This Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week. Amazing, and disorienting in the season of the pandemic, when I’ve been unable to participate in public worship services through most of Lent.
My lenten journey has been mostly quiet, private, and inward. The fact that you, dear reader, join me in these blog posts is a lovely gift, a strange and socially distant form of community. Thanks.
The Palms and the Passion
The Revised Common Lectionary always gives two Gospel readings for this particular Sunday.
- One is the “Liturgy of the Palms,” the story of the “Triumphal Entry” of Christ coming into Jerusalem, amid the accolades of the crowds. Just about everybody calls this day “Palm Sunday” because of this scene, and Matthew 21:1-11 is our text.
- The other is the “Liturgy of the Passion,” a lengthy reading of Matthew 26:14-27:66 (or, for the faint of heart, just Matthew 27:11-54). This is, I suppose, for churches where they hold no other Holy Week services.
Traditionally one would hear the passion texts on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday at services commemorating those events. In 21st century American Protestantism? Not so much. Their pastors give them the Passion on the Sunday before, and miss out on the Triumphal Entry that set up the events of Holy Week.
I’m writing today on the Palm Sunday text. Matthew’s version is distinctly different from the other three Gospels and, after all, I’m cooped up. No need to rush past Palm Sunday to get the Passion story in. Might as well take it one day at a time.
The basic picture is the same in all the Gospels.
- Jesus is heading to Jerusalem.
- He arranges transportation via borrowed livestock (as in the other Synoptics — not John).
- People make a carpet of their cloaks (as in the other Synoptics — not John).
- People add branches to the carpet (as in Mark and John — not Luke).
- People cry “Hosanna!” (as with Mark and John).
- And in all four Gospels they say that he is blessed who comes in the name of the Lord.
- Like in Mark, there is a reference to the ancient King David.
There are two notable details that are unique in Matthew’s telling of the tale. I think they are part of Matthew’s attempt to make the same point, so I’ll talk about them together.
In fact, that’s about all I’ll talk about — it is ridiculously late in the week and I need to get this posted.
Each includes both an added detail and an omission relative to the other Gospels.
1. The Colt
First is the memorable scene where Jesus sends his disciples to pick up a donkey for him to ride into town. Chances are you remember it the way Mark and Luke tell it.
In all three Synoptics, Jesus tells him where they will find the donkey, tells them to untie it, and what to say if anybody objects.
Mark and Luke tell us that they followed his directions; someone did object; they gave the recommended excuse, and were permitted to take it.
Matthew leaves that out.
Instead Matthew adds an explicit reference to Jesus riding on a donkey as fulfilling a prophecy from Zechariah. Here’s that text:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
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.” (Zechariah 9:9 NRSV)
That isn’t mentioned by either Mark or Luke.
For Matthew it continues the priority he has had since the very first chapter of his Gospel: He wants us to see Jesus in a very particular way.
It isn’t “just” that Jesus is, say, the incarnation of the Word, or a super-compassionate savior.
Jesus, for Matthew, is explicitly and constantly, the fulfillment of the Old Testament’s promise of the Messiah.
And here, Matthew makes the point with excruciating, and I’d say comical detail.
He zooms in on the last set of parallel phrases from Zechariah:
…humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Matthew 21:5 NRSV)
Rather than seeing the two references as an example of the parallelism that is the most constant feature of Hebrew poetry, Matthew reads it as a description of two separate animals.
This is really important to Matthew. Notice that he has Jesus include this in his instructions to the disciples:
Go into the village ahead of you,
and immediately you will find a donkey tied,
and a colt with her;
and bring them to me.” (Matthew 21:2 NRSV)
And this shapes how we must see Jesus’ triumphal entry in Matthew’s telling.
…they brought the donkey
and the colt,
and put their cloaks on them,
and he sat on them.” (Matthew 21:7 NRSV)
For his entry to Jerusalem Jesus was actually mounted on two animals at once. Uncomfortable. Or maybe all the more glorious if it looked like the Kazakstani trick rider in the picture I’ve attached above.
I have to say, that’s a nobly consistent, if quirky, attempt to show Jesus fulfilling the prophecy to the letter.
2. The Prophet
The second detail switcheroo is Matthew’s omission of further reference to Jesus as king.
- The other Gospels make his kingship part of the crowd’s proclamation.
- For Matthew it is left back in verse 5 as part of the prophecy. You know it, as a reader, but there is no claim that the crowd had figured it out.
Matthew’s crowd only goes so far as saying Jesus is “Son of David.”
And in the end, when asked what the whole scene meant, again it was not about kingship. It was about prophecy. Jesus, they had deduced, was a great prophet.
When he entered Jerusalem,
the whole city was in turmoil, asking,
‘Who is this?’
The crowds were saying,
‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’” (Matthew 21:10-11 NRSV)
What does it mean?
And the upshot? Matthew portrays Jesus (always) as the fulfiller of prophecy. So far as the crowd can figure out, Jesus is walking in the tradition of the prophets.
I’m thinking Matthew is making a distinction between what was revealed to the crowds and what was revealed to the disciples — like his choice to teach all in parables, and explain them only to the disciples. It was a big deal when Jesus recognized him as Son of God. From that point he turned toward Jerusalem, suffering, and death.
It is the passion, in Matthew, that brings revelation of Jesus’ true identity to the gentiles.
- On the cross, Pilate places the sign “This is Jesus, The King of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37).
- After Jesus’ death the centurion exclaimed, “Truly this man was God’s Son” (Matthew 27:54).
Mysterious. Worthy of contemplation. This is a paradoxical revelation, with suffering and death showing him to be king and God.
Back on Palm Sunday we have, instead, a procession in trick rider glory, a confused crowd singing his praise while not yet knowing who Jesus is.
Which is just the confusion most of us Christians have, most of the time, I suppose.
Looking for some intellectual and faith stimulation while hunkering down in the time of COVID-19? I have an online reading group that is just starting a journey through Justin Martyr’s “First Apology.” I post videos and the text, and you can read and even discuss with others if you want to. All the details are on my Patreon page. Click through here and look for the reward level called “The Education.” It would be great to have you!