Comments, Questions, and Observations
Somehow, even in the midst of the shouts of praise, the displays of adoration and respect as the crowd prepares the way for Jesus to enter Jerusalem, somehow, even with all this, this text seems understated for what it represents. Or, maybe that’s exactly what it is supposed to feel like since the humble nature of King Jesus’s entrance to his holy city is encapsulated in his choice to fulfill the promise of God by riding on a donkey.
But the understated sense the scene gives us is also shaped by the matter-of-fact way things play out. Jesus tells two of his disciples to go on ahead to prepare things. Except, they aren’t really preparing things, they are going to find things prepared already: Jesus has all the things in hand, a plan supplied, a prophecy fulfilled. And the disciples go and do it, easy-peasy, simple as that.
And the crowd, where did they come from? Are they the same people who were following Jesus as Jesus and the disciples left Jericho (Matt 20.29)? They haven’t been mentioned for quite a while, and the Jericho Road is about seventeen miles long. Perhaps it is a number of different crowds: some who accompanied Jesus to Jerusalem, some who met him there, some who were bystanders pulled into the events. Even still, the way Matthew matter-of-factly describes them cutting branches and putting down their coats for Jesus, makes the hustle and bustle seem muted.
Until we get to their shouts. Echoing back and forth and all around Jesus as he rides into the city on a donkey are the praises of those who “went ahead” and those who “followed”: “Hosanna!” transliterated from the Aramaic, “O Save!” an echo of the cries of people long before (Psalm 118.25-26). Most of the scholars I read focused on this being a positive cry of jubilee rather than a plea or cry for help. The crowds do not know that the one they are welcoming will provide both for the world.
Then, as I explain in the Textual Point below, things get ramped up—even if we don’t see it in our subtle translations. Jesus enters the city and Matthew says that the whole city is sent into a fervor. A seismic shift has happened and people are trying to make sense of it: “Who is this?” they ask. And the crowds answer, “The prophet, Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee.”
The people call him a prophet, he enters as a humble king, and he is going to die in a few days as the great high priest. He isn’t just the prophet from Nazareth, he is THE prophet, period. He is not just a humble king, he is the Son of David, Zion’s prophetically-promised King. He is from the highest heaven, the priest who WILL save as he comes in the name of the Lord. Prophet, King, Priest.
Jesus Christ is earth-shattering reality as he enters the city of Jerusalem on a donkey. And yet, for him, for God, it’s merely reality—that understated, subtle tone we started with is still a suitable depiction of the humble King Jesus. He has not spoken since giving his instructions to the disciples about finding the donkeys. (His next act and speech is a doozy, as he cleanses the temple…)
The juxtaposition that we get at the end of our scene: the calm Jesus, going about fulfilling the work and will of the Triune God, the crowds praising and celebrating without an inkling of how true it all is, or how magnificent the one whom they are worshipping truly is, and the people in the city who are thrown into utter confusion and turmoil by a reality that they do not recognize, understand, are unable to control or find their place in, it’s quite something.
Maybe it’s the peace of Christ, signified by his non-anxious presence, that I’ve picked up on this year—the subtleness and muted tone may be something I’m reading into the text because I palpably sense God’s commitment and calm from Jesus on the donkey. He is present to it all, and able to be in midst of these realities and emotions and confusions and mistaken ideas even while staying true to his own purpose, united with his Father through the Spirit.
Like the donkey waiting for the disciples, Jesus knew what he was going to find in and among the people. He’s known his people all along. No matter what position you hold regarding the second person of the Trinity’s kenosis (how much of his divinity he emptied himself of as he took on human nature), Jesus exhibits uncanny knowledge throughout the gospels. Though Jesus feels a number of things in the gospels, Jesus doesn’t ever seem surprised by what he encounters. He himself is deeply moved, disturbed, amazed (as in respect and admire), but he is never caught off-guard or flat-footed, he is never unprepared or shocked like a deer in headlights.
So yes, this account of the Triumphal Entry is both understated and raucous, frenetic and muted. Because the calm Prophet is coming as the humble King, knowing that he is about to prove himself the Great High Priest. Even if we, his people, are still trying to let the truth settle into our hearts and lives.
Even the way we translate verse 10 can soften the fervor of the scene for us. The people of the city, according to various translations, are “in turmoil,” “moved,” “shaken,” “stirred up,” etc. The Greek word is seiō which is where the English word “seismic” comes from, so it’s a jarring, earth-quaking meaning. In fact, there are three other places that the word is used in Matthew, and each instance has to do with reactions to significant moments in the life of Christ. First, when the Magi come to Herod and ask where they might find Jesus, the city is “shaken” out of fear for how Herod will react. The second is here, as Christ enters Jerusalem and the events of Holy Week begin. The third occurs at Jesus’s death: there is a literal earthquake. And finally, when the soldiers realize that Jesus’s body is gone (Christ is resurrected!), they are shaken with fear to the point of looking dead.
This cedarwood panel (c. 1300) from the Al-Mu Allaqa church in Cairo, Egypt (currently in the British Museum) is part of ten biblical scenes on one of the church’s interior doors. As the commentary from The Visual Commentary team describes, it combines images and themes: Jesus is seated on the donkey as though he were on a throne, and the donkey is on top of the tree and the crowd, alluding to the coming crucifixion. The crowds called him a prophet, praised him as a king, and he made himself our great high priest.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 2, 2023
Matthew 21:1-11 Commentary