This post was largely inspired by material from The Longest Week by Nick Page – well worth checking out this book for a wealth of information on the context of Holy Week.
Jesus’s ministry is reaching its end – he’s arrived at Jerusalem, the site of the final showdown between… Well, between almost everything you can think of: between Jesus and the authorities, between God’s kingdom and the empires of the world, between sin and grace, between life and death. This is the beginning of the end.
And Jesus announces this in a manner that seems, for him, to be a little ostentatious. He enters the city riding on a donkey, which prompts a crowd of onlookers to start cheering, praising God, waving palm branches and throwing their coats onto the road for the donkey to walk on. News of this starts to get around: “Who is this?!” people ask, and while the easy answer is that it’s Jesus of Nazareth, the whole procession makes things a little more dramatic than they first appear.
For a start, it’s a fulfillment of a prophecy made by Zechariah – “See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey”. The donkey is important – King David’s household is recorded as riding on donkeys and mules in 2 Samuel 16 and 2 Samuel 13:28-29. The donkey therefore links Jesus with Israel’s greatest king and establishes his own royal credentials.
Those credentials actually make him more than just a king, they make him the foretold Messiah – that’s what Zechariah’s prophecy is all about. This is more than a king having a parade to show off his might, it’s about God’s kingdom being inaugerated on Earth, an age of peace being brought into being. The bit of the prophecy quoted by Matthew is verse 9, but as Page points out, it goes on to say:
I will take away the chariots from Ephraim
and the war-horses from Jerusalem,
and the battle bow will be broken.
He will proclaim peace to the nations.
His rule will extend from sea to sea
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
This is a king who brings peace to the world and reigns not just over a few geographic territories but over the entire planet. There’s no messing about here – Jesus entering Jerusalem like this announces that this king is now here. This is dynamite – it’s no wonder people start cheering and throwing cloaks on the ground to be trodden on by a young and nervous donkey. The age of peace, the age of the Messiah, the age of God’s kingdom has arrived.
(It wouldn’t arrive in the way everyone was expecting, of course, and it arrived in now-and-not-yet form, but arrive it did.)
But wait: not only is this a royal procession, not only is it messianic, it’s also intensely politcal. Look at what Zechariah goes on to say about removing war horses and chariots from Israel when the Messiah arrives. Just think how that may have sounded in the context of a country that was occupied by the greatest empire the world had ever seen, a country oppressed by, well, people who used war-horses to assert their authority.
Okay, now take into account that, around the same time that Jesus was entering Jerusalem on a donkey, the Roman Empire, in the form of Pontius Pilate and his troops were also arriving, a show of strength at a time when the city was full of Passover pilgrims and memories of how God had once freed his people from a mighty nation. “Just remember who’s in charge around here,” says Pilate’s procession; “Just remember who’s really in charge around here,” says Jesus’s parade, building on a prophecy that says empires built upon military might will one day give way to a kingdom built on peace.
“Who is this?” the people ask. Who’s this guy who seems to be founding a kingdom that will necessarily bring down Rome itself? Who’s this guy claiming to be the Messiah?
The question echoes down through the ages and demands an answer. It’s a question that gets asked again and again throughout the remainder of the narrative:
“Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” ask the high priests.
“Are you the King of the Jews?” asks Pilate.
Considering these questions are asked at trials, they reveal the heart behind them – Jesus is a threat, to the established order of the Empire, to the common perception of who and what the Messiah would be. And we don’t see Jesus as a threat – he’s the good guy who heals people and died for our sins. But this carries with it a price – it means he’s God and has a claim on our lives, and that can be a threat to the empires and kingdoms we’ve built up in our hearts.
And while we’re comfortable and confident in these kingdoms, heading towards them, riding on a donkey but implacable in his approach is Jesus. He arrives in town and things have to change. Do we change with them?