Matthew’s version of Palm Sunday (Matthew 21:1-11) is the only one of the synoptic Gospels to quote from Zechariah 9:9. What did Matthew see in the minor prophet that contextualized Palm Sunday for his Jewish audience? One connection is obvious: Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, and Zechariah wrote of a king riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. However, I don’t think that’s the extent of the connection. It’s probable that Jesus visited Jerusalem many times. Why did he choose to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey on Palm Sunday? What did Jesus intend to demonstrate through his actions? By quoting from Zechariah 9:9, Matthew communicates what he believes Jesus intended, and it stands in stark contrast to what the crowds believed Jesus intended. Let’s consider some facts.
The people lining the streets during Jesus’ arrival quoted Psalm 118 by shouting “Hosanna!” Psalm 118 also speaks of opening the gates of Jerusalem (v. 19), presumably to the victorious king of Judah after God leads him to triumph over enemies (v. 7) and to cut off the encroaching nations (v. 11). It appears that the Palm Sunday crowds expected that Jesus would assume this role: the king who fights their enemies and wins.
However, if Jesus came to fight, why did he choose to ride on a donkey and not a warhorse? Matthew’s answer to that question lies in his use of Zechariah 9:9, especially when we read the verse that follows it. In Zechariah 9:10, the purpose of the donkey-riding king was to “cut off the warhorse from Jerusalem,” to “cut off the battle bow,” and to “command peace to the nations.” Zechariah suggests that riding a donkey symbolizes peacemaking. In Matthew, Jesus lived into this symbol of peacemaking, but the crowds only saw what they wanted — an invitation to war and domination.
I believe the lesson of Palm Sunday is about our tendency to confuse God’s call to humility and peace as a call to power-grasping and violence. We hear God’s command to share the gospel as a call to argue or indoctrinate. We hear God’s command to serve the poor as a call to instruct them on their needs, keeping them at a safe distance as we do so. We hear God’s command to love our enemies as a call for our enemies to love us, rather than a call for us to humbly reach out in love to them.
Can’t we see that Jesus rides a donkey, not a warhorse? On his way to carry out the saving work of the cross, Jesus shows us that our salvation is based on a love that is inherently selfless and non-violent. If we really want to understand and live into our salvation, we must seek to be non-violent in our actions, our words, our ministry partnerships, and our relationships with our neighbors, even our relationships with our enemies.