The Power That Jesus Brings (Isaiah 50: 4-9a; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 21:1-11)
Each Palm Sunday we look at one of the four accounts of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Each of the four contributes specific materials to the way in which we may try to understand what Jesus was up to when he rode into Jerusalem because it seem clear that he had a purpose in mind. The way we’ve been taught to think of this story probably has made it into a more spectacular event that it was. We were, I think, mostly taught to think of it as done with a “cast of thousands,” in a kind of Mardi Gras event that would have made a great splash in the media. Well, no ancient author outside the Bible ever refers to this event, so, if it was a sensation, it didn’t survive. If you look at the basic narrative in Mark, you’ll find that “many” were there. By the time we get to Matthew or Luke, some 20 years later, this has been transformed into “a very large crowd” (Matthew) or “the whole multitude of the disciples” (Luke). A moment’s thought might convince us, however, that what Jesus was doing must have been fairly low-key and unclear, at least to Rome, because, had he made a great splash there at the festival, he would have been dealt with instantly by the army and we wouldn’t have had to worry about a passion week period.
The major and unique contribution that Matthew makes to the picture of this little parade, is to make explicit what may be in the background of the other stories, which is that Jesus did what he did in order to fulfill a prophecy from Zechariah 9:9, widely taken to be about how the messiah would come to Jerusalem (or so it was thought in Jesus’ day). Matthew quoted the scriptural text in a way that rabbis of the time often did. He replaced the beginning of the text of Zechariah 9:9 with words from Isaiah 62:11: “Say to daughter Zion…” He then carried on with a good Greek translation of the rest of his Zechariah passage: “Look your king is coming to you, gentle and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt the foal of a donkey.”
Although the Hebrew text refers to only one donkey that is further qualified as a young colt, Matthew explains that there were really two beasts that day, and that Jesus rode the colt. We can get lost in why Mark, Luke, and John only report one animal and Matthew two, but let’s see what he may have been trying to get across to people by telling the story the way he did. We also need to take a look at how the other two passages we read for today, from Isaiah 50 and Philippians 2, both older than Matthew’s story (and even older than Mark’s), reflect and meditate on Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem and to the last week of his life before the cross. This reflection is deeply counter-cultural and even reads against what, as Christians, we may want to think about God and about ourselves.
When Jesus rode into town, he rode a donkey. We think of donkeys as kind of sub-standard, recalcitrant animals compared to, say, a horse. But, if Jesus’ had ridden a horse, it would have made exactly the kind of statement that Rome would have understood and squashed instantly. That he rode into town was a royal act – proclaiming that he was royalty – kings rode, commoners walked. But when kings rode donkeys, the meaning was that they came for peace. If they rode a horse, they came for war. Jesus comes for peace. And Matthew amplified that by saying that Jesus fulfilled a prophecy that looked for a king who would be gentle. He chose that word to translate a Hebrew word that means “needy, without possessions, poor.” The Greek word is, most times, mistranslated as “humble,” but it refers not to taking the lowest place, but to refusing to dominate and to dictate, and, positively, to help and heal. It is gentle. Matthew wants no mistakes in his meaning. He retranslates the Old Testament to say gentle. He wants readers to understand that this ruler, unlike any religious or political figure, did not care about exerting power over people, no he’s stronger than that, he’s so at home with his own might that he doesn’t have to use it to win for himself, but uses that power for others to help, heal, save, deliver and embrace. That Jesus is gentle, so strong he doesn’t have to win in the eyes of the political system, is a lesson we need to hear and learn. Jesus is bringing us a view of power that is radical, that we can hardly believe, let alone follow.
When Paul reflected on how this Jesus entered into the life of the real world (for which the Triumphal Entry story is an illustration), he, too, spoke in terms of an upending of our views on power in the world. Many scholars have concluded that the words of Philippians 2:5-11 are those of an old hymn Paul knew. We know it too. It talks about Jesus being in the form of God and not exploiting that, but in giving until he was emptied out, and then being exalted. And it begins “Let this mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus.” Copy him. But copy what?
Most of us like power in the sense of control, and that even extends to how we live with other Christians, let alone others. We have become so used to being culturally important as Christians that we still think the world ought to sit up and listen because Christians became a dominant force at the time of Constantine in the 5th century. We ought to be able to throw our weight around, we’ve done good things. And we have.
A number of years ago the British pastor/scholar Tim Gorringe reminded me of what we’d like to forget sometimes about Jesus, God, and power, and how we like to read the power of God and of the church. When we read the first line of that hymn in Philippians 2: “The Lord Jesus…who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.” We read it that God is the CEO who opts for a job on the shop floor (in Jesus), or a Judge who spends a day doing community service (in Jesus), and later returns to his mansion forever. I was reminded of what a better translation (but scarier) really is: That Jesus, who being in the form of God, did not consider acts of exploiting to be equal with God, but rather (being in the form of God meant) self-emptying.” It meant a whole life of giving, not getting, of helping, healing, holding, and walking beside others. Jesus’ exaltation is really in that very act of self-denial and emptying, because in that he reflected perfectly the image and the power of God. “Behold your sovereign, coming to you…gentle.” Matthew’s triumphal entry meant that very thing. And the power of religion couldn’t stomach it, and the power of Rome didn’t understand it. Do we?
Paul says that Jesus, the gentle ruler, took upon himself the form of a servant – perhaps better, a slave. Jesus, in fact, died a death set aside for rebels and slaves, crucifixion. But, even more than that, he lived by washing disciples’ feet. He lived by healing others. It wasn’t that Jesus was simply glorifying abasement as such. I remind us again that Paul began this hymn, with some very difficult words: “Let this mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus.” Jesus was not simply talking about individuals who occasionally rise to the level of being gentle in their separate, personal lives, but about the Reign of God, as an alternate vision of humanity that doesn’t depend on power and domination, and exploitation, but on giving and loving and helping. And that translates those lovely thoughts into real political and economic responses, not just sermon thoughts.
Already in the background of Paul’s thinking here were the words of the poet-prophet who gave us Isaiah chapters 40-55 in the midst of the personal and corporate torment of being in exile in Babylon. In Isaiah 43:25 God said: “I, I am the one who blots out your rebellions for my own sake (because that’s the kind of a God I am), and I will not remember your mistakes either.” God is the God who gives and forgives, not the God who overpowers and punishes sinners in glee and with relish. God’s work is also revealed in the word of one who is simply called the Lord’s Servant, in passages like the one from Isaiah 50 that speak of the difficulty in the world’s reaction to those whose lives are filled with acceptance, love, healing and wholeness. It is normally rejection, spitting, and even a little hair-pulling. And knowing that people would rather have power than have God, God still goes forward with liberating, loving and leading.
That God is this way is a unique contribution of Jesus, growing as it does, out of one strand of Old Testament thought, one he died to make real. And, coming back to Matthew’s telling of the Triumphal Entry story this morning, that may just be one reason why Matthew tells the story with two animals. I did part of my growing up in the west, and have, from time to time, seen what we call, the “breaking” of horses. It’s simply a matter of power and might being imposed, one will on another. But there is another way to do it (or so I’ve been told, and watched once), and that is to have the mother or another older animal nearby to walk beside the animal to be ridden. It has, for some reason, a calming effect that makes the whole process go with less trauma. Something like this picture may have been in Matthew’s mind as he told his story. Jesus was the one who issued the great invitation to all who would hear: “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden (tired of being “rode hard and put away wet” as they say), and I will give you rest.” How will I do that for you? “Take my yoke upon you and learn of me.” I was interested to see a week or two ago that in our older Sunday School class, Hal helped our students to make ox-yokes. It was fun to see the outcome of the projects.
Now, in Jesus world “taking some rabbi’s yoke” meant becoming a disciple and learning to do things as the master did. Taking the yoke did not mean that Jesus says, “Here’s my yoke, you wear it a while (alone).” No, the actual thought is that this was a yoke designed for two. Jesus says, slip into my yoke beside me for a while, and we’ll go together. I’ll not just tell you how to walk, I’ll show you. We’ll do it together.” That’s why he can say, “And you’ll find rest for your souls.”
It’s a challenging thing to listen to the story of Jesus’ entry into religion at Jerusalem. It cost him his life because he was truly a revolutionary in his view of power. It’s shared in a yoke together. But it’s the only way to rest.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.