Matthew 21: 1-11 The Entry into Jerusalem

Matthew 21: 1-11

Parallels Mark 11: 1-10; Luke 19: 28-40; John 12: 12-29

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

5 “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,

“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

The entrance to Jerusalem, celebrated at the beginning of Holy Week in liturgical churches, is often viewed as a triumphal procession, which in one way it is, but this rich prophetically symbolic event is sometimes lost amid the palm branches and joyous songs. The entrance to Jerusalem initiates the final section of the gospel which narrates the time between the entrance to Jerusalem and the resurrection. This even is narrated by all four gospels, but only in John are the branches mentioned to be the palms which give the liturgical celebration of Palm Sunday its name. Even though this initiates a new section as Jesus enters into conflict with the religious leaders in Jerusalem, Matthew as a skillful editor and storyteller weaves in numerous threads that connect this scene and the coming conflicts, parables, events and ultimately the crucifixion and resurrection to the teaching, parables, healings, and conflicts that have been a part of the ministry in Galilee and the approach to Judea.

The first connecting thread which ties this scene to the preceding narration in Matthew is the continued presence of doubling. Just as in the previous section where two blind men are healed (and this links the final scene of the narrative prior to entering to Jerusalem to scenes throughout Jesus’ ministry) now in this initial scene of the Jerusalem narrative we have two disciples sent to retrieve two animals. Just as Matthew begins his gospel with a genealogy which ties the gospel to the story of Israel, now Matthew begins his narration of the events that lead to Jesus’ death by connecting it structurally with the narration of Jesus’ ministry.

Throughout this journey through Matthew I have linked Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of heaven with the vision God intended for Israel as an alternative community to the ways of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon and now Rome. This insight helps hold together both sides of Jesus’ action of coming into Jerusalem on ‘a donkey and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ While David Garland is right to identify Jesus’ action of riding a donkey into Jerusalem with this action by previous claimants to the throne of David[1] and with the expectations of the actions of the awaited messiah (Garland 2001, 213) but Warren Carter is also correct that this act is “making an ass out of Rome” in entering Jerusalem in a way that is a parody of the Roman triumphs, victories and arrivals of a governor or emperor. (Carter 2005, 413) The vision of what a king of Israel is to be, according to the law as outlined in Deuteronomy 17: 14-20 ,is the opposite of the ways the kings and rulers of nations like Egypt and Rome acted. The problem Israel experienced is that the kings of Israel often imitated the kings of the empires rather than the vision of God for Israel. Even the disciples of Jesus will struggle to understand what it means for Jesus to be the Christ (messiah) as they think of ‘earthly things’ rather than ‘heavenly things.’ Jesus’ birth caused Herod to be frightened and all Jerusalem with him, and now his entry the city is shaken (this is the Greek seio, where the English seismic comes from, this will also be used for the earthquake at the death and resurrection of Jesus) by this act of approaching on a donkey and a colt, surrounded by the crowds that have approached Jerusalem in his presence. The people of Jerusalem, the urban center where now Pilate sits as the emissary of Caesar instead of Herod and they understand the prophetic significance of the actions and words of Jesus and his followers.

Matthew makes explicit what Mark implied about the biblical symbolism by weaving together Isaiah 62:11 and Zechariah 9:9. While most readers probably assume Matthew’s use of scripture is merely predictive (pointing to texts from the Hebrew scriptures which demonstrate how Jesus fulfills scripture) but Matthew’s rich weaving of scripture can, for the careful reader, help illuminate a deeper engagement with what Jesus’ actions mean. As we begin this section of the story in Jerusalem Isaiah 62 and Zechariah will be two of the texts which help provide language which can explain what Jesus’ actions and eventual death will mean in this final section of Matthew. Isaiah 62 is a song of the restoration of Zion, and although Jesus’ actions will challenge the religious authorities in Jerusalem, this approach is ‘for Zion’s sake’ (Isaiah 62:1). This passage in Isaiah talks about the ending of Israel’s long exile and captivity to other empires. The specific verse which begins this intertwined quotation (the portion Matthew uses is underlined) is:

The LORD has proclaimed to the end of the earth: Say to daughter Zion “see your salvation has comes; his reward is with him, and his recompense is before him. (Isaiah 62:11)

Matthew is a careful editor, when he quotes scripture and brings together verses it is intentional rather than a scribal error. Matthew seems to have access to the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the New Testament) as he is writing this and is very skilled in reading texts. The remainder of this text comes from Zechariah 9:9 which Matthew slightly modifies (again what Matthew uses is underlined):

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king is coming to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Matthew leaves off the note of triumph and victory from this quotation, even as he carefully includes the two animals (which again works in Matthew’s doubling pattern). Zechariah will continue to echo in Matthew’s narration of the passion narrative, especially in the Lord’s Supper where both the language of the blood of the covenant and striking the shepherd are rich echoes of Zechariah.

This blended quotation also allows Matthew to reintroduce the adjective ‘meek’ when referring to Jesus (NRSV humble, the Greek praus is the same term used in 5:5 and 11:29). Jesus’ actions help us understand this important term for Matthew, it does not mean silence or temerity but rather it refers to those who wait upon the Lord to deliver them rather than rising up in resistance. If there is a triumph here, the triumph belongs to the Lord, the God of Israel, rather than any king. But for Matthew we have God’s action on behalf of Israel and the ‘God who is with us’ in Jesus blended together in a way that defies easy categorization. Jesus may embody titles like savior (which may be why the beginning of Isaiah 62:11 is used), messiah/Christ/king, Son of David, and prophet, but none of them adequately describe the totality of Jesus in Matthew. Each may illustrate some amount of openness to God’s work in Jesus’ presence, but they also remain open to misinterpretation.

The crowds who enter with Jesus can declare Jesus as ‘Son of David,’ ‘one who speaks in the name of the Lord’ and ‘prophet’ which illuminates that they understand in part who Jesus is, unlike Jerusalem which quakes at his approach. Although Matthew does not specify, this crowd which enters Jerusalem with Jesus is probably not the same crowd that calls for his crucifixion. It is likely that it is the crowds from the urban center of Jerusalem who do not, at the urging of the religious leaders in the city, embrace Jesus’ words and actions. It is possible that some of the approaching crowd become disillusioned with the way Jesus embodies these titles, like Judas Iscariot who moves from a disciple to one who betrays. This scene probably reflects those who have journeyed with Jesus to Jerusalem in this festival season who enter as outsiders to the city. The people of Jerusalem may have heard stories of Jesus’ ministry and work, but in Matthew this is the first time and only time that Jesus comes to Jerusalem.

Unlike in Mark, where Jesus withdraws to Bethany after arriving at the temple late in the day, we will see Jesus immediately move from one symbolically rich action in the approach of the city directly to the symbolically rich action of clearing out the money changers and animal sellers in the temple. From a perspective where this action parodies the Roman practice of a victory parade where the conqueror proceeds to the temple to offer a sacrifice, we see Matthew joining the action on entry together with the action in the temple. But from the prophetic and Jewish perspective there is the action of Jesus embodying what a king is supposed to be. For Matthew’s narration of these linked scenes the figure of David will stand in the background of the narration as Jesus is acclaimed as Son of David, and particularly in the next scene there are some clever allusions to David’s capture of Jerusalem. But hauntingly the people entering with Jesus describe him as a prophet who is entering a city with a reputation for rejecting prophets. While David was often thought of as a prophet, especially as he is attributed with many of the Psalms, we see in Jesus one who brings together the role of prophet and king in a way not seen in Israel, with the possible exception of Moses.

[1] Absalom is riding a mule in 2 Samuel 18:9 when he dies during his rebellion against David, Solomon rides a mule to is anointing in 1 Kings 1: 33

1 thought on “Matthew 21: 1-11 The Entry into Jerusalem

  1. Pingback: Gospel of Matthew | Sign of the Rose

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