We are one week away from Easter. In reality, Holy Week begins today with Jesus’ Triumphal Entry to Jerusalem. On the surface, it is a wonderful story which we read in Matthew 21.1-11. People’s longing, centuries of longing, are about to be fulfilled. They hoped for a messiah king, and it looks like it will finally happen with Jesus. This story is full of hope and joy. At the same time, it is a deeply sad story. Not everyone is pleased that Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem. Moreover, those who sing his praises today, won’t be singing his praises come the end of the week. In fact, by the end of this story they are already waffling.
A classic way to pray using the Bible is to read a short passage and think about which character you identify with. Sadly, there don’t seem to be many positive role models apart from the disciples who initially obey Jesus’ directions to “liberate” that donkey. But if I am honest with myself, far too often I look a lot like both the crowd and the residents of Jerusalem. And that isn’t a good thing. But it is honest. I wish it was different. But it isn’t.
There are a few oddities in this story which tempt us to distraction. Isn’t is strange that Jesus tells his disciples to enter a village and take a donkey and her colt…and if challenged they are only to tell the owner that “the Lord needs them.” Also, there is that odd expression, “he sat on them” in verse 7. However, we should not allow ourselves to be distracted by trivial items. Despite these oddities there is the positive factor that the disciples are faithful and obedient, even to the point of some very sketchy behavior. And Matthew makes the point that this action is a fulfillment of scripture. In particular, verse 5 is a mix of Isaiah 52 and Zechariah 9, which speak of Israel’s hope that a king would come to rescue them. And that kingship motif dominates the storyline.
As Jesus and his disciples make their way into Jerusalem we are told they are accompanied by a “very large crowd.” What the crowd does makes it is clear they thought Jesus was a king arriving in the capital city. Some people in the crowd seemingly knew their Bible. In 2 Kings 9 Jehu’s followers spread their cloaks on his path when they heard he was to become king. Other people knew Israel’s history. Two hundred years before Christ, a man named Judas Maccabaeus defeated a pagan army and when he entered Jerusalem people cut palm branches and covered the road with them. Once in the holy city Maccabaeus established a royal dynasty lasting one hundred years. Clearly, by these two actions, the people are gladly and happily proclaiming Jesus is their leader and king. Additionally, they are singing his praises using a passage from Psalm 118, which proclaimed their belief that Jesus was the Son of David…coming to claim his rightful role as the kingly heir to Israel’s throne. Finally, after centuries it was all coming together for the Jews. People couldn’t be happier.
Well. Not all the people were happy. In fact, the residents of Jerusalem were a little disturbed by all this kingship talk. The NRSV says “the whole city was in turmoil.” The word used for “turmoil” is σειω…we know it from the English word seismograph. Jerusalem and its residents were shaken as if an earthquake had hit them. Panic was in the air. They didn’t need another “royal pretender” coming to town…because the Romans took note of things like that. And since it was Passover there were more Romans in the city than usual. In fact, there may have been two or three legions there. They were there because Jerusalem always got a little crazy at Passover, and Rome wanted to keep a lid on the activities that boiled during the week as pilgrims from all over the empire arrived. Because of their collective nervousness and fear of the Romans, the residents confronted the crowd: who is this man? I doubt they asked because they wanted to follow him. I suspect they wanted all this excitement to end. And end now!
What I find rather shocking is the crowd’s response. I would expect their excitement to lead to a bold exclamation and praise of King Jesus. But when confronted, they seemingly begin to back down: “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” Just a prophet. From Nazareth, that small backwater town in Galilee, the place no one respects. No talk of kingship. Just a prophet. You won’t have any trouble from us. Contemporary readers of Matthew’s gospel know that this is just the beginning of the shift of how the people, even his closest friends, turned their backs on Jesus. Most of the stories between this one and the death of Jesus in chapter 27 are incidents of the Jewish leaders resisting and confronting Jesus. They plot his death. One disciple betrays him. Another denies him. The rest desert him. And the crowd which is loudly cheering him on in the first part of this story? We are told in chapter 27:15ff, that the leaders convinced them Jesus was to be crucified. And they shouted for his crucifixion…not once, but twice.
I would like to think I wouldn’t be like them. I’d like to think I wouldn’t back down at the first confrontation…switching from saying he was a king to saying he is a prophet. But….
I’d like to think I wouldn’t fear the powers-that-be more than rejoicing at finally having a real leader in my presence. But….
And I certainly would like to think I would never be swayed by the leaders and call for his crucifixion. But….
But, I know that isn’t true. I wish it was different. If I was there, I would waffle. If I was there, I would falter. If I was there, I would fail. And I know that is the case, because I waffle, falter and fail now, and no one really challenges me about what I think regarding Jesus.
The painting at the top of this entry is entitled “Ecce Homo” or “Behold the Man.” It was painted by Antonio Cisceri in 1871. Cisceri was an okay painter, but he was fantastic at knowing himself. You see, he painted himself into the picture of Pilate before the angry crowd calling for Jesus’ death. He is the fellow casually leaning over Pilate’s chair. He stands there merely observing, not intervening. He stands by as Jesus is condemned to die.
As we enter into this holy week my one hope, our one hope, is that Jesus was utterly and totally resolved to do for us and all of Creation what we couldn’t do for ourselves.