Jennifer Hosler — Preacher
Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29; Mt 21:1-11
I didn’t think I needed a trigger warning for a superhero movie. The week after it came out, Nate and I went to go see Black Panther, which is rated PG-13 for “prolonged sequences of action violence and a brief rude gesture.” Who knew that we needed warnings for rude gestures in 2018? I went in expecting the usual: loud noises, probably some shooting, comic book violence, and probably people dying in a not-very-gory or gratuitous way. I did not expect one of the first scenes would depict a very real place and very real, horrific events that are faced by people that I love.
Subtitles indicate that the setting is Sambisa Forest, Nigeria. We see a truck full of kidnapped young women, in hijabs typical of northern Nigerian style, speaking in Hausa. Sitting in an Imax theatre at the Air and Space Museum, I wasn’t expecting to be confronted with the horror of Boko Haram on a 52-foot high screen. I wasn’t expecting to see depictions of real people that I know and love, a real place where I have lived and worked. I just couldn’t help but be overcome, with silent tears pouring down my face—at the beginning of a Marvel movie. Caught completely off-guard, I think there was an added layer of pain and loss because Black Panther couldn’t just go and free the Chibok girls. I found myself wishing that there were superheroes like Nakia or T’Challa to free the remaining Chibok girls or the Dapchi girls or the hundreds of other women, men, and children whom Boko Haram has kidnapped. I want a superhero to deliver us from terror and violence and injustice.
The yearning for a superhero, for a victorious warrior, is not just a modern comic book-based yearning. It’s a universal, human yearning, an ancient, thousands-year old yearning that we see present in scripture.
Today is Palm Sunday, as we have already seen and heard and waved our palm branches. In Matthew, we see palm branches waving and being tossed, coats flying, and people shouting, “Hosanna!” which means “Save us!” or, “Deliver us!” These words are found in this morning’s psalm, Psalm 118: “Save us, we beseech you, O LORD!”
Palm Sunday is more than a fun excuse to order palm branches and wave them around in celebration. It’s a time to recognize our own and our world’s longing for a victorious warrior and to focus our hearts on the Deliverer whom the LORD sent—the One who is the opposite of what we want, but who is exactly what we need.
Our gospel reading is a familiar passage, yet one that is thick with cultural meanings that aren’t immediately apparent to a 21st century audience. Jesus comes into Jerusalem riding on a donkey. The crowds around him say, “Hosanna,” and throw their coats and palm branches. When we’re familiar with scripture passages, it can be difficult to step back and acknowledge how puzzling and foreign and curious they are to our 21st century ears.
To start unpacking the cultural layers in this passage (which is in all four gospels), it’s helpful to focus on its name. “The Triumphal Entry” is the name used to refer to this scene, which is always read on the Sunday preceding Good Friday, or Holy Week. Triumph means victory, glory, overcoming, winning. A “Triumphal Entry”, then, isn’t just any old entrance. It’s not casually walking into a room or strolling into town on a whim. A triumphal entry is a victor’s entrance, marked by glory.
People in Jesus’ times were familiar with triumphal entries of leaders. In fact, there was a typical format that each entry took. First, it required a victory: the victor rode into the city on a steed and with an entourage and the crowds welcomed and rejoiced. Second, the victor moved toward a temple or religious site, and then gave a sacrificial offering to a deity (Losie, 1992, pp. 854-855). In Jesus’ day, small heroes and large entered cities in this triumphant fashion after military conquests, including renowned warriors like Alexander the Great and Judas Maccabeus.
For Jewish people in first century Roman times, triumphal entries had historic and cultural implications but they also had eschatological or end time significance. Since the end of the prophetic period (when prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and others preached to Israel), the Jewish people had been oppressed by Greek and Roman occupation. The prophets had spoken of a Messiah, a person sent from God to deliver the nation of Israel, to restore its faith, and to usher in God’s kingdom and reign over the whole earth. As the oppression continued year after year, the hope and longing for a Messiah grew and grew. Various people claimed to be messiahs and Jewish political revolts rose up and were crushed down. The people yearned for a hero. Some yearned for freedom from foreign occupation, some for yearned political domination and a Jewish empire, some yearned for the presence of YHWH to once again dwell in the temple.
When we meet Jesus in Matthew 21, Jerusalem is teeming with people. Thousands and thousands are making their way into the city from all over the country, to head to the temple for Passover. Can you picture the thousands? We have the strange fortune of being a church in a city where we can picture what those crowds look like. The Temple was the center of the Jewish faith and Passover was the holiday most central to the peoples’ existence: Passover celebrates when LORD delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.
I be the Messianic fervor was at its yearly peak at Passover. After all, this is the time of year when YHWH had sent a deliverer before, when God used Moses to strike down the Egyptians! I imagine that “Hosanna! Save us! Deliver us!” was silently on the tongues of many pilgrims as they walked past Roman guards, with their extra reinforcements on high alert to keep the “peace” in case the Messianic fervor got out of control.
We enter the scene in Matthew amidst the throngs of pilgrims. Jesus pulls aside and sends his disciples in search of a donkey, in a specific location. Jesus’ request of his disciples seems strange to us. “Go and get me a donkey, please.” Jesus isn’t tired of walking (but he probably should be, since they’ve come from 80 miles north in Galilee over many days). This donkey riding is “a deliberate act, meant to be noticed” (France, 1994, p. 931). Jesus knows his scriptures and chooses to finally present himself and claim the role that the LORD God has bestowed upon him. The colt is brought with its mother, the disciples place their coats on its back, and Jesus begins to ride to Jerusalem on a young donkey.
The crowds around Jesus—probably pilgrims and disciples, interested people and hangers-on—recognize what this means and embrace his act. They throw their coats on the ground for Jesus to pass on, just as people did for King Jehu in 2 Kings 9. People grab palm branches and other tree branches and spread them out on the road and wave them in exaltation, shouting praises from Psalm 118: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heavens!”
The prophet Zechariah had spoken long before that the future King of Israel would come riding on a young donkey. In that passage, the LORD proclaims that he will rescue Israel from warring and violence and that the LORD would reign through the Messianic King (Zech 9:9-17).
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Should aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth” (vv. 9-10).
By riding into town on a donkey—and by coming into Jerusalem through the Mount of Olives, a place linked in Zechariah to YHWH’s deliverance—Jesus is symbolically claiming to be the King of his people, the promised heir of David, the Son of David. He’s claiming to be the Victorious One, sent by God to redeem a people wracked by sin and violence and war.
The Triumphal Entry is theologically important because Jesus claims his role as the Davidic King. The Triumphal entry is also crucial because it shows us what type of King Jesus is—not an oppressive king, not a violent king, but a servant king. Jesus comes into Jerusalem, not on a mighty steed or warhorse like other victors, but on a donkey. He comes as Lord and King not for his own privilege or to wage war, but to serve and deliver others, to usher in a kingdom of peace. This King goes on to wash his disciples’ feet, to model humility, grace, and sacrifice.
Jesus turns out not to be the Messiah that people were expecting. Just a few days from all the palm waving and throwing and coats on the road, the supposed deliverer is arrested, beaten, tortured, and executed like a murderer or a thief. He is crucified, and all the glory and praises of Sunday feel a world away on Friday. Some had wanted a superhero to overthrow the Romans. Some had wanted a King to reign like David. None wanted a murdered Messiah.
Throughout the gospels, we see Jesus turning our human expectations upside down. Though the people yearn for a savior, a deliverer, a superhero, the Creator of the Universe enters the world as a baby, as a newborn. The King of the Jews comes in on a donkey, not a war horse. Power and strength is not shown through violence, but through choosing to die and to sacrifice Himself for others.
The cries of the crowds echo the cries of millions today. “Save us! We beseech you! Save us from these Roman occupiers! Save us from the senseless violence of Boko Haram! Save us from our love of money and guns over human lives! Save us from our bigotry and corruption! Save us from ourselves.” Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord, who shows us another way.
So much of me wants that superhero, wants someone to land on the ground in northern Nigeria and put an end to Boko Haram, to land on the ground in this town and puts an end to greed and violence and so much that is wrong in our world. I want that superhero. But what we have is Jesus. And instead of a neatly resolved comic book ending, the story is much more complicated, much messier, and involves so much of Jesus’ sweat and sacrifice—and it involves yours and mine as well.
Our donkey-riding, feetwashing, king of peace—the conqueror of death and sin—is crucified and raised to life. The story is miraculous and amazing. Yet it is not wrapped up in a neat bow. Jesus ascends to heaven and leaves us to do the work by the Spirit’s power, leaves us to proclaim and to engage in peace and forgiveness and reconciliation. God’s plan is not to do everything and make everything whole in a single command, but to work through us fragile, broken, complicated humans.
Today, as we mark our journey towards the Cross and the Tomb, we take time to recognize our own and our world’s longing for a victorious, violent warrior. We focus our hearts on the Deliverer whom the LORD sent—the One who is the opposite of what we want, but who is exactly what we need.
[Man of Sorrows here instead of later]
France, R.T. (1994). Matthew. In G.J. Wenham, J.A. Motyer, D.A. Carson, & R.T. France (Eds.), New Bible Commentary (pp. 904-945). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Losie, L.A. (1992). Triumphal Entry. In J.B. Green, S. McKnight, & I.H. Marshall (Eds.), Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (pp. 854-859). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.