Mark 11:1-11 (NIV)
1 As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 3 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’”
4 They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, 5 some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” 6 They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. 7 When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. 8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. 9 Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted,
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
10 “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
11 Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.
It has been a crazy week for me. Last Sunday after church I went home, had lunch with my family, and then went to the hospital for the birth of our daughter, Hadley Elise. Everything went well and we welcomed our new princess into the world.
We came home on Tuesday, spending the obligatory 48 hours at the hospital. I noticed as I ate my breakfast Tuesday morning that I had a bit of a scratchy throat. I took a long nap at about 2pm, because as you can imagine, I didn’t sleep well at the hospital. When I woke up, I had red spots on my face. I believed at that time that I was having an allergic reaction to something I had eaten or perhaps to the flowers in our room, or something else. I took a good dose of Benadryl and slept away the rest of the day.
I woke up Wednesday and I was speckled. My hands, face, and feet were covered with red dots. I went to the urgent care facility expecting to be given some kind of treatment for an allergic reaction. The nurse went through a checklist with me and she couldn’t assess my condition. She told me that I was the kind of case that was “fun” for them to look at, and she then went on to ask me if I have a Living Will. The doctor came in and he didn’t have much of an idea, either. He said “It is kind of like chickenpox, but it isn’t chickenpox. And it is kind of like viral meningitis, but it isn’t viral meningitis either.”
The doctor sent me home with a prescription drug and some clear instructions: don’t touch the kids. I couldn’t hold my little princess Hadley. What a strange roller coaster of a week.
As I think about the week that I have had, I realize that my strange week was nothing compared to what we often call Holy Week and the highs and lows that Jesus went through in a period of only a few days. On Sunday the people were ready to inaugurate Jesus as king, calling out “Hosanna in the highest.” By Friday morning they were calling for his crucifixion.
Our text for today tells us that Jesus instructed two of the disciples to go ahead of him into a village and bring back a colt for him to ride into the city upon. And Jesus specifies that it must be a colt that has never been ridden, an unbroken colt. Now why was it necessary to ride in on a colt that had never been ridden before? I think it is symbolic and prophetic at the same time.
If you have ever tried to ride an unbroken animal, you know that they often want you off their backs more than you want to be on them. They buck, they kick, they run around in an unpredictable way. We had a pony when I was growing up and she was never good for much more than keeping the grass trimmed down in the summer. I was sent airborne more than once and that is an unsettling feeling. If I needed to get from point A to point B, I was not about to try to ride that pony to make the journey easier, safer, or more comfortable.
The unbroken colt seems to be symbolic of the fact that the kingdom that Jesus had come proclaiming was not what the people had expected. Easy, safe, comfortable? These are not adjectives that Jesus used to describe his kingdom. The kingdom of God was going to keep people guessing. It is indeed upside-down of what the people had been anticipating. And that is seen in how they welcome their king to Jerusalem.
We know this day as Palm Sunday because of the actions of the people. As Jesus rode into town on this unbroken colt, the people laid down their cloaks and waved palm branches, yelling “Hosanna in the highest.”
This act of waving and laying down the palm branches was something that had been done before and I think that it would help to look at that event to understand the symbolism behind it. In the year 175 BC, the leader of the Seleucid Empire named Antiochus Epiphanes marched his army through Jerusalem, pilfered the temple, and eventually slaughtering a pig to the Greek god Zeus in the temple. Swine are considered unclean by the Jews; Antiochus had defiled God’s holy temple. Eight years later, a family known as the Maccabees overtook the army of Antiochus Epiphanes and rededicated the temple. The celebration lasted 8 nights (think Hanukah) and a part of the celebration of this military victory can be found in the Apocryphal book of 2 Maccabees 10:7, “Therefore, carrying ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place.”
The palm branches are a symbol of a military victory. The people that waved and laid palm branches during Jesus’ triumphal entry were expecting Jesus to physically defeat the Romans and drive them out of Jerusalem in the same manner as the Maccabees.
It seems as if the Jews that waved palm branches missed the connection between the colt that Jesus rode in on and a messianic prophecy from the book of Zachariah. The Gospel of Matthew tells us that this is the fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9-10, “9 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. 10 I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.”
This messianic figure found in Zechariah isn’t going to overtake the opposition through a military victory. Gone are the chariots, gone are the warhorses, and broken is the battle bow. This kingdom is different. This kingdom is different because this king is different.
How is this king different? Let’s follow Mark’s narrative. Mark tells us the next day Jesus went to the temple and saw some wheeling and dealing that he thought didn’t belong in the temple. He overturns the money tables, releases the animals, and drives them out of the temple courts. This king is different in that he has authority in the temples. He isn’t just king, he is the high priest.
Let’s keep going through Mark’s account of Holy Week. Time and time again we find Jesus teaching and preaching. People are coming to him from all around and they are asking him questions. And not just questions like, “Do you know what time it is?” They are asking him deep theological questions. Questions about the resurrection, questions about scripture interpretation, and this is important as we enter into April, questions about paying taxes. This king/high priest is also a wise sage. Not bad for a 33-year-old man.
Anytime someone rises to the top, there is someone that wants to bring them down. And the plot is set to kill Jesus. He is betrayed and handed over to the authorities. Jesus was then brought before the Roman authority figure in Jerusalem, the governor Pilate, for a ruling on his life. However, Pilate doesn’t really find that Jesus has done anything wrong, so Pilate tries to release Jesus. Mark tells us that it was customary to release one prisoner during the festival of Passover. It happened that at that same time there was a prisoner named Barabbas being held by the Romans in Jerusalem. And I have often thought of Barabbas as this evil, wicked, terrible man. But if you read Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the charge against Barabbas is insurrection and murder (John also calls him a thief).
To call Barabbas an insurrectionist and murder is to say that he had risen up against the Roman government and killed someone that stood in his way. Barabbas had tried to rise up against the Romans in the same way that the Maccabees had risen up against Antiochus Epiphanes and that is why he was arrested and sentenced to death. You will remember, the Jews celebrated the Maccabees’ victory by waving palm branches. Yes, Mark tells us that the religious leaders prompted the people to ask for the release of Barabbas, but I don’t think that they took too much convincing. You see, the people didn’t want a unique king/high priest/sage like Jesus. They wanted someone who would defeat the Romans as the Maccabees had defeated the Seleucids. They chose Barabbas. Pilate wanted to give them the peaceful Jesus, but the people wanted the insurrectionist Barabbas. And this shouldn’t be read as an anti-Jewish text. This should be read as a text that reveals the true desires of many people.
I recently heard an interesting approach to this story. Though the people chose this insurrectionist murderer over the unique king/high priest/sage Jesus, though the people said, “We want Barabbas, crucify Jesus,” Jesus did not hold any anger or animosity toward the people or toward Barabbas. In fact, as Tony Jones has said, Jesus died in Barabbas’ place in a very literal sense. The Prince of Peace who rode in on an unbroken colt was killed and the insurrectionist murderer was spared.
We know the rest of the story, but we should not, we cannot skip over Good Friday to get to Easter Sunday. Next Sunday we will celebrate, but this week I want us to remember that Jesus was killed in large part because he was not the kind of king the people wanted.
I fear that too many people will miss the kingdom of God that Jesus established here on earth because they are looking for a different kind of king. As we enter this Holy Week, I ask you to reflect on a few questions: Who will you chose, Jesus or Barabbas? Are you looking for a king that will come in and kick butt to get his way, or are you looking for a king that will change the world through a message of love and reconciliation? Who is your king?