Lenten Lectio: Reflection for Palm Sunday

Full disclosure. I wrote a whole blog post out last night and thanks to some kind of technical issue, it was gone this morning. I was a little upset but maybe it was for the better to clear up some thoughts. I’m going to take another shot at this post.

Christ's Entry into Jerusalem by James Ensor, Belgian, Ostend, 1885 Graphite and Conté crayon. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SABAM, Brussels.

Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem by James Ensor. Belgian, Ostend, 1885. Graphite and Conté crayon. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SABAM, Brussels.

This last Sunday was Palm  Sunday. It is the first day of Holy Week that leads us to Good Friday, Easter and the end of Lent. On Palm Sunday we recall the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem riding on donkey. Each of the Gospels records the story and it is quite a scene with large crowds of people shouting, waving palm branches and following Jesus into Jerusalem. Today we’ll be looking at Matthew’s account and there’s obviously a lot going on in this scene and a lot of references and echoes to the Hebrew Scriptures. There’s much more to this story than just Jesus riding into Jerusalem. There are deep expectations amongst the people that are demonstrated in how they act, what they are say and how the Gospel of Matthew has structured the story up to this point. Let’s begin by first reading the account.

When they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus gave two disciples a task. He said to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter, you will find a donkey tied up and a colt with it. Untie them and bring them to me. If anybody says anything to you, say that the Lord needs it.” He sent them off right away. Now this happened to fulfill what the prophet said, Say to Daughter Zion, ” Look, your king is coming to you, humble and riding on a donkey, and on a colt the donkey’s offspring. ” The disciples went and did just as Jesus had ordered them. They brought the donkey and the colt and laid their clothes on them. Then he sat on them. Now a large crowd spread their clothes on the road. Others cut palm branches off the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds in front of him and behind him shouted, ” Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” And when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up. “Who is this?” they asked. The crowds answered, “It’s the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Matthew 21:1-11 (CEB)

For the sake of some brevity I want to zero in one one element of this story. In trying to understand why the people are acting they way they are we need to look at who they think Jesus is. We get a few clues in the words they shout (which are all scripture references) and what they call him. We are often familiar with the acclamations of “king”, “Son of David” and “the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” But the title I want to spend some time thinking about is what the people in Jerusalem call Jesus. To them Jesus is known as a prophet.

Why is it important to the story that Jesus is known as a prophet? What prophet in scripture can we use for reference? Does the gospel of Matthew give us any clues?

Well, if you go back a few chapters to the story of the Transfiguration (Matthew 17) Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus on the mountain. Moses and Elijah are known as two of the greatest Hebrew prophets. Moses as the lawgiver and mediator between God and the people of Israel at Sinai. Elijah the great wilderness prophet who challenged the Ba’al worshipers on Mt. Carmel. Both were supposed to return to signal God’s arrival and the introduction of his Messiah. Jesus tells us in Matthew 17:12 that Elijah has already come and was associated with John the Baptist.

So…that leaves Moses. A prophet like Moses was expected to return as promised way back in Deuteronomy 18:15, “The Lord your God will raise up a prophet like me [Moses] from your community, from your fellow Israelites. He’s the one you must listen to.”

The time that Jesus is entering Jerusalem is also very important. We know that it was during the days leading up to the Jewish Passover festival. Passover remembers the story of God freeing the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. In that story, God uses Moses to lead the people out of Egypt after the great display of plagues culminating in the plague of the first born where every first born male in Egypt is killed except for those who have lambs blood on their doorposts. The Passover meal recalls that moment when death “passed over” the houses with the blood on their doorposts. Passover is probably the most important festival in the Jewish calendar and Jesus enters Jerusalem during this moment when Jews are traveling to Jerusalem to celebrate the annual festival.

So the people are waiting on a prophet like Moses to come, Jesus is entering Jerusalem during the Passover. Is there anything else in the gospel of Matthew that hints at Jesus being like Moses? How about these examples:

  • Baby Jesus escapes to Egypt to avoid the massacre of first born sons by Herod. Moses also escaped a massacre of first born sons by Pharaoh when he was floated down the Nile in a basket.
  • Jesus gives the Sermon on the Mount talking about fulfilling the Law of Moses. Moses received the Law on Mt. Sinai.
  • Jesus has compassion on the crowds because they are like “sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). God has Moses appoint Joshua (same name as Jesus in Hebrew by the way, meaning “God is my salvation”) over the people of Israel so that, “the Lord’s community won’t be like sheep without their shepherd” (Numbers 27:17).

I could go on, but I think that makes the point. Matthew seems to be making a strong connection between Jesus and Moses. The people on Palm Sunday are probably expecting something very similar hence why “the whole city was stirred up”. Passover is coming, Jesus is a great prophet, if he is as great as Moses something awesome is probably about to go down. Maybe plagues will rain down on the Romans allowing the Israelites and Judea will throw off their oppressors (like with Egypt) and will once again rule independently as in David’s kingdom. Expectations are very high.

However, if one keeps reading it becomes quickly apparent that Jesus is not meeting the expectations and no plagues are coming. He heads straight for the Temple and causes a ruckus quoting Jeremiah 7:11, Isaiah 56:7, overturning tables and kicking out the money changers. He will curse a fig tree for not bearing fruit and a few chapters later (Matthew 24) he will prophesy the Temple’s destruction. All of this will culminate in his crucifixion on the cross.

Jesus’ path is not leading towards the people’s expectations so how then is Jesus a prophet like Moses?

Rather than the plagues being meted out on the Romans, Jesus places the target squarely on himself taking the plague of the cross. Jesus proclaims the bread is his body similar to the manna from heaven of which Moses says, “This is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat” (Exodus 16:15). Jesus proclaims the wine is his “blood of the covenant” similar to the “blood of the covenant” Moses sprinkled on the people signifying the covenant relationship between God and the people of Israel. After this, Moses and the elders had a meal at God’s feet and the stone tablets of the Law were given to Moses (Exodus 24:8-12).

As Moses led the children of Israel out of bondage in Egypt and through the Red Sea, so to does Jesus lead people out of bondage to sin and powers through the cross. As Moses led the children of Israel through the death and abyss of the Red Sea, escaping the impending threat of Pharaoh’s army, so to does Jesus lead his people through the death of the cross defeating and escaping the powers and threat of sin and death.

The procession of Palm Sunday then has strong connections to the expectations of Passover and Jesus as a prophet like Moses. However, Jesus re-frames the story around himself rather than meeting the expectations that many of the people had.

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