A Rebuke of Culture Wars and Religious Nationalism
Each year, Christians celebrate Palm Sunday, Jesus’ so-called “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem. The gospels do depict the crowds celebrating triumphantly, but what if Jesus himself was rebuking his own followers? What if he did not agree with their hopes for the Messiah? What do Jesus’ actions and words really say in Luke 19:28-44, if we have ears to hear?
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Jesus excited his disciples’ imagination by taking the route of Joshua toward Jerusalem (crossing the Jordan into Jericho). Then he sent two disciples on a secret mission. Was this not the same number of spies Joshua sent to prepare the Conquest? Maybe they were scouting out Jerusalem’s defenses! Instead, they return with a donkey. Readers have wondered how Jesus knew this donkey would be tied up. Some think the owner has great faith to surrender his animal to unknown people simply because, “the Lord needs it!” Yet it is far more likely Jesus pre-arranged this with the owner. He would tie up his donkey on this day and recognize Jesus’ men if they used the correct passphrase. Perhaps this is why John abbreviates the entire story: “Jesus found a young donkey.” John and Matthew quote this event as a fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9, but they do not mean it was a series of divine coincidences. Jesus intentional acted out this prophecy as a proclamation he was Messiah, and what he understood this to mean.
Many Jews believed Zech 9:9 was part of a prophecy that Messiah would bring peace for the Jews through a war against the nations. Their response to Jesus riding a donkey fits this common Jewish hope. People threw cloaks down before Jesus’ path, just like Jehu’s men when Elisha anointed him to become King of Israel. Interestingly, there was already a King of Israel! Jehu became Messiah to assassinate King Joram. People also waved palm branches and threw them down before Jesus, just as Jews did a century earlier during the Maccabean Revolt. Simon was greeted by cheering crowds and palm branches after his army liberated Jerusalem from Syrian occupation and cleansed the temple. Finally, Matthew, Mark, and John tell us the crowds shouted out Hosanna! Save us! The people had nationalistic dreams Jesus would successfully lead a rebellion against the Romans.
Luke makes it clear this is how the Pharisees interpreted these events since they tell Jesus to quiet his disciples. No doubt they were eyeing the Roman soldiers standing watch on Jerusalem’s walls, fearing they might become agitated and move to put down this apparent protest movement calling for rebellion. Instead of quieting his disciples, however, Jesus replied, “If they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” Perhaps Jesus’ disciples thought he was referencing Habakkuk 2:10, where the stones of the walls would cry out against the injustices they bore witness to within the city. After all, Luke emphasizes the crowd is descending into the Kidron Valley. Across the valley, they could all see the massive stones of Jerusalem’s walls.
Then, Jesus wept as he looked across at Jerusalem. He mourned that the people did not grasp the true meaning of peace. He wept because his people’s desire to defeat the cultural intrusion of Rome through physical force would result in the loss of all the institutions they held dear. He shed tears because his beloved people loved the power and glory of Jerusalem, the temple, and the land of Israel. They hoped Jesus was the strong man they needed to make Israel great once again through a violent expulsion of the Romans.
The Rebuke of a Prophetic Act
Jesus, however, had a very different vision for the Kingdom and his role as Messiah. Riding a donkey was not a message of conquest. The “triumphal entry” surrounding him was just Satan’s latest temptation to lure Jesus to desire the very power structures he had rejected since the voice from heaven told him his role as Messiah was to be a suffering servant. Jesus intentionally acted out Zechariah 9:9 rather than some other messianic prophecy precisely because of his rejection of Messiah as conquering king. Zechariah was the only Israelite prophet who emphasized another aside from the king who was also anointed with oil—the chief priest. Jesus riding a donkey was pointing us to reflect on the entire book of Zechariah. Zechariah 4 speaks of two trees pouring out oil into a single lampstand. They are called two Messiahs (king and priest). Zechariah 6 then orders a crown to be placed on the chief priest, who will rule from his throne and bring “harmony between the two” (king and priest). Zechariah shifts the focus from the king to the priest. Jesus proclaimed himself to be a priest-king. He would serve his people’s spiritual needs rather than rule with might to enforce his people’s desire for power and prestige. John understood Jesus to be priest-king. John has Jesus quote Zech 6:13 (rebuild the temple) as justification for cleansing the temple (John 2:19) and Pilate quote Zech 6:12 (here is the man) as he presents Jesus before the crowd in purple robe and crown of thorns (John 19:7).
Not only was the donkey Jesus’ rebuke of violent revolution, but his statement that the stones would cry out was not about the stones of Jerusalem’s walls. As noted before, Luke emphasizes the crowd was going down the Mount of Olives into the Kidron Valley. This area, both then and now, was a vast Jewish graveyard. There were stones everywhere: in front of tombs as well as atop crypts. The stones themselves would not be crying out, Hosanna! Save us! Rather, it would be the dead behind those stones shouting out for Jesus to remember them when he came into his Kingdom. In Zechariah, there is a promise from God attached to the one who rides the donkey: “because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit” (9:11). Jesus’ decision to be a priest-king, to sacrifice his life, would result in the salvation of those who were in the grave (the waterless pit) as well as those of us who have yet to die. This Prophet like Moses would not liberate the people from slavery to an occupying force. His exodus would lead people out of the grave! This Messiah had not come to defeat the Romans. He would destroy the common enemy of all people (whether Jew or Roman): death itself.
Jesus wept because he knew many there that day rejoicing in his enactment of a messianic claim would ultimately reject his servant priest-king conception of what it meant to be Messiah. They would instead follow after various revolutionaries who rose up before and after him, until the Romans eventually had enough and destroyed Jerusalem and the temple in A.D. 70. As with this “triumphal entry,” Jesus’ whole life was a repudiation of power politics and cultural wars. Jesus foresaw the exaltation of religious nationalism as the destruction of his people . . . and he wept. When will American Christians put off the power dynamics of Cain and put on the servant righteousness of Jesus the Messiah?
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