Matthew 21:1-11 (New International Version, ©2011)
1 As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”
4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:
5 “Say to Daughter Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”
6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?” 11 The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Imagine with me that you are a Jewish person living in Jerusalem during the first century. Every year you look forward to various festivals that your family celebrates, but one always stands out as the greatest of all festivals. Every year you look forward to the Passover celebration where you and your family remember God delivering your people from oppression under Pharaoh in Egypt. An entire week is dedicated to the remembrance of this event. Jewish people flock from miles and miles away just to be in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover together in your city, the epicenter of Judaism. And every food, every act has a story behind it. As you prepare for Passover, you remove all of the yeast from your house and you only cook foods without yeast during the week of Passover. Instead of big, fluffy white loaves of bread you will have to eat a flat, crunchy, hybrid between pizza and a cracker kind of bread. And you aren’t upset about having to eat that bread. No, you like it! Why? Because that matzo bread is a reminder to you that your ancestors didn’t have time to wait for the yeast to rise in their bread before they had to pick up their things and leave Egypt. So to remember this, you get rid of the yeast in your home.
And on the night before the Passover begins every good Jewish family has a search for yeast, or chametz, throughout the house. One person goes room to room, looking for anything that has chametz in it and they remove it from the household. Bread, scones, you name it. If it is found, it needs to go. And the person searching for the chametz searches the home carrying a candle, a feather, and a spoon. If they find chametz, they sweep it up with the feather into the spoon to be discarded later. This becomes a little bit of a game in your family because you already know that you have removed all of the chametz from your home. So it is tradition to hide ten small pieces of bread, about the size of an olive, throughout the house to see if the searcher will find them. Then in the morning, all of the chametz that had been in your home is taken outside and burned.
So you are a Jew in the first century and you are getting all excited about Passover. People are coming into Jerusalem and the city begins to swell in population and excitement. You are all jacked up to celebrate the gift of the Passover when your neighbor reminds you of something. There will be a parade tomorrow.
This was normal. It happened every year. Every year around the first day of the week when Passover was to begin, Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor who ruled over Jerusalem and the surrounding territories had a parade. Pilate’s main residence was in Caesarea, a city on the Mediterranean Sea, just west of Jerusalem. Pilate would bring in extra troops from his headquarters in Caesarea and march them right into Jerusalem. And who do you think led the parade? Pilate himself, seated upon a great, powerful steed. Pilate rode a war horse, fit with armor, right into Jerusalem, followed by an army. (Crossan and Borg, The Last Week: A Day-to-Day Account of Jesus’ Final Week)
Now you might be wondering to yourself, Why would Pilate bring troops into Jerusalem just before Passover? Think again about the reason for Passover. They were celebrating God freeing them from captivity in Egypt. And in the first century the Jews found themselves in captivity once again, this time under the Roman Empire. So as they all get together to celebrate God’s deliverance you must imagine that the Jewish people are starting to get a little frustrated, perhaps a little bit ornery. Year after year they celebrate God bringing them out of slavery, so why would they not think that he would do it again! That is why Pilate would bring more troops into Jerusalem every year at Passover, to squelch any possible uprising among the people, to deter anyone from even trying to overtake the Romans who were in charge. It was an effort to intimidate any would-be rebels.
But on that same day there was another parade coming into town. Instead of soldiers this parade consists of society’s rejects: the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the lepers, the blind, the deaf, and the sinners. The parade is enjoyed by Zealots, Essenes, the Republicans, the Democrats, and maybe even a few members of the Tea Party. And these people are cheering at this parade! Collectively, regardless of who they are, they yell out “Hosanna to the Son of David!” which means, save, I pray. It carries with it the same connotation as when our friends across the pond say, “God save the Queen!” The Jews are yelling “God save the Son of David,” the rightful heir to the throne of Jerusalem. They were saying, “God save the King.”
But the most notable difference between this parade and the other one is not just who is participating and who is observing, nor is it that at one parade the people are cheering and at the other parade the people are jeering. No, the most notable difference is that in the Roman parade they are being led by Pontius Pilate, Caesar’s appointed ruler, who is riding in on a magnificent steed, a war horse dressed up to intimidate the Jews. But in the Jewish parade, they are being led by a homeless, itinerant pastor, one who says pithy things like “Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And this homeless, itinerant pastor full of pithy sayings is not riding a war horse. He is riding a young donkey. He isn’t even riding a full grown donkey, but a colt, the offspring of a donkey. Could there be anything less intimidating than this?
The reason for choosing the young donkey was more than just because it was available. Jesus riding in on a young donkey fulfilled prophesy. Zechariah 9:9 is quoted almost word-for-word in our passage for today as Matthew recognizes why Jesus rode the young donkey. Zechariah 9:9 says, “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” By riding into Jerusalem on a young donkey, he is claiming this prophesy as his own. He is making a bold statement to all of the Jews gathered there on what we know as Palm Sunday. He is saying, Ladies and Gentlemen, your king has arrived. He does not discourage the crowd from yelling “Hosanna to the Son of David.” He knows that he is the King of kings, and his time has arrived.
It is obvious as we read through the New Testament that there were many different expectations of how the Messiah would come and just what the Messiah would do. The Zealots believed that he would come and lead a great army that would rise up against the Romans and take back Jerusalem by force. There were the Essenes who believed that the Messiah would come and lead them in their pious efforts to live a life fully submitted to God. There were the Pharisees that believed that the Messiah would come and rid Jerusalem of all of those who were living in sin and therefore bring God’s blessings back to the Jewish people. And there were the Sadducees who nobody really seems to know what they were expecting other than that they were not expecting someone that would rise from the dead. Needless to say, some of these people were not too convinced that Jesus was the Messiah that they were looking for.
It is always easier to look back at scripture and wonder why people didn’t seem to understand that Jesus was a different kind of Messiah and a different kind of king. If we look at the next verse from Zechariah chapter 9, Zechariah tells us something about the Messiah that is to come. He writes, “I [God] will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He [the Messiah] will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.”
Jesus is not simply some earthly ruler along the lines of Obama, Sarkozy, and Gaddafi. No, Jesus is the king of all nations. Indeed, Jesus is the king of Kings, and the Lord of lords. His rule extends from sea to sea to the ends of the earth. And his kingdom isn’t one of force where the strongest rules. As Pilate rides into Jerusalem on his war horse with his army behind him trying to intimidate the Jews and as Pilate hangs people up on crosses informing people that if you cross Rome that this is the punishment, we have the true king riding in on a donkey. Unfortunately, not all of the world understands his kingdom…yet.
But Jesus is more than just the ruler over all rulers. If we read further into Matthew chapter 21, we find a very challenging passage. After his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus goes right to the temple. But he doesn’t seem to get past the outer courts. As Jesus enters into the courts, he sees money changers, vendors, people selling doves to be offered in the Temple as a sacrifice. And evidently they are making a good living at selling these items right outside of the temple. In fact, Jesus calls these people “robbers” and kicks them out of the temple courts.
I could preach several sermons on this passage alone. But I just want to lift out a couple of points today. The first is Jesus takes on a role of leadership in the temple. He is staking his claim on the temple. This shows that Jesus is not only King of kings, I believe that it shows that Jesus is Priest of priests, or as the book of Hebrews calls him, the Great High Priest.
The second thing that I want to point out about this episode is that Jesus had visited the temple many times before and never bothered the money changers and vendors of doves, unless you take John’s gospel as a different occurrence (which I do not). Perhaps that is because they were not there before. Many people believe that Jesus took action on this particular visit to the temple because it was the season of Passover and there would have been many people traveling into the city. As a Jew, you went to Jerusalem for Passover whether you were rich or poor, young or old. Now Matthew tells us specifically that Jesus overturns the tables of those selling doves. A dove would not have been a sacrifice offered by a rich person. It was the sacrifice of a poor person.
A dove was something that anyone could capture and offer as a sacrifice, but if you were a poor person traveling from a far-off distance, you wouldn’t be able to bring your own dove. You would just buy one when you got to the temple. And some saw this as a way to get rich quick, by exploiting the poor. Perhaps this is why Jesus is accusing the sellers of doves of making God’s house into a den of thieves.
And the last thing that I want to point out from these verses following Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem is that after Jesus drives out the money changers and dove sellers, he is approached by some blind and lame people. And Jesus heals them, which leads them to call out “Hosanna to the Son of David.” And if we went into the next few verses in chapter 21 we would see that Jesus even has control over the fig trees.
So to those in verse 10 that see Jesus enter into the city of Jerusalem and ask who he is, I would say that he is the King of kings, Lord of lords, Priest of priests, champion on behalf of the poor, healer of the sick and disabled, ruler of heaven and earth, through whom all things came into being. That’s who this man riding into town on a donkey is. And in just a week, some of them are going to find out that he is even more than this. He is also the redeemer.
I know that a number of you are familiar with the Passion play that takes place every year in Oberammergau, Germany. I don’t know what all the play depicts from the life of Jesus, but I know that it does include events from Palm Sunday and the rest of Holy Week, right up to the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday.
I heard recently about a man who had just seen the Passion play in Oberammergau and he had a bit of an issue with some of the casting, so he decided to take it up with the director. He went to the director and he said, “Your play contains a serious flaw. You used the same actors to shout ‘Hosanna’ on Palm Sunday and then to shout ‘Crucify him’ on Good Friday.” Without pause, the director replied “Yes, it was the same crowd that did both.” (from Al Winn)
It is easy today to lay our palm branches on the ground and yell Hosanna to the Son of David. I hope you all believe today that Jesus is the King of kings, Lord of lords. My challenge to us all is to not yell “crucify him” tomorrow.
We are in the right place this morning. We are in the right place because we are worshipping the God revealed to us through Jesus Christ. We are in the right place because we are worshipping the King of kings, Lord of lords, Priest of priests. We are worshipping a God who cares about the poor, the hungry, the blind, and the lame. We are worshipping a God who is Lord over us, over the sun, moon, earth and stars. We are worshipping a God who is Lord over everything. We are worshipping the king of all who rides in on a lowly donkey, not a war horse. We worship a God who loves us and serves us and calls us to love and serve one another.
When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on that day that we know as Palm Sunday, he wasn’t simply trying to lighten his load a little bit by riding a young donkey. Jesus was making a statement. He knew that the time had come. He was establishing his rightful place as king over Israel; he was establishing his rightful place over the religious systems. He showed his love for the poor, the sick, and the oppressed. And he stepped on a lot of toes in the process. We must not forget that the events of this week will lead to Jesus’s death on a cross. And today we can hear Jesus calling out to all of us, “Will you follow me, or will you follow someone else? Following me may be costly, costing you your very life. But it will not be for nothing.” Let us shout “Hosanna to the Son of David” today and every day. May the praises roll off our tongues in good times and in bad, for Jesus Christ is Lord!