Who Is This?
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This is the shout - “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” The word “Hosanna” literally means “Please save us” or “Save we pray.” It’s literally a cry for help. We remember the question that was posed to Jesus by the followers of John the Baptist. “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?” In other words, “Are you the one to save us?”
Assuming of course that we think we need saving at all. Assuming we need help. We may think we’re doing quite alright, thanks very much. The status quo might be very appealing, particularly if you hold some degree of power. It often seems to go that way for many. If you pay any attention to the news, of course, you may find yourself wondering just how well the status quo is going.
As we do each year, we’re marking Palm Sunday. You’ll have noticed that there’s no mention of palms in Matthew’s story (it’s John who writes about palms). Any tree branch might do, seemingly. Why do we do this? This whole scene that we read this morning is filled with symbolic action – you know what a big believer I am in symbolic action, whether it’s lighting a candle or gathering around the table to which Jesus invites us. In our story, this morning Jesus engages in symbolic action. We’ll see that it was a very localized action. It was an action that was unknown to the city at large, much as we could say our actions with our palm frond decorations and putting them on our doors and so on. Our symbolic actions may be largely ignored by those around us. They don’t seem to have much meaning to many and they really don’t have any meaning at all outside of the one of whom we are asking the question over these weeks – “What sort of man is this?”
We find that he is the one who enters the City of David on a donkey along with her colt. Not even two full-sized donkeys but a donkey and her colt. I’ve told this story before but permit me please to tell it again as we’re worshipping in a much more public way than usual. Nicole and I were in Jordan visiting Petra some years ago. At the end of the day, we engaged a Bedouin donkey-taxi service to take us back to the hotel. I was worried that the donkey wouldn’t be able to hold me, at which point the leader of the group called out “Get this man a mule!” As we went along, as much as I wanted to feel cool like Eastwood in “High Plains Drifter” (particularly given the terrain), the fact remained that I was on a donkey.
This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet (Isaiah 62:11 and Zephaniah 9:9) saying “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.” Now our NRSV Bible has used the word humble here to match up with the Hebrew version of Zephaniah, but the word that Matthew actually uses here is from the Greek version of the OT (the Septuagint). The word is gentle.
Which must make us think back to those words we heard two weeks. That lovely invitation – “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart.” We find that when we accept that invitation we find out what it means to be free!
This is the man who is on a donkey walking down the road, as the song we sang earlier put it. Freedom was very much on people’s minds. It was Passover time – the biggest festival of them all. A remembrance of God setting a people free. The city was thronged with people. Anywhere from 250,000 to 2.5 million people according to estimates. Jesus has once again come down from the mountain, from Mount Olivet just east of the city where many would have stayed throughout Passover – kind of like their version of a campground. At the end of Matthew 20, we read of Jesus healing two blind men. They cried out to him “Have mercy on us Lord, Son of David!” Jesus was moved with compassion and he touched their eyes and immediately they regained their sight and followed him. There was no longer any need to tell them to keep quiet about it or not call him things like Son of David for fear of the clash with authorities to which this kind of talk might lead. The time for the clash is here as Jesus takes his mission public in a whole new way. The time for talk is over, you might say. Of course, there will still be talk. Remember when we started this journey through Matthew, we said that the first 4 chapters deal largely with who Jesus is. The next section from chapter 5 to chapter 16 deals with what Jesus said. This section that we’re in – this section that we’ll be in throughout Holy Week - deals largely with what Jesus does. Jesus does and says things in every section mind you.
Jesus tells his followers to go into Bethpage where they will find a mother donkey and her colt. Whether this was supernatural knowledge or simply Jesus having made plans, Jesus is in control of the situation. The symbolism is rich. A hitherto unridden colt because rookie animals like that were used for sacred purposes. Branches and cloaks on the ground because this is how you greeted a king. The king riding in on a warhorse having vanquished his people’s enemies and at long last given them freedom…
We like that image. It’s conventional wisdom. Which makes me want to pose another question. Where is freedom to be found? Where in our world do we consider freedom to be found? In my own lifetime it was to be found at age 55. Is freedom to be found in financial security? Or it to be found in national security? Is it to be found in the ability of the individual to pursue whatever he or she feels led to pursue? Are my individual rights and freedoms the thing that takes precedence over all else?
Is it to be found in the security of our religious rituals? Hang on to that one.
Jesus comes into Jerusalem at the time of year when religious and nationalist fervour is at an all-time high and dreams of freedom are at an all-time high. Many of us are familiar of 1st-century Jewish expectations of the Messiah. One who would free them from Roman rule by force of arms. When you’re living under oppressive occupation it’s understandable, of course, it is. At the same time, you have people in this crowd who are with Jesus, going ahead of him and following behind him and they’re shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” The question that was posed by John the Baptist is being answered by these followers of Jesus and no they didn’t fully understand it all (and it’s not like we do either) but they were calling out “Save now!” Son of David. King. Mounted on a donkey. The Prince of Peace coming into the city named after peace, who is going to show that the way to freedom is going to look like something different than what we were expecting.
The question of the day is “What will save you?” It’s “In what or whom do you find your peace?”
The response that Matthew is inviting us into, the answer for so many, the answer for me, is this man who is riding into town on a donkey with her colt. This man whose symbolic action pointed beyond the symbol, just as it had with prophets before him. “Who is this?” the people asked as the whole city was in turmoil. Something seismic is happening here. “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee,” came the answer. This is the prophet par excellence. This is the King par excellence. Why do we do this year after year? To come before the humble/gentle king and to say “Save now!” because I don’t know about you, but I find myself consistently and constantly in need of saving. No matter what else is on offer or what other claims are being made in terms of what might save me. What might give me freedom?
What sort of man is this? The man who is going to take the biggest symbolic action in the history of the world. The one who is going to show what the love of God looks like on the cross, which we’ll remember in a special way on Friday. We remember all the time of course. He’s the man who is going to bring us back to God. The man who will show that freedom is not to be found fundamentally in getting our own way. The man who will provide the way for us to live in communion with and in worship of the living God – the compassionate one, the merciful one, the just one, gracious one, the loving one.
So let’s spread our branches and cloaks out on the road, metaphorically at least. Let us take our palm branches home and hang them on our doors or wherever we keep them to remind us of our gentle king.
Of course to call Jesus “King” is to submit to Jesus’ authority. We talked about this a few weeks ago. Jesus’ parabolic action does not stop with his entrance into the city on a donkey along with her colt. Jesus enters Jerusalem’s east side and the temple is right there. We read “Then Jesus entered the temple…” We’ve talked about Jesus' role as king and Jesus' role as prophet. Jesus our Prophet par excellence. Jesus our King par excellence. Here we have Jesus as priest par excellence – or our Great High Priest as someone has said. The one who not simply mediates the presence of God but is the presence of God. The one who purifies our worship. This purification is again seen symbolically in Jesus’ actions. The temple was a huge place. It took up a lot of land. The Court of the Gentiles was a large place and would have been thronged with people. There’s no reason to believe that the actions of one man would have disrupted things any more than my tipping over the mushroom display in the produce section of the supermarket would disrupt the activities of the supermarket (though the people around me would be disrupted). Jesus’ coming causes seismic change and things are disrupted, including finding our security or freedom in religious practices. This is not to say that religious practices are bad – there are religious practices which I carry out religiously. This is not to say that Jesus is signifying here that the temple or the sacrificial system was bad. He came to fulfill, not to destroy. He came to be the person to whom the temple pointed – the one who would mediate between humanity and God, the sacrifice which would bring all things back to God, the presence of God, and the one by whom we would be called temples.
The thing is, the temple tax needed to be paid in local currency. Doves were sold in order so that people, particularly people of little means, could take part in the sacrificial system. There was nothing in and of itself wrong with this. Many say that what Jesus is protesting here is unfair business practices. Charging more than currency exchange rates called for. Charging more for doves inside the temple than would be charged outside (kind of like a hot dog at the ballpark rather than from a street vendor). There’s merit to this and the Bible is clear on speaking out against economic exploitation. NT Wright puts it like this though in his commentary – “Behind all the trappings of the Temple, Jesus could see that the whole place, and the whole city, had come to symbolize the determination of Israel to do things their own way; in particular, to embrace a vision of God and God’s kingdom which was fundamentally different from the vision he was announcing and living out.” Let’s take a look though at the passage from Jeremiah 7:9-11. One commentator puts it like this: “The allusion to Jeremiah… suggests that the market represents to Jesus the secularization of the temple by worshipers (buyers and sellers *note that both were driven out*) whose lives do not conform with their religious profession but who claim nonetheless to find security in their religiosity (“We are delivered!”).”
So this Holy Week friends, if we haven’t been doing it already (and if we have let us continue), let us examine ourselves and mourn how the things that Christ announced and lived out are not lived out by us. Let us ask the question, in what ways does my life not conform to my religious profession? Do I use my faith as a way to become entrenched in my own views and ways rather than being remade by it? We examine ourselves remembering the words of Christ, blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are those who mourn the ways they go wrong because they shall be comforted, forgiven, remade. Changed into someone new. We do so remembering Christ our healer. We do so remembering this wonderful post-script to the story. This grace-filled post-script. The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. People who were once deemed unworthy to be in the temple at all. People who were excluded are being included and they’re being healed. I once was blind but now am being given new eyes to see. As a student of Christ, I’m learning how to walk. We needed help and the man who rode into town on a donkey is here to give it. The children know it because children know their need for help and it’s not for nothing that Jesus said you need to become like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven. The little children are crying out (and how did kids get in here anyway??) “Hosanna to the Son of David.” Praise to the Son of David. Save us please Son of David – our prophet, our great high priest, our king. May the symbolic actions wetake today and in the week to come remind us of these great truths.