Matthew 21:1-17 – Are We Compelled Enough?
A reflection by Dan Spragg
The story we’ve heard today of Jesus riding a donkey and being welcomed into Jerusalem is one of these familiar ones we carry with us, as are the events of the week to come. And I don’t know about anyone else but Easter always seems to sneak up on me! What comes with that is, of course, the question of, ‘well what does this have to say to us given that we’ve heard the story a few times already?’ In light of this, which I feel isn’t a question that exists only in my head, there are a couple of things to give some more information on that I found helpful this week, which hopefully can allow the significance of today’s event to sit with us all a little bit more, once again.
Here’s the first thing: Jesus quotes the prophet Zechariah when he says, “Say to your daughter Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble and riding on a donkey, and on a colt the donkey’s offspring.” (Zech 9:9). Zechariah’s prophecy is typical of Old Testament prophecy. There’s a bit of destruction called down upon the surrounding nations and Israel is given hope that the troubles they are facing will someday come to an end. Specifically, it talks of their Messiah, the anointed one sent by God, who will come as their Divine-Warrior-King who will lead them back into abundance. When we hear that description, what might come to mind is a strong, mighty, warrior type riding fast and furious on a large horse, wielding a large sword, and followed by a large army. Some might be disappointed that this isn’t the image the prophet, or Jesus goes for. No, this Divine-Warrior-King is to come in humility and gentleness riding on a Donkey and her colt… without a sword… In quoting this, Jesus is making quite a claim, setting himself up as this Divine-Warrior-King, and in a way, he is making quite a mockery of the conventions of power and status that such a role might imply.
Here’s the second thing: Jesus arrives in Jerusalem and it appears as if he immediately heads to the Temple and dramatically goes about setting things in order. This too was also quite a deliberate claim. The Temple in Jewish thought as we see in the Old Testament was intentionally built and set up as a perfectly ordered microcosm representing life as God intended it to be in all the world. There is a reference to the garden of Eden – that place where all creation is in harmony with God and with itself. The Temple in Jerusalem had become a far lesser place than this and Jesus sets about calling it back to order and redeems it as a ‘house of prayer’ – a place where creation and God can be together as one.
What we get when we put these things together is as Jesus enters Jerusalem he makes a bold political statement challenging and mocking the conventional systems and ways of power which are usually characterised by wealth, power, status, pomp, self-interest, etc. And as he lays claim to authority within the Temple he is saying that he has come as the Lord and King of all creation. Together these form a powerful moment. Jesus, mocks and challenges the political system, the religious authorities, and all the conventional ways of understanding how power and status work. Jesus the Divine-Warrior-King; humble, gentle, without sword or force lays claim to every sphere of existence.
Is this what the people sensed when they celebrated and welcomed him into the city with their shouts of, ‘Hosanna! Hosanna!’? In a way, they joined Jesus in acting out the prophecy from Zechariah. The literal translation of the word ‘hosanna’ is, ‘save us!’ I always thought that Hosanna meant something like, ‘Praise him,’ but no, the people, sensing the power of the moment, the pivot point that this seemed to be, called out to Jesus, the Son of David, the chosen Messiah, ‘Save us! Save us!’ Certainly, it seems at that moment they were prepared to follow Jesus and embrace the claims he was making on the world, the claim for their whole lives – the political, social, religious, and economic spheres. For this moment at least the crowd was compelled enough to welcome, celebrate, join, and follow Jesus as the humble and gentle Lord and King of all creation, setting in order God’s vision of how things should be.
It’s a good question for us, on this day, as we remember rather than live for the first time the events of Easter week. Are we compelled enough to join the procession following Jesus? Do we find Jesus compelling enough? If we were asked, who is Jesus? What would we say? A question that Josh has been throwing around over the last couple of weeks in reference to an assignment he has coming up is, ‘what IS the good news?’ The gospel of Jesus, often referred to as the Good News, what is it for us and our communities? What would our communities say if we asked them what the Good News was? Is Jesus compelling enough to speak into our lives? Our politics, our religion, our economic and social systems? Is Jesus compelling enough to speak into our hurts, fears, hopes, and dreams?
In Matthew 27, at the moment of Jesus’ death, it notes that the curtain in the Temple was torn in two. The curtain in the Temple divided the space between where the presence of God was and where ordinary people were allowed to be. Some have noted that in this moment the divide between the sacred and the ordinary was removed, that in this moment there was no longer any separation between where God resided and where people lived. All was now the same space. Later in the New Testament, writers talk of the Temple now being made of living stones with Christ as the foundation – those living stones being the church. In a way then, we can say that the Church has now become for Christians that microcosm of God’s intentions. The Church is now that visible symbol and representation of God’s vision for the world (that’s a scary thought…!) The presence of God, now not restricted to behind the curtain, the divide between the sacred and secular torn down; and us, the Church, as a visible representation of what it looks like when God’s vision for the world is embraced. How do we take this vision into the different spheres of our lives? Do we follow the way of Jesus – divinely empowered yet humble and gentle? Or do we follow the expected conventions of what it means to be in influence over others?
In 2015, Pope Frances visited Philadelphia. He chose as his vehicle of choice to travel around the city in a tiny little Fiat and much to the delight and curiosity of the crowds he frequently stopped, got out, and met people along the way, talking to them and blessing the children. He could have chosen a stretched limousine or an armoured vehicle. He could have chosen not to stop along the way. But he didn’t. He chose to step down from his station of greatness and exemplify what true power and influence are about. We could contrast this with the self-proclaimed ‘pope’, I mean ‘bishop’, Brian Tamaki who seems more often than not to embody what unfortunately has become the normal conventions of power and influence, conventions which sadly people in the church aren’t exempt from falling prey to – self-interest, greed, self-importance, hungry for status and wealth, self-righteousness, claiming all sorts of things in the name of God. These two examples are polar opposites! And, of course, we should easily be able to say which one we get on board with. But, these contrasts can and do exist in our everyday lives as well and the life of following Jesus would want to say that in all moments and against all ideologies the vision of God’s world has to take the lead, no matter who and where we are.
How do we take God’s vision of the world into the various spheres of our lives? Is Jesus compelling enough for us to allow the Spirit of God to lay claim to the way we are in the world? In our relating to one another. In relating to our communities. What is the posture we take? Do we assume humility and gentleness? Here is the ultimate question that comes to us at the beginning of this Easter week. Are we compelled enough by the joy and justice of God’s Good News to welcome, to celebrate, to cry out ‘Save us! Save us!’? Are we compelled enough by the joy and justice of God’s Good News to live in all aspects of our lives as if God’s vision of our world is actually true and good and beautiful? Are we compelled enough to follow Jesus through this week ahead from hope to desolation, to hope once again?
Jesus comes to us always with two things. Jesus comes with an invitation – ‘come, follow me…’ ‘All who are burdened and heavy laden…’ And, Jesus always comes with a challenge – ‘take up your cross…’ One is easy. The other not so much. But the thing is we need them both. If we don’t hear the invitation of Jesus, things can get pretty hard. And if we don’t hear the challenge of Jesus, then it might feel nice and cosy, but we’re not going to do anything. In the absence of both, things get pretty boring but in the presence of both, that is when transformation of ourselves and those around us is able to happen. That is where the abundant life of God is found.
Into the midst of all we know to be the invitation of Jesus into the endless grace of God, today feels like a challenge. In this moment with Jesus as he comes as Lord and King of all can we join with the crowds in the welcome and celebration of what he comes to do?
 Ephesians 2:20-22; 1 Peter 2:4-6