THE BEGINNING OF THE LAST ACT
OF THE DRAMA
When they had come near to Jerusalem, and when they had come to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent on two disciples ahead. “Go into the village which is facing you,” he said, “and immediately you will find an ass tethered, and a colt with her. Loose them, and bring them to me. And, if anyone says anything to you, say, `The Master needs them.’ Immediately he will send them on.” This was done that there might be fulfilled that which was spoken through the prophet, when he said, “Say to the daughter of Sion, Look you, your king comes to you, gentle, and riding upon an ass, and a colt, the foal of a beast who bears the yoke.” So the disciples went, and they carried out Jesus’ orders, and they brought the ass and the colt, and put their cloaks upon them; and he took his seat on them. The very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road.
Others cut down branches from the trees and strewed them on the road; and the crowds who went in front and followed behind kept shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed in the name of the Lord is he who comes. Hosanna in the highest!” As he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was shaken. “Who is this?” they asked; and the crowds said, “This is the prophet, Jesus, who comes from Nazareth in Galilee.”
With this passage we embark on the last act in the drama of the life of Jesus; and here indeed is a dramatic moment.
It was the Passover time, and Jerusalem and the whole surrounding neighbourhood was crowded with pilgrims. Thirty years later a Roman governor was to take a census of the lambs slain in Jerusalem for the Passover and find that the number was not far off a quarter of a million. It was the Passover regulation that there must be a party of a minimum of ten for each lamb which means that at that Passover time more than two and a half million people had crowded their way into Jerusalem. The law was that every adult male Jew who lived within twenty miles of Jerusalem must come to the Passover; but not only the Jews of Palestine, Jews from every corner of the world made their way to the greatest of their national festivals. Jesus could not have chosen a more dramatic moment; it was into a city surging with people keyed up with religious expectations that he came.
Nor was this a sudden decision of Jesus, taken on the moment. It was something which he had prepared in advance. The whole tone of the story shows that he was carrying out plans which he had made ahead. He sent his disciples into “the village” to collect the ass and her foal. Matthew mentions Bethphage only (the pronunciation is not Bethphage with the age as in the English word page; the “e” at the end is pronounced as “ae”; the word is Bethphagae). But Mark also mentions Bethany (Mk.11:1). No doubt the village was Bethany. Jesus had already arranged that the ass and her foal should be waiting for him, for he must have had many friends in Bethany; and the phrase, “The Master needs them,” was a password by which their owner would know that the hour which Jesus had arranged had come.
So Jesus rode into Jerusalem. The fact that the ass had never been ridden before made it specially suitable for sacred purposes. The red heifer which was used in the ceremonies of cleansing must be a beast “upon which a yoke has never come” (Num.19:2; Deut.21:3); the cart on which the ark of the Lord was carried had to be a vehicle which had never been used for any other purpose (1Sam.6:7). The special sacredness of the occasion was underlined by the fact that the ass had never been ridden by any man before.
The crowd received Jesus like a king. They spread their cloaks in front of him. That is what his friends had done when Jehu was proclaimed king (2Kgs.9:13). They cut down and waved the palm branches. That is what they did when Simon Maccabaeus entered Jerusalem after one of his most notable victories (1Macc.13:51).
They greeted him as they would greet a pilgrim, for the greeting: “Blessed be he who enters in the name of the Lord” (Psalm 118:26) was the greeting which was addressed to pilgrims as they came to the Feast.
They shouted “Hosanna!” We must be careful to see what this word means. Hosanna means Save now! and it was the cry for help which a people in distress addressed to their king or their god. It is really a kind of quotation from Ps.118:25: “Save us, we beseech Thee, O Lord.” The phrase, “Hosanna in the highest!” must mean, “Let even the angels in the highest heights of heaven cry unto God, Save now!”
It may be that the word hosanna had lost some of its original meaning; and that it had become to some extent only a cry of welcome and of acclamation, like “Hail!”; but essentially it is a people’s cry for deliverance and for help in the day of their trouble; it is an oppressed people’s cry to their saviour and their king.
THE INTENTION OF JESUS
Matt. 21:1-11 (continued)
We may then take it that Jesus’ actions in this incident were planned and deliberate. He was following a method of awakening men’s minds which was deeply interwoven with the methods of the prophets. Again and again in the religious history of Israel, when a prophet felt that words were of no avail against a barrier of indifference or incomprehension, he put his message into a dramatic act which men could not fail to see and to understand. Out of many Old Testament instances we choose two of the most outstanding.
When it became clear that the kingdom would not stand the excesses and extravagances of Rehoboam, and that Jeroboam was marked out as the rising power, the prophet Ahijah the Shilonite chose a dramatic way of foretelling the future. He clad himself in a new garment; he went out and he met Jeroboam alone; he took the new garment and tore it into twelve pieces; then of the pieces he gave to Jeroboam ten and two of the pieces he kept; and by this dramatic action he made it clear that ten of the twelve tribes were about to revolt in support of Jeroboam, while only two would remain faithful to Rehoboam (1Kgs.11:29-32). Here is the prophetic message delivered in dramatic action.
When Jeremiah was convinced that Babylon was about to conquer Palestine in spite of the easy optimism of the people, he made bonds and yokes and sent them to Edom, to Moab, to Ammon, to Tyre and to Sidon; and put a yoke upon his own neck that all might see it. By this dramatic action he made it clear that, as he saw it, nothing but slavery and servitude lay ahead (Jer.27:1-6); and when Hananiah, the false prophet with the mistaken optimism, wished to show that he thought Jeremiah’s gloomy foreboding altogether wrong, he took the yoke from Jeremiah’s neck and broke it (Jer.28:10-11).
It was the custom of the prophets to express their message in dramatic action when they felt that words were not enough. And that was what Jesus was doing when he entered Jerusalem.
There are two pictures behind Jesus’ dramatic action.
(i) There is the picture of Zech.9:9, in which the prophet saw the king coming to Jerusalem, humble and riding upon an ass, on a colt the foal of an ass. In the first instance, Jesus’ dramatic action is a deliberate Messianic claim. He was here offering himself to the people, at a time when Jerusalem was surging with Jews from all over the country and from all over the world, as the Anointed One of God. Just what Jesus meant by that claim we shall go on to see; but that he made the claim there is no doubt.
(ii) There may have been another intention in Jesus’ mind. One of the supreme disasters of Jewish history was the capture of Jerusalem by Antiochus Epiphanes about 175 B.C. Antiochus was determined to stamp out Judaism and to introduce into Palestine Greek ways of life and worship. He deliberately profaned the Temple, offering swine’s flesh on the altar, making sacrifices to Olympian Zeus, and even turning the Temple chambers into public brothels. It was then that the Maccabees rose against him, and ultimately rescued their native land. In due time Jerusalem was retaken and the desecrated Temple was restored and purified and rededicated. In 2Macc.10:7 we read of the rejoicing of that great day: “Therefore they bare branches, and fair boughs, and palms also, and sang psalms unto Him that had given them good success in cleansing His place.” On that day the people carried the palm branches and sung their psalms; it is an almost exact description of the actions of the crowd who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem.
It is at least possible that Jesus knew this, and that he entered into Jerusalem with the deliberate intention of cleansing God’s house as Judas Maccabaeus had done two hundred years before. That was in fact what Jesus did. He may well be saying in dramatic symbol, not only that he was the Anointed One of God, but also that he had come to cleanse the House of God from the abuses which defiled it and its worship. Had not Malachi said that the Lord would suddenly come to his Temple (Mal.3:1)? And, in his vision of judgment had not Ezekiel seen the terrible judgment of God begin at the sanctuary (Eze.9:6)?
THE CLAIM OF THE KING
Matt. 21:1-11 (continued)
To conclude our study of this incident, let us look at Jesus in its setting. It shows us three things about him.
(i) I shows us his courage. Jesus knew full well that he was entering a hostile city. However enthusiastic the crowd might be, the authorities hated him and had sworn to eliminate him; and with them lay the last word. Almost any man in such a case would have considered discretion the better part of valour; and, if he had come to Jerusalem at all, would have slipped in under cover of night and kept prudently to the back streets until he reached his shelter. But Jesus entered Jerusalem in a way that deliberately set himself in the centre of the stage and deliberately riveted every eye upon himself. All through his last days there is in his every action a kind of magnificent and sublime defence; and here he begins the last act with a flinging down of the gauntlet, a deliberate challenge to the authorities to do their worst.
(ii) It shows us his claim. Certainly it shows us his claim to be God’s Messiah, God’s Anointed One; very probably it shows us his claim to be the cleanser of the Temple. If Jesus had been content to claim to be a prophet, the probability is that he need never have died. But he could be satisfied with nothing less than the topmost place. With Jesus it is all or nothing. Men must acknowledge him as king, or not receive him at all.
(iii) Equally it shows us his appeal. It was not the kingship of the throne which he claimed; it was the kingship of the heart. He came humbly and riding upon an ass. We must be careful to see the real meaning of that. In western lands the ass is a despised beast; but in the east the ass could be a noble animal. Often a king came riding upon an ass, but when he did, it was the sign that he came in peace. The horse was the mount of war; the ass was the mount of peace. So when Jesus claimed to be king, he claimed to be the king of peace. He showed that he came, not to destroy, but to love; not to condemn, but to help; not in the might of arms, but in the strength of love.
So here, at one and the same time, we see the courage of Christ, the claim of Christ, and the appeal of Christ. It was a last invitation to men to open, not their palaces but their hearts to him.
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