treating it as one more episode of The Chaser, to be forgotten by next week. Or… even though there will be “Thursday nights” when we desert him, and fail him, are we going to see the message and follow him? Amen.

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