Matthew 21:1-17 | NIV
As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.” This took place to fulfil what was spoken through the prophet: “Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’” The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?” The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’” The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant. “Do you hear what these children are saying?” they asked him. “Yes,” replied Jesus, “have you never read, “‘From the lips of children and infants you, Lord, have called forth your praise’?” And he left them and went out of the city to Bethany, where he spent the night.
Having spent most of Lent reflecting on the beatitude, which came very early on in Jesus’ ministry, we skip ahead now to the end of that period, and to the beginning of Holy Week. The first half of this passage is often known as the triumphal entry, as Jesus enters Jerusalem at the head of a parade. That language is taken from Greco-Roman culture, where rulers and generals would make a big show of their arrival home after a military victory, with a civil and religious rite called a triumph. It seems unlikely that this parallel is a coincidence, especially when the account begins with Jesus sending his disciples to fetch a donkey, with a sense that some prior agreement has been made. Jesus clearly has a plan, and so Bible scholar Warren Carter describes his entry into Jerusalem as “a prophetic sign action” or “choreographed street theatre”.
You may remember that last year I compared Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem with Pilate’s entry into Jerusalem, which would have been happening at roughly the same time on the other side of the city, but with rather more military pomp and power. By way of a reminder, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan said this: “Jesus’ procession deliberately countered what was happening on the other side of the city. Pilate’s procession embodied the power, glory and violence of the empire that ruled the world. Jesus’ procession embodied an alternative vision, the kingdom of God.” They also raised a challenge, which we may wish to reflect on again today: “Two processions entered Jerusalem on that day. The same question, the same alternative, faces those who would be faithful to Jesus today. Which procession are we in? Which procession do we want to be in? This is the question of Palm Sunday and of the week that is about to unfold.”
I leave that with you, because there is another procession we might compare Jesus’ entry to, and that is the one that returned to Rome after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in 70AD. That happened around thirty years after the events Matthew is describing, but probably around the time that Matthew actually wrote them down, and so it would surely have been in his mind and in the minds of his first readers. Titus, the general who led the siege of Jerusalem, reportedly refused the traditional laurel wreath, but we do know there was a procession, because the Arch of Titus includes a depiction of Roman soldiers carrying a giant menorah which had been looted from the temple. If this triumph was anything like others of the period, the forces that quashed the Jewish rebellion will have marched back into Rome, bringing with them the treasures they had taken and the slaves they had captured, with their general on his four horse chariot. There would have been speeches, and Titus would have gone to the temple of Jupiter to make a sacrifice before laying on feasts and entertainments.
So let’s compare that to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. He doesn’t come with the spoils of war, but instead the people willingly lay down their cloaks. He doesn’t lead slaves, but he is followed by disciples. He doesn’t ride a chariot or even a war horse, but rather a borrowed donkey. There are no grand speeches, but instead he is greeted by the shouts of children. He does go to the temple, but to challenge its practices not to participate in them. And through the events of the passion, he becomes the feast and the entertainment. All the details are there, but they are subverted. As Warren Carter puts it, Jesus “adopts some trappings from a Greco-Roman entrance procession, but reframes them in a different context for a different goal” which was “to serve not to dominate”.
Let’s pick up on some of those differences in a little more detail, beginning with the crowds who come with Jesus not as slaves but as followers and disciples. Previously we have seen crowds gathering to hear Jesus and seek healing, wanting something from him, but here they are joining in with the peaceful political protest he has orchestrated, giving something back. They may be calling for Jesus to save them, which is how hosanna is rightly translated, but they themselves are participating in their salvation, by aligning themselves with a movement seeking to bring about change. I don’t think we should underestimate the significance of what they are doing. It may look like they are simply waving branches and shouting, but they are choosing Jesus over Pilate and that is not without risk.
I don’t think it’s without joy either though. I’m fairly certain some would take a dim view of the crowds making a nuisance of themselves with cloaks on the road and lots of noise, and such protest may in fact be criminalised in this country now, but I think it sounds like they’re having a great time. I heard a story this week about Desmond Tutu, who was preaching in St George's Cathedral in Cape Town in 1988, when the apartheid system was still very much in force. Rumour had gone round that he was going to say something critical of the government, so as he stepped into the pulpit he was faced by a line of armed police down each side of the church. He looked straight at them, said “we know who is going to win so come and join us”, and then started dancing. The congregation joined him, a joyful resistance in the face of hateful opposition. In similar fashion, preacher and professor Veronice Miles said that “peace and reconciliation become possible when common folk with uncommon courage oppose exclusionary practices and policies and together stand with the one who comes in the name of the Lord”. We see that in the story of Palm Sunday, and we are invited to join in now. Let’s do it with joy and even some dancing.
We can’t really talk about Palm Sunday without mentioning the donkey. Or is it two donkeys? Matthew seems to say there was both a donkey and a colt, although I’m not sure how Jesus would have managed to ride both of them. The prophecy Matthew refers to here is from Zechariah 9:9-10, which says: “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the river to the ends of the earth.” In that passage it sounds like it is a single donkey, which is then more precisely described as a colt which is the foal of a donkey. It's possible that Matthew misread Zechariah and assumed there should have been two animals and so wrote a second one in to make sure it all fit together. That seems most likely to me, but if anyone does want to try riding a donkey and a colt at once, please feel free to report back, but I won’t be held responsible for any injuries.
More important than how many donkeys there were is what they represent. The callback to Zechariah clearly positions Jesus as the king who was foretold, the one who will bring peace and whose rule will extend over all the earth. There are donkeys elsewhere in scripture too, as in Exodus 4:20 where Moses puts his family on a donkey as they travel back to Egypt to demand the release of the Israelites, and in 1 Kings 1:33 where Solomon rides a donkey to be anointed on the day he is acknowledged as king. Perhaps these were also in the background of Jesus’ thought, adding to the sense that leaders riding donkeys are to be associated with freedom and blessing. I also think it’s interesting that the donkey was a colt, which means they would have been untrained. As the hosts of the Pulpit Fiction podcast put it, Jesus is coming to Jerusalem with a new ride, bringing in an untamed and unknown way of doing things.
We’ll move on from the procession now to the second half of our reading, often known as the cleansing of the temple. The timing of events isn’t always clear in the gospels, but it does feel like the entry into Jerusalem leads straight into the temple, as it continues that sense of performance art as protest. It is often painted as a violent or destructive act, but I don’t think that is necessarily true, because Jesus didn’t need to flip the tables and send coins flying in order to make his point. I know a minister who once upturned the altar before the service when preaching on this passage. It was done carefully and nothing was damaged, but the symbolism was no less powerful for the congregation when they entered the sanctuary. What Jesus is doing here is both disruptive and creative, as all good protest should be. But what is it that he is protesting? The moneychangers sat in one of the outer courts of the temples, and so they were a physical barrier to worship. They also took advantage of those seeking grace by charging extortionate prices for the animals needed for the atoning sacrifices, profiting from rather than encouraging people’s desire to be in relationship with God. Jesus’ turning over of the tables is then a rejection of exploitation and exclusion.
The Canadian Anglican priest Daniel Brereton offered some helpful thoughts on this on Twitter this week: “Jesus enters the city as saviour and [the] first thing he does is attack the use of religion to broker access to God, and its alignment with political and economic forces to further oppress...[This] is not a rejection of Judaism but a rejection of the use of religion (in any form) to block rather than enable access to the divine. He says some have made the temple ‘a den of thieves’. The den was not where thieves did the stealing but where they hid their spoils. It is a condemnation of any time we use religion as a gloss to justify and even sacralize the theft of people’s resources, their rights, their dignity, their lives - in the name of God, but in service to our own power and control...Jesus did not come to condemn his own religion or to destroy the temple. He came to free us from bondage to sin - inherent in every religious system and institution, in every human being - and lead us into freedom.”
One final point before I draw to a close, because I love the detail that it is children who are shouting “Hosanna” in the temple. They have picked up the cry of the crowds outside and they are bold enough to bring it inside. Jesus tells the religious leaders that God will call forth praise from the mouths of children, and just a few chapters earlier he has told the crowds that they must become like little children. It may not be the main point of the passage, but there is a profound respect here for the spirituality and insight of children, and I think we do well to take note of that, both as a reminder to show that same respect to the children in our lives, and as an encouragement to learn from them. I also think the children shouting in the temple bring us back to Desmond Tutu dancing in the cathedral, and both remind us that our places of worship are places for protest and for joy, because they are places for every part of life. So may we bring all of ourselves to this time and this place, and may we take all of Christ out into the world, joining with the crowds in crying “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”.
For a little more background to the clearing of the temple, you may like to take a look at an old blog post which focuses on the version of this incident found in the fourth gospel.