Angel of St Matthew - stained glass

Studying Matthew 21 1-11

Most of us probably know, very well, the story of what we traditionally call Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem – well enough, we might think, to skip actually reading it. Which is, as usual, exactly the reason not to skip reading it in the text – Matthew 21:1-11we are studying for Sunday, April 3. This will get us well prepared for Palm / Passion Sunday when it arrives next week. Here are a few notes on this familiar text:

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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We are reading this story in Matthew’s gospel. We’ll probably remember that this is the gospel that specifically calls attention to things that “happened to fulfill what was spoken by the prophets.” In fact, the ninth of those fulfillment formulas comes in our text for this week. Matthew makes so many explicit references to Hebrew scripture and situates Jesus so carefully in his first century Jewish context that scholars often suggest that Matthew must have been written for a primarily Jewish audience. Whether or not we can actually draw that conclusion, this feature is one of the things that make Matthew’s gospel distinctive.

Matthew’s gospel is also the one that really presents Jesus as a teacher, as well as the more perfect Moses (prophet) and David (monarch & messiah). The gospel is pointedly structured around a number of long teaching discourses (like the Sermon on the Mount) stitched together with action sequences. Our text comes in the middle of one of the later sections, as the gospel moves towards its climax in Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection. On one side is a set of teachings on how to live with one’s “brothers” – or, fellow community members (Matthew 18). On the other, Jesus’s teachings on judgment – judgments in the present age, and famously, the future judgment of the nations (Matthew 23 – 25).

In these chapters, which mix dramatic action and teaching dialogue, at least one of the themes is Jesus’s authority: the authority of a king to enter the city of Jerusalem, authority over activities in the temple, authority over creation enough to annihilate that fig tree [maybe because it is a symbol of that ancient forbidden fruit that caused so much trouble once upon a time!], authority to command, to teach, and to save. And maybe, also, the source of that authority. And also, the consequences, the ultimate purpose of that authority. All things we could think about.

“Everyone knows” Jesus is going up to Jerusalem for Passover, so the impending Passover celebration is part of the context here. Passover is a festival of liberation – the Hebrews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt. But in real life, in first century Roman Judea, national freedom was once again out of reach. Religious life was something less than entirely free, too. Worship in the context of the temple and the sacrificial system would not have been equally open to all, given the practical constraints of travel and expense. Piety would have been costly, literally. All this irony is emphasized in a talk by John Dominic Crossan [online here; the part about the donkey is at the beginning]. He argues that Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey would have been a parody of imperial pomp[ous] power.

We might recognize the phrase “daughter Zion” as a recurrent Biblical personification of Jerusalem. It’s particularly common in Isaiah and Lamentations. In first Isaiah, “daughter Zion” is usually being judged for her wickedness; in Lamentations, daughter Zion is suffering the aftermath of the Babylonian invasion. In later prophetic works, however, as in Isaiah 62:11, and also in Zephaniah 3:14-15, as well as in Zechariah 2:10 and Zechariah 9:9, which is quoted in our text, daughter Zion has cause to rejoice. Specifically, the cause of her rejoicing has to do with the presence of God. Bringing that language forward here in effect says that Jesus represents, or is, this presence of God.

Matthew 21:1-11 is one of the lectionary’s two texts – the other is Psalm 118 – for the “liturgy of the palms” in year A (the “Matthew year”). The liturgy of the palms is half the reading for “Palm/Passion Sunday,” the other half being the “liturgy of the passion.” The upshot is that our text will almost certainly be familiar to people from being read in church, unless they are strictly Christmas and Easter churchgoers.

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CLOSER READING: The opening verb in verse 1 is “came near.” It’s a common verb, but in Matthew’s gospel, the earlier uses of this verb have referred to the Kingdom of Heaven “coming near.” That association seems purposeful and significant.

The place name, Bethphage, means “house of unripe figs.” It’s hard to imagine that was always its name. It seems more like a name the Jesus-people would have come up with after Jesus curses that hapless fig tree later in the story. And that it shows up here because forever, when they told the story, that’s how they thought of it.

The episode of instructing the disciples to go get a donkey, and what to say if they’re stopped, always sounds like a spy film to me. I probably heard this from someone else, though – there is a fairly widely-circulated idea that this was supposed to be a signal to mobilize some supporters to do exactly what they proceed to do: stage a demonstration, around Jesus entering the city.

Verse 4 is formulaic language Matthew uses often, and verse 5 quotes Zechariah 9:9. Zechariah himself is using the common-as-dirt Hebrew poetic device of parallelism, with poetic intensification. Zechariah’s original readers, and his later familiar-with- Hebrew-scripture readers, most likely envisioned a single animal there. That is – the donkey’s colt doesn’t really need to be there, to fulfill that prophecy. In fact, for someone familiar with Hebrew poetry, it seems a little odd. That makes its being there … curious, to me, and something to wonder about.

But I’ve been wondering about this detail since I was a little girl. Then, I used to wonder how Jesus could have sat on two animals at the same time. I used to picture him coming in sort of like a rodeo star, one foot on the back of each animal, standing up, reins in hand. I doubt that’s how it really was – though I assume “it really was” some particular way.

Our lesson book points that the “branches from trees” in v8 are associated with Sukkot or the Festival of Booths. That festival has messianic associations, too, also from Zechariah (Zechariah 14:16). So this could be another incorporation of messianic imagery on the author’s part. That would require mashing up Passover and Sukkot, though, which no one would really do, would they?

The text depicts the crowds as big, and as spreading their cloaks or the branches on the way – which might remind some readers of the way out of Egypt (the Ex-odos) that’s being celebrated at Passover.

And v9 tells us the crowds that surround Jesus at this point are crying out or shouting chants that relate to the theme of deliverance. Hosanna literally means “save us,” although we’re told by various sources that it had come to be a generalized exclamation by Jesus’s time. (Like the way we might yell “Colts rule!” at a football game, without meaning the Colts actually tell anyone what to do.)

Calling Jesus “Son of David” would be a messianic claim, we think.

The line “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” comes from Psalm 118 (Psalm 118:26). It’s commonly noted that this is one of the “Hallel Psalms,” Psalms 113-118. In Rabbinic Judaism, these are recited on the holidays – Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, Hanukkah; they express exultation for God’s deliverance. Traditionally, the practice goes back even longer than the psalms themselves. [More on that here.] What people mention less often is that the word for “blessed” in Psalm 118:26 is the same Greek word for “to speak well of” that gives us our English word “eulogy.” Something we say at funerals. It is probably not meant to strike a dissonant and ominous note here, but it does for me, anyway.

Verses 10-11 also suggest the human reality of celebrity and word-of-mouth and partial information and “trending now” and all the rest. If there had been Twitter in Jesus’s time, this event likely would have been on it – and about as accurately as anything trending on Twitter. In the first century it would have happened differently, but it seems to have happened somehow, anyway. Some of the city that was “shaken” was probably annoyed because the street was closed. “What’s going on??” So they get the answer “This is the prophet …” And we can just imagine the conversations: “What prophet, the one from … ?” “No, the one from Nazareth …” “Never heard of him.” “Oh, yeah, he’s great, a friend of a friend of my cousin was literally cured of …” etc. etc.

The “greatest [part of] the crowd” was probably clueless. That’s how it would be if it happened today. Why would it have been any different then?

Overall, lots of themes of freedom in this text to unpack, between the Passover context of past liberation, the historical setting of the Roman empire – and who was ever free living in an empire? – the messianic associations of future liberation, and all the things people – or we – might mean by freedom. It would be a lot to think about, even if it weren’t one of the holiest days of the Christian year.

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photo of palm fronds
Leafy branches

Images: Angel representing St. Matthew the evangelist, Nheyob, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Downstairs” (palm fronds), by Tiago Lima from Lisboa, Portugal, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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