In the nineteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel Jesus completes the journey begun some ten chapters previous. In chapter 9 verse 51 the gospel writer tells us Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Now in chapter 19 Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem. He rides into the city on the back of a colt. Other texts say it was on a donkey. Matthew splits the difference and says Jesus road on a ‘colt’ the foal of a donkey. Sometimes specifics are important, this is one of those times. To those that saw it—to those who saw this unmarried man, this teacher, this one about whom they had heard rumors, this one whom some of them had chosen to follow, this son of a tekton, this son of parents who had fled as refuges to Egypt, this teacher who dined with those others didn’t want to touch, to those who saw this one ridding a donkey’s foal with cloaks as a saddle, to those who saw this one riding in such a way—to those who saw it, they could not help but think of the words of the prophet Zechariah from chapter 9, the ninth verse. Whether they smirked or smiled they would have thought of Zechariah’s words,
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.
Jesus rides into Jerusalem on the back of this undignified animal and people think of these lines from Zechariah, these lines punched with exclamation points, these lines thrown out like jabs, and they go nuts. They go nuts so that the stones can stay mute. They go nuts because he had touched a nerve raw for centuries.
In the second century before Jesus’ walked or rode anything the ancient lands of Judea were ruled by the Seleucid Empire. The Seleucid dynasty began when Alexander the Great divided up his vast domain among his generals. The Seleucid kings were based in Syria but they ruled lands extending from what is now Turkey, eastward to Kuwait, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes conquered Jerusalem. He obliterated the observance of Torah. He set up pagan, sacrilegious ceremonies in the temple and ordered the Jews to worship Zeus as the supreme god. Some obliged.
And then, still roughly two centuries before Jesus trip astride a donkey’s foal, a rural priest named Mattathias stood up and refused to obey Antiochus. If he couldn’t offer a proper sacrifice he wouldn’t offer one at all. However, his sense of indignation wasn’t felt by all. Right in front of Mattathias a fellow Jew tried to perform a pagan ritual to placate the occupying forces. Mattathias killed him. No trial, no measured inquiry—he just killed him. Mattathias and his sons then began a guerilla war against the occupying Syrian forces. The hid in the countryside, they attacked with surprise. They fought the occupiers and they fought fellow Jews who preferred to adapt to the pagan practices instead of remaining faithful to Torah. These stories are recorded in the first several chapters of I Maccabees.
Mattathias and his sons conceived of their crusade in biblical terms. They described it with references to the battles of David and the many prophecies of restoration that course throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. It was Mattathias’s son, Judas Maccabeus, who actually retook Jerusalem in 164 BCE. With the slash of a sword Judas entered the city, purified the temple and restored Jewish worship practices. His victory was enthusiastically remembered in the time of Jesus with the celebration of Hanukkah.
In Jesus’ day, however, the celebration was a golden-age memory. The land was once again controlled by an outside empire, this time one based not in Syria but in Rome. As in the time of Mattathias and Judas, in Jesus’ day there were those who saw the way forward as one of accommodation and compromise, becoming more Roman or Greek than Jewish. There were also those who advocated armed revolt. These were the zealot nationalists, and Judas Maccabeus was their model. There were also those who thought that Torah could be carefully followed even in this situation of foreign occupation. They prioritized religious purity over nationalism. These first century Jews had their differences, but most of them anticipated something better—liberation, vindication, autonomy.
And so when Jesus, the provocative rabbi and miracle worker, asked for a hooved ride into Jerusalem it was a big deal.
It was a big deal because it was obvious that his actions were symbolic. He was referencing the prophecies and the war heroes. As New Testament scholar N.T. Wright says, “Jesus was performing Maccabean actions” (493). It’s not surprising then that in Luke’s account of the gospel Jesus’ triumphal entry is followed by his cleansing of the temple. The renewal of the temple was a royal project. It was the great king David who had envisioned it. It was Solomon who built it. Hezekiah and Josiah restored it, and so too did Judas Maccabeus. The grand temple of Jesus’ day was erected by Herod. Herod did it to legitimize his kingly power.
So this is the story Jesus rode into. And because he acted out the part the people could not help but hear the voice of Zechariah (9:10):
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse form Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.
His followers recognized what he was doing. They realized why he needed a colt, a donkey’s foal. They knew why he couldn’t just walk into the city. They recognized it and in an instant they knew what to do. And so they rushed ahead and spread their cloaks on ground before him. The parallel story in Matthew says that they cut branches from the trees and laid those on the ground as well.
For the Presbyterian Minister, MaryAnn McKibben Dana, this passage is a reminder of what it’s like beginning a marathon in the early morning. Dana writes: Some “Event organizers encourage people to wear old clothing over their race clothes while they’re waiting for the gun to go off; anything cast off along the course is donated to a local charity.” Dana says that it usually takes runners a mile or more to warm up, which means that competitors spend the first several minutes dodging old sweatshirts and the long socks other runners wore on their arms. She says every time this happens she thinks, “about the streets of Jerusalem, littered not with runners’ secondhand clothing but with the cloaks of everyday people, come to see Jesus.” (The Christian Century)
MaryAnn McKibben Dana gives us an interesting comparison. Unlike the modern runners, those who threw their garments before Jesus hadn’t planned on making a donation. They hadn’t planned ahead to wear clothes destined for the thrift store. They weren’t wearing tops they couldn’t button anymore or old shirts commemorating the hockey championship from ten years ago. They wore their normal clothing. I imagine that most of them had to rush back to pick these garments up because they didn’t own many others. Nevertheless, they threw them down because here came their king.
He wasn’t a legitimate king of course. The imperial powers hadn’t agreed to it. The cultural and religious leaders hadn’t anointed him. He wasn’t certified. He had no letters after his name. Since monarchies don’t mean as much today as they did in previous eras it can be hard for us to realize how threatening this symbolic parade was. It was not a government-approved, polite use of symbol. This ride was threatening stuff. This was the sort of thing that happened before, or after, blood darkened swords.
It’s hard for us to see that in a rabbi riding a donkey’s foal and a crowd calling him a king. On Palm Sunday, a day when we put our children front and center, it’s hard to acknowledge the violence that pulses just below the surface of Luke 19. On the other hand here in Ottawa we do live in a city of immense political power, power over a huge swath of the earth. Living just north of one of the world’s great military powers, we sometimes overlook the significance of this city, but this city has felt threatened too.
Maybe a little Canadian Heritage Minute can advance the point. Think about Luis Riel. He is a fascinating historical figure. A “Métis leader, founder of Manitoba, central figure in the Red River and North-West resistances.” He “led two popular Métis governments, was central to bringing Manitoba in Confederation, and was executed for high treason . . . .” That’s how the Canadian Encyclopedia describes him, but that measured description has the benefit of historical distance. I can only imagine what his name would have meant here in Ottawa in the 1870s and ‘80s. Hero to some, villain to others, but both sides would admit that his leadership presented a challenge to the growing Canadian project.
Let’s pull things ‘round toward a close here: if Jesus was king then Caesar wasn’t. If Jesus was king the status quo at the temple was at risk. In the days to come Jesus would not avoid these things. He would cleanse the temple, he would prophesy about Jerusalem’s destruction and then on the eve of the Passover he would gather his disciples and he would again symbolically place himself within Israel’s story. As they prepared to remember God’s liberation of Jacob’s children from slavery, Jesus would take a cup and some bread and he would offer himself as the lamb under whose sign the enslaved would find freedom. He would tell them that unlike the world’s kings he was there to serve. This king, this one the crowds cheered, this one whose feet they would not allow to touch the paving stones—this king would wash the feet of those who would have been his subjects. Here was a king of a different order—one for whom the stones would scream.