(16/3/2008 and 13/4/2014)

Comment (16/3/08)

The ride to Jerusalem on a donkey was a deliberate fulfilment of the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9, a passage which the Jewish teachers interpreted as referring to the Messiah. Some people suggest that Matthew tried to make the fulfilment more obvious by inventing two donkeys, a mother with her foal, and saying that Jesus rode them both. All the other gospels mention only one donkey – the young one, which had never been ridden before, and was therefore ‘pure’ enough for such an occasion. I wonder whether the mother was brought along to reassure the colt, and maybe Jesus rode the mother at first to show that it was OK! (The other gospel writers probably thought the mother donkey was not relevant to the story.) 

The prophecy is of Jerusalem’s king coming to the city in peace; if the king came as a conqueror he would have ridden a war horse. When the carpenter’s son from Nazareth rode a donkey into town, no-one but the Romans would mistake the symbolism: he was claiming to be the King, the Messiah. His disciples realized this and rejoiced; the Jewish leaders realized this and complained. 

Both the Jewish leaders and the disciples anticipated that the Messiah would lead the nation to Freedom. They were under the yoke of the Romans, and bitterly resented it; their thoughts went back to the good old days when Judas Maccabaeus was around, a freedom fighter who successfully freed the nation from the colonial masters of his day (the successors to Alexander the Great). That was the sort of Messiah they were looking for. Not everyone looked forward to that, however; certain Jewish leaders in the ruling council were happy enough with their position not to want any change to the status quo. 

The disciples, who had seen the miracles Jesus did, were sufficiently impressed to believe he had the power to do anything. He whom wind and waves obeyed could surely deal with a Roman army! Jesus’ teaching about love also impressed them – surely one who taught such things would bring in a reign of peace and prosperity. 

The crowds caught on to the symbolism immediately, and rushed to honour the newly acclaimed Messiah. Some might not have known enough about Jesus to believe he really was the Messiah; but if this disturbance embarrassed the Romans, it was worth joining in. And maybe something interesting would happen… At least he was a prophet – that was the common opinion – so there was a chance that this was a significant occasion. 

The Jewish leaders would not have been impressed with Jesus. His claims were too much for any mortal to make; he took to himself the kind of authority which was due to God alone. He broke their traditions, claimed authority over what took place on the Sabbath, and accused them of hypocrisy. Such a man must not be allowed political power. His disciples must be stopped from seeing him as the Messiah. So the scene was set for Holy Week. 

Disciples, crowds, leaders, all were mistaken. Jesus was neither the Messiah one group hoped for, nor the Messiah the others feared. His way was the way of the cross. We are called to follow him, not the Messiah of our dreams or nightmares. 

Questions: 

1) In what ways does Jesus disappoint or fulfil peoples’ hopes today? How can we help people to be more realistic about who Jesus is and what he has done and can do? 

2) As we begin Holy Week, what can we do to grow in our understanding of who Jesus is and what he has done?

 

Comment (13/4/14)

“Who is this?” the crowd asked. “The prophet from Nazareth” was the answer; yet they welcomed him not just as a prophet but as the Messiah, giving him the red (or green) carpet treatment. Zechariah, quoted by St Matthew, had said centuries earlier that Jerusalem’s rightful King would ride in on a donkey, and it seems that the crowd recognised the symbolism; but Zechariah gave no support for their hope that the king would lead an armed rebellion against the Romans, for he prophesied he would be a gentle King, coming in peace not in war.
 
No-one except Jesus knew who he really was. The King coming to Jerusalem was the son of a carpenter from Nazareth. He was also the Son of God, by whom and for whom all things were created (Colossians 1:16), the one who rules the universe (Philippians 2:10). Yet his majesty was completely hidden by his human nature. He had the nature of a servant, the lowest of the low. Luke’s gospel tells how Jesus wept over Jerusalem when he saw it, because they ‘did not recognise the time of God’s coming to you’ (Luke 19:44). And Matthew tells how a few days later he said of Jerusalem, “How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing” (Matthew 23:37). For all his majesty and kingly authority, Jesus was not about to impose his rule on anyone: his authority has to be freely accepted, and those who reject him will not be forced into the kingdom of heaven.
 
The trouble is that not all who acclaim Jesus as king submit to his authority. We blame the crowds on that Palm Sunday for their fickleness; but how willing are we to let Christ rule every aspect of our lives? 
 
Submission to his authority means following him in the way of the cross. It is not an easy road; but it alone leads to life. Philippians 2:5-11 shows what the way of the cross involves. Above all it is an attitude of mind – ‘having the same mindset as Christ Jesus’. He submitted to his Father God completely. His Father gave him a mission which involved leaving behind his status in heaven as the Son of God with all the power and glory that went with it, in order to take on human nature in a very humble situation. The goal of his mission was a premature death in the worst of circumstances – on a Roman cross. Humanly speaking, you could not go lower than that. The way of the cross involves an attitude that is willing to go to the lowest place in life, accepting all the pain and humiliation that goes with it.
 
There was of course a purpose in it: Jesus went to the lowest place in order to raise up the lowest people – and all who are willing to join them – and bring them with him to the highest place. The Son of God willingly went on God’s mission, for our sake, despite all it involved. Because of his willing obedience, he now occupies the highest place in heaven and earth; and we who believe in him are exalted to be with him – provided we ‘take up our cross and follow him’. We too are sent to share his mission, so that all people, however despised, may hear the good news, believe in him, and be exalted with him.

Questions 

1) What is Jesus to you?
 
2) What can you do this Holy Week to bring you closer to God?