A Matthean Story

Bulletin/order of worship for the following reflection: Bulletin-04-02-2023 Palm YA

Scripture: Matthew 21:1-11

Let us pray:

Now, O Lord, calm us into quietness.  Take us to that place within You that heals, listens, and molds our longings and passions, our wounds and wanderings, and transforms us into a more holy human shape.  For it is in You that we live and move and have our being.[1]  Amen.

What kinds of reflections would those gathered along the way on that entry into Jerusalem have had when Jesus rode into town on a donkey?  That is one level of question.  A second level of question might be, what was the Gospel writer trying to evoke when retelling this story from fifty years after Jesus was gone?  Answering both of these questions brings us into the realm of exegesis, which, as defined by Merriam Webster’s dictionary, means, “an explanation or critical interpretation of a text.”[2]  Then there is contemporary application of the text to us.

One set of interpretive lenses with which to view today’s Gospel includes literary criticism.  Viewed this way, one takes a look at the flow of the text in a larger pericope than today’s passage alone, and apply literary labels to parts for the point of teasing out a meaning. For example,

“The crowds” function as a character in Matthew, as disciples en masse. They appear at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, coming to him from all around the region (4:25). By the end of the Sermon on the Mount, they are listening to his teaching (7:28–29; cf. 13:2). They are repeatedly astounded at his authority (7:28–29; 9:8; 22:33) as they see his capacity to heal the sick (12:15; 14:14; 15:30; 19:2), and they are amazed when he casts out demons, noting that “never has anything like this been seen in Israel” (9:33). They begin to wonder whether Jesus might be the Son of David (12:23). Before the triumphal entry, the crowds have had their bellies filled—twice!—with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish (14:13–21 and 15:32–39). Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that they show such enthusiasm when Jesus rides into the city. Heightening the significance of the procession is the fact that it begins at the Mount of Olives (21:1), the traditional location whence the Messiah is expected to appear (see Zech. 14:1–11).”[3]

Another literary tool, witnessed both here and in one of the passages just referenced, is a doubling of an event or occurrence of narrative for emphasis. Matthew does this several times – for example, the two miraculous feedings and secondly, two donkeys instead of one.  Matthew somewhat surprisingly, even unrealistically portrays Jesus riding on both a donkey and a foal of a donkey (21:7) whereas Mark and Luke just indicate an unridden colt, the “foal of a donkey” that Jesus rode.

Now hang on a minute, Pastor Scott; please don’t shake my faith up any more!  When you point out where scripture doesn’t match, it’s a little uncomfortable. Aren’t we supposed to be learning something to help our faith grow?  It has been suggested that once we head down the road of comparing accounts and trying to puzzle out truth among inconsistencies, we might be missing the point.

As one commentator reminds us,

“Whichever explanation one accepts, it is important not to miss the point that the three [Gospel] authors are making. Jesus, who owns no mount, has to borrow an animal to make his final self-presentation to Jerusalem. That the untried mount submits to him (Mark and Luke) and [Zechariah’s] prophecy is fulfilled (Matthew) are part of the picture that each author paints. Yet the focus [in all three accounts] is on the cries of “Hosanna” and the acclamation of Jesus as the one “coming in the name of the Lord,” phrases which the authors clearly interpret as a royal acclamation. We must be careful not to miss the King in the details of his entourage.”[4]

That is what sets us up for Holy Week.  Put another way: an upstart native of the Israelites, supposedly descended from their ancient royal dynastic family, rides into Jerusalem, the once-capital city of the united kingdoms of Israel and Judah; during the Passover, which is the regularly observed ceremony marking liberation from Egypt’s slavery.  I see.

It should not surprise anyone that an inevitable showdown is about to take place.  Unless, of course, Jesus is not a Messiah-King coming to liberate the Jewish people back into political and military independence.  I can imagine those who wish this are disappointed – leaving some angst about what should be done at this auspicious moment in history.  Maybe Jesus needs a little help to the throne?  “Hosanna to the Son of David!” the crowds shout.  “Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Let us turn to the Matthew specific quesiton.  Jesus was not the political king many wanted him to be.  Jesus was a radically different kind of teacher than the traditionalist pharisees from the establishment of temple leadership.  One might even go so far as to suggest this establishment had been drawn into the trap of power/empire of the religious sphere.  To them, Jesus has some choice words. To the populace they spiritually shepherded, Jesus teaches another way.  To the Roman occupiers, Jesus is mostly silent, as texts later this week will tell us.  His kingdom has nothing to do with Rome.  His kingdom does have to do with liberation, though.  It is thought that Matthew’s community was mostly Jewish “Followers of the Way.” As such, they were being turned out.  They had to navigate that time of change from Judaism to Christianity – while still being true to God’s salvation history.  Application, anyone?

“Our Holy Week liturgies are rooted in this strong Jewish sense of the present faith community being re-remembered ritually into God’s ongoing, liberating action. So begins the church’s annual reentry into the events of Holy Week by marking how the empire of God, whose nearness Jesus came to proclaim and embody, looks to welcome quite “a different kind of king” indeed.”[5]

[1] Adapted from a poem by Ted Loder, Guerillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2004).

[2] Merriam-Webster Dictionary of the English Language, online version. Accessed March 29, 2023. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/exegesis.

[3] Audrey West, “Exegetical Perspective, Matthew 21:1-11” in Feasting on the Word, Year A (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).

[4] Walter C. Kaiser, Peter H. Davids; F. F. Bruce; Manfred T. Brauch, Hard Saying of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Pres Academic, 1996).

[5] John Rollefson, “Homiletical Perspective, Matthew 21:1-11” in Feasting on the Word, Year A (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).

About Scottrick

Parent ~ Pastor ~ Poet ~ Author
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