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A liberating leader (April 3, 2022)

Uniform Lesson for April 3, 2022
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Matthew 21:1-11

We move this week from the Hebrew Scriptures to the Gospels, still concentrating on God’s ongoing work of freedom and redemption under the banner of “Liberating Gospels.” As the Passover helped Israel remember a time when Moses and Miriam helped set God’s people free from slavery under the king of Egypt, so God’s people looked forward to a time when a new leader would set them free from the kings and Caesars of later kingdoms. As the prophet Jesus draws near to Jerusalem, he begins to act out some of the scenes of this anticipated liberation. However, the prophetic texts he chooses that lead to the embodied actions he lives out point toward a peculiar kind of kingship and a particular type of liberation.

Donkey and colt

The Gospel of Matthew is full of Old Testament promises that match up with New Testament fulfillments. Jesus is born in Bethlehem to a virgin mother and a father from the lineage of David. On a mountain, Jesus teaches his disciples a new set of laws and commandments that bring to fruition the old. Jesus turns toward Jerusalem at the time of Passover to set into motion a new kind of exodus and a more lasting type of liberation. Each step of the way, and each teaching that accompanies this pilgrimage, is grounded in texts that God’s people have heard and remembered down through the centuries.

Matthew is so intent on this promise and fulfillment theme that it sometimes leads to scenes that are hard to imagine, much less portray. Today’s text is a case in point. Because the translation of Zechariah 9:9 that Matthew uses seems to imply a sign of two animals (“mounted on a donkey, and on a colt”), Matthew envisions Jesus riding into Jerusalem sitting on both a donkey and a colt (“and he sat on them”). I’m not quite sure how a person, even Jesus, pulls this off, but it’s led me since childhood to picture Jesus as a kind of rodeo rider, standing with one foot on a donkey and another on a colt. “Yippee-ki-yay” might seem a better shout to accompany this scene than “Hosanna.” But this is only the
first – and less lasting – surprise in this passage.

Humble

As the Israelites had celebrated the liberating victory of Yahweh over the horses and riders of ancient Egypt, so God’s people continued to imagine a coming day of liberation when a new leader might set them free accompanied by the sound of hoofbeats and the rattle of chariots. Most of the Roman Caesars set up statues of themselves mounted on imperious war steeds with flaring nostrils and menacing hooves. So when Jesus chooses Zechariah rather than some other text as the stage directions for his entry into Jerusalem, there is a note of humility and submission that will only gather steam as the events of the upcoming week move forward. If God had earlier defeated the forces of empire by throwing horses and riders into the sea, God will this time allow God’s own self to be swallowed up by the waves of the sea and the forces of chaos. The crowd that now chants “Hosanna” will a few days later cry out “Crucify,” setting in motion a peculiar kind of liberation that continues to this day. No, it is not the difference between a “political” and a “spiritual” liberation. This leader’s death and resurrection set loose a force more powerful than any empire, past or present. But this liberation occurs in a peculiar way that necessitates a peculiar kind of following, with humility and sacrificial service at its core.

Turmoil

It’s one thing to straddle both a colt and a donkey. It’s another to ride into Jerusalem at Passover with the themes of freedom and liberation rumbling all around. Jesus fulfills some old promises, but he will do so in some new and startling ways. The cloaks and branches of the crowd anticipate the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah who will one day set God’s people free. But this Messiah will soon find himself cloak-less, on a branch of a tree, submitting to the taunts and accusations of a formerly adoring crowd now grown disappointed and angry. Their cries of “Hosanna” are quite literally a cry to “Save us.” But this Messiah will liberate us from powers both without and within. Jesus sets up a turmoil in this city that will lead both religious and political authorities to try to cut short his rule. But just as this new leader can straddle both a donkey and a colt, so his reign incorporates both the spheres of politics and religion. This is a new kind of “liberation” indeed!

For discussion:

How do we picture a “humble king”?

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