The humble king

Uniform lesson for March 31, 2014

Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: Matthew 21:1-11

By ancient or modern standards, a ruler who enters a major city leading a parade of cheering followers should not be riding on a donkey. After all, triumphant Roman generals entered Rome riding in chariots pulled by magnificent horses and surrounded by soldiers in armor and captives in chains. Queen Elizabeth enters London riding in a richly bejeweled carriage and accompanied by mounted guards on horseback. Fanfares played by military bands announce the arrival of a ruling potentate. Much pomp and ceremonial protocol typically underline the power and prestige of political figures.

Matthew 21:1-7 — Jesus plans to enter Jerusalem

Matthew paints a very understated picture of what happened when Jesus entered Jerusalem to begin the climactic last days of his earthly life. There are no chariots or military escorts and no brass band marching to martial music. Instead two of Jesus’ disciples, perhaps implementing arrangements made earlier, went to a nearby village, probably Bethany, to requisition temporarily a donkey and her colt for their master to ride on. If anyone questioned their action, they were to say simply, “The Lord needs them.” So they took not one but two lowly beasts of burden to transport Jesus into Jerusalem.

Matthew uses his characteristic quotation formula (“This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet”) to portray this event as a literal fulfillment of the prophetic words of Isaiah 62:11: “Say to daughter Zion, ‘See, your salvation comes.’” He links these words with another prophecy from Zechariah 9:9-10: “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.”

Matthew edits his source by omitting the words “triumphant and victorious” from the Zechariah quotation. This shifts the emphasis to the words “humble and mounted on a donkey.” Matthew even overlooks the common Hebrew poetic device of parallelism in the Zechariah passage that refers to a single animal in two ways: as a donkey and as a colt of a donkey. Matthew 21:7 describes two animals and has Jesus ride into Jerusalem on two animals at the same time!

Matthew’s intention is two-fold: to describe Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as the fulfillment of prophecy and to underline the humble mode of transportation that makes Jesus a very countercultural ruler. Not power or prestige but humility marks the kingly reign of Jesus.

Matthew 21:8-11 — Hosanna to the Son of David

After the disciples had completed their mission, they placed garments on the animals and Jesus began his ride into Jerusalem. A large crowd of Jesus’ followers imitated the disciples and placed their garments in his path as if to demonstrate homage to their king. Others cut branches from nearby trees and spread them on the road also.

The large crowd took up a chant “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Hosanna is an imperative that means “save us” in Hebrew, but here it is more of an acclamation of joy and expectation. The crowd sees Jesus as the revered King David’s son, God’s agent. He is called “blessed” because he comes in the name of the Lord. This comes from Psalm 118:26, a psalm praising God for the deliverance of Israel celebrated at Passover. For Matthew and his readers, this chant has very strong messianic overtones.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the city was in an uproar. The word Matthew uses here to describe Jerusalem literally describes the results of an earthquake (our English word “seismic” is derived from it). While many in Jerusalem evidently did not know who Jesus was, his followers proclaimed him to be Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.

One can only imagine the surprise and the questions a donkey-riding prophet from Nazareth must have aroused. To the Roman occupation forces struggling to maintain control, Jesus may have appeared to be a potential insurrectionist. For the temple authorities, Jesus soon became a disruptive force threatening their religious power (see Matthew 21:12-13). Jesus’ disciples and the crowds who followed him must have wondered what kind of a king this humble Son of David intended to be.


For discussion

  • Does this account of Jesus entering Jerusalem fit into your understanding of the Messiah?
  • A recent best-selling book claimed that Jesus was a Zealot. Does this passage support that view?
  • What does the phrase “servant leadership” mean? Does that kind of leadership work in today’s world?