Jesus, the Humble King (Matthew 21:1-11)
Sunday, April 17, 2011
Palm Sunday 5th Sunday of Church-wide Study - Culture Making
Why does the story begin this way?
“Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, "Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me."
There’s nothing spectacular, nothing of note. Why is this important?
Think … symbolism.
A young man drops to one knee before a young woman and holds out diamond ring. Do we need to hear him say, “Will you marry me?” We appreciate this special, memorable moment for those two people. The man’s gesture of kneeling doesn’t require explanation.
Every four years in January in Washington DC, the newly elected president places a hand on the Bible as he is sworn in to the highest office in the land. The day is rife with symbols. Does the scripture lend power and credibility and mystical wonder to the president, or is the Bible more important because the president touched it? Some of our leaders have been highly spiritual people. Others not so much. But no one elected president would miss the symbolic force of the moment. Each places his hand on that Bible.
The most liberated, independent woman in the world will have her dad walk her down the aisle in that white dress because symbols matter.
Jesus walked every where he went. Our feet couldn’t imagine the miles he and the disciples and most everyone else in the first century pounded. The walk into Jerusalem was routine. There would be no reason to ride, but Jesus rode. He was specific. He rode a donkey that was still tied to the maternal duty of caring for colt. Not exactly the best ride, but it is what Jesus chose. Why? Why ride a donkey? Why ride at all? Why a donkey that had a colt? Because symbols matter.
Here, Jesus proclaims the Kingdom of God, without speaking a word. He speaks to the disciples, but just to give simple instructions. Who cares that he sent them to fetch these animals. Matthew cared enough to include this little detail in a Gospel where plenty of the little details of daily life are overlooked. Matthew included this. On a donkey that is concerned for her colt who walks close beside, Jesus rides into Jerusalem.
As he does, his entrance evokes thoughts of scripture, specifically the prophet Zechariah. “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!” Zechariah says. “Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (9:9).
What an odd, mix-matched picture. A triumphant king riding a donkey? The people of Jerusalem remembered the stories of Alexander the Great. He conquered their ancestors, a Greek ruling in Jerusalem, the city of God. Alexander entered as a warrior, riding a black war horse. The generals who succeeded ruled with cruel violence as they desecrated the temple. Alexander was their memory, a memory colored by pain and shame.
Rome was the present reality, and Roman generals did not ride donkeys into town. Romans rode majestic white stallions. That horse, ridden by an armored soldier in resplendent finery let all who saw him know a conqueror had come. The picture expresses more than the greatest of speeches. The defeated people hoped he would rule them with benevolence.
And deep in the hearts of the people of God in Jerusalem was the hope of a Messiah, a savior who would be exactly what Zechariah said he would be – triumphant and victorious. Many took the prophet’s message very seriously and hoped in the deepest parts of their hearts, against the overwhelming evidence of history, that God would deliver them and restore the Land to them. In spite of the repeated defeats, many in Israel maintained their faith in God. They put all their hopes in God.
They just weren’t expecting Jesus, so it was hard to see the message he delivered, even though the symbols were clear. Jesus acted out the vision Zechariah had cast: a king riding into town. Why was it hard to recognize? We come after the fact. We know how it turns out. We aren’t more spiritual than the people of 1st century Jerusalem. We don’t love God more than they did. We don’t know God better than they did. But, we live after the resurrection. We have Matthew’s Gospel. We know who Jesus was. Don’t we?
Jesus knew the prophecy of Zechariah and he brought it to life – a king on a donkey and not just a donkey. He was a king on a donkey with a foal along side. Only Matthew of the four gospel writers picks up that specific detail, two animals; the ultimate picture of vulnerability. As the white dress perfectly marks the bride, Jesus’ choice of animal declared not only his kingdom but that his kingdom would be one of peace, not war.
We know who Jesus was, don’t we?
He came not as a sword-wielding warrior, but as one who loved children and touched lepers and welcomed rejects. Jesus had power. The raging storm that he calmed and the l000’s of demons he destroyed would both agree Jesus had access to divine power. Satan himself knew that. Jesus went 40 rounds with Satan as he fasted in the wilderness. Weakened by hunger and tempted by ambition, Jesus and came out pure, unstained, and victorious. No army in history approached the might of Jesus, the power in his faith. Yet, he came, as Zechariah says, humbly, on a donkey. His choice of animals showed his intention to establish a kingdom of peace.
Zechariah 9:9 is quoted in Matthew. The next verse from the prophet, says, “He [the king] will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (Zechariah 9:10).
This was different from what first century people expected from a mighty king for two reasons. First, as we mentioned, the king would end war instead of ruling through victory in war. Second, the Zechariah vision extended beyond the Land of Israel. It was dominion from sea to sea and to the ends of the earth. We hear Jesus in Matthew 28:20, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” End of the earth. End of the age. Of course we aren’t there yet. It’s only Palm Sunday. We haven’t yet arrived at the cross. But that’s where Jesus is headed – to the most unexpected place of all. He will claim authority over all by dying on a cross.
The humility of Jesus’ approach in no way minimizes his claim. Michael Wilkins of Fuller Theological Seminary says, “There is no mistaking that Jesus proceeded into Jerusalem as the anticipated king, the messianic Son of David” (NIV Application Commentary, p.687). N.T. Wright, the great Anglican scholar writes, “That the symbols of Jesus’ work were deeply provocative, implying at every point that Israel was being redefined in and around him and his [deeds]” (The Challenge of Jesus, p.55). Wright feels the two great symbolic works of Jesus were to cast judgment on the temple by causing a ruckus as he overturned money changing tables and drove the animals out, and second to inaugurate his meal, which we call Communion or the Lord’s Supper, at the Passover. However, before those symbols could be established, Jesus rode into town in humility, but also as the only true king.
That is where the rubber meets the road for us. We know the story: Palm Sunday, the clearing of the temple, Maundy Thursday, the Last Supper with the 12, Good Friday, the cross – it all leads to Easter, Resurrection, and churches like ours raucously singing hymns of joy, praise, and victory. But does it take hold beyond Holy Week, or is all of this just an annual dance we do to get ourselves into spring time. Does the reality that Jesus is king mean that his followers in this world are living under his rule?
I think of British parliamentarian William Wilberforce. He went through a dramatic conversion to faith in Jesus Christ in the 1780’s, and then committed himself to work within government abolish the slave trade throughout the British Empire. His ideas went against the tide of his nation, the cultural trends of his time. But he wasn’t locked in the early 19th century. He was a man in Christ. His true loyalty was to the King of Kings, the bringer of peace. So, he stayed at it not because he was successful but because it was the right thing to do. Finally, in 1806, the slave trade was ended and in the year of his death, 1833, slavery was outlawed in throughout lands governed by Britain.
Jesus came as a humble, peaceful king. Does it make any difference?
I think of Rachel who has served as a missionary in a Muslim country. She put on the veil and head covering because that’s how women dress where she lived. She endured loneliness and the oppressive life women are subjected to under fundamentalist Islam. Why would a woman in her 20’s with talent, education, and the many opportunities America offers undergo such personal sacrifice just to share the Gospel? Because her King told her to. The opportunities and tastes and consumerism of contemporary life don’t rule her. Jesus does and he told her to go, so she went.
Jesus rode into town, received the accolades of the singing, crying, shouting crowd. Does it make any difference in our lives when we say he is king?
I think of my dad and of Tim.[i] Tim went to high school with my sister. He is from a poor family and he is wheelchair bound. He also drools and his speech is greatly impaired. My sister was kind to Tim while they were classmates. On some occasions she brought him to church. Then she moved away, and Tim’s family became burdened with life. So, Tim, relegated to his bedroom, had no life. Then my dad started driving Tim to church. Tim’s a full grown man, so getting him into the vehicle can be a challenge. But, Dad does it often, and Tim is blessed. Why? Why do Dad and so many other Christians like him in Roanoke and Chapel Hill and towns all across America go out of their way to bless the Tims of the world? They do it because Jesus is King and in His Kingdom, no one is overlooked, all are included, and the rule is love.
“Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘behold your king is coming.’” My friends, in singing our worship songs of Palm Sunday, we proclaim that Jesus, our King, has come. I see the difference it makes
The Kingdom of God is here and it doesn’t matter who is in the White House. It doesn’t matter what country we are in. I see the Kingdom when love is the rule we live by. I see the Kingdom when our King’s words and teachings govern our actions toward one another. I see the Kingdom when students go without food to raise money to fight against the present evil of hunger. I see the Kingdom when people give one another rides to church because the community has to be together. I see the Kingdom when a student tells her boyfriend “no.” She’s waiting for marriage because that’s what her king wants her to do. I see the Kingdom when a man sacrifices career advancement and higher paychecks for the sake of time with his family because he knows His King doesn’t call Him to wealth; his King calls him to love.
I know all these examples aren’t directly related to the text of Matthew 21, but they are symbols, signs that people are living under the true King whose Kingdom knows no end. On the back of that donkey, Jesus announced that the King and the Kingdom had arrived. With that arrival, everything changed.
If you have not entered it His Kingdom, you are invited to today. You’re invited to ask Jesus into your life and to give your life and your complete loyalty to Him. Your life will be changed because you’ll be filled with perfect love and you’ll live under the rule of love. All other ways living fail to satisfy. But the Salvation He offers is complete and in Him, we are complete. There’s no other way, really, to go. Come, the Kingdom is here and the King invites you in.
[i] Name changed.