Saturday, April 8, 2017

Saddle Them Up

Matthew 21:1-11
Palm Sunday
April 9, 2017
William G. Carter

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

In a Bible study on this passage, a woman suddenly exclaimed, “Wait! That can’t be right!” The teacher paused. Everybody turned toward her as she quickly flipped through the pages of her study Bible.

One of her friends said, “Why? What’s up?” And she said, “Were there really two donkeys on Palm Sunday?” With that, everybody took a closer look at the Gospel of Matthew.

There’s nothing like the Bible to get you to take a closer look at the Bible. Matthew says, “They brought the donkey and the colt. They put their cloaks on them. Jesus sat on them.” Two donkeys, not one.

Them? Two donkeys on Palm Sunday?  The teacher lost control as the people around the table began to thumb through their Bibles. One of them  asked, “Where else are the stories of Palm Sunday?”

Somebody said, “Here’s one. Mark, chapter 11. It only mentions one donkey, and it’s the colt, the little donkey.” (Mark 11:2)  Another said, “That’s what it says in the 19th chapter of Luke too. It’s a colt. That’s like a foal, isn’t it?” (Luke 19:30).

“I’m looking at the Gospel of John,” said somebody else. “Here it is, chapter 12. Jesus has dinner with Mary and Martha, along with Lazarus whom he raised from the dead. And the next day, he finds a ‘young donkey.’ That’s what it says in the Gospel of John. One donkey, and it’s young.” (John 12:14).

With that, all the heads snapped back to look at the study leader. One of them said it, “What’s up with the Gospel of Matthew? Why does he say two donkeys, when the others say one? Did he make a mistake?”

The teacher said, “You’re missing one more account of Palm Sunday: Zechariah 9:9-17.” Somebody said, “Where’s that?”  The teacher said, “It’s right before the Gospel of Matthew, the next-to-last book of the Old Testament.” And they found where it was written:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout 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.” (Zechariah 9:9)

Somebody said, “Oh, this is like a prediction. Someday the king will come and he will ride a donkey.”

The teacher said, “Not quite. It’s not a prediction, it’s a fulfillment. The prophet Zechariah was speaking in the present tense: Rejoice! The king comes. He already believed the king was present, in some way. And 600 years later, Jesus comes and chooses to ride a donkey into the city of Jerusalem. No doubt, he knew this verse and he was intentional to ride a donkey. He was that kind of king.”

“Wait,” another one said. “Zechariah said, ‘on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ So maybe there were two animals after all.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” another said. “Jesus is not some circus rider, straddling two animals at once.”

So everybody looked back at the teacher. He was smiling. “Let me tell you about Jewish poetry,” he said. “It often uses parallelism , an intentional echo, to let the thought sink in. It happens a lot in the Psalms. Sometimes it also happens in the prophets, if they’re feeling a little poetic. Zechariah is talking about one animal, not two. And my opinion is that Matthew is so excited that Jesus is coming to town that he jumps past the nuances of Jewish poetry to say Jesus is choosing to be Zechariah’s kind of king. He is triumphant and victorious – and he is humble.”

By this point, the teacher had them in the palm of his hand, so he kept going.

“Let’s look at what kind of king Zechariah could see. The king ‘will cut off the chariot and the war horse.’ He ‘shall command peace to the nations.’ His ‘dominion shall be from sea to sea.’ This king will save ‘the flock of his people.’ And in a wonderful line: he shall return the ‘prisoners of hope.’” (Zechariah 9:12).

It was quiet for a moment. Then somebody said, “We still need a king like that.”

Well, certainly we do, especially when the leader of Syria is gassing his own people and American missiles are exploding at a Syrian airbase in response. The world is still in a mess. And a primary reason is because a lot of people are hell-bent on having the kind of leaders who swagger around and brag of their strength, rather than welcome a humble king whose primary weapons are the word of truth, the deeds of healing, the establishment of fairness, and the practice of kindness.

Welcome to Holy Week. This is the week when we feel the awkward clash between power and humility, when we sense the distance between telling the truth and getting your own way.

A very large crowd was there, says Matthew. They went out to see the Lord, singing Passover psalms about deliverance and freedom. They pin their hopes on this man who has healed their diseases and confronted public hypocrisy. He has taught of the higher righteousness of the ways of God and punctured the puffed-up pride of those who pretend to speak for God.

The people in the crowd really want him. They really need him. By the end of the week, they push him out of the world and onto a cross. In a nutshell, that is our human condition. Welcome to Holy Week.

But we can come to this Palm Sunday defined by the words of Zechariah, as “prisoners of hope.” That’s a wonderful phrase, isn’t it? It is also a title of a memoir by two recent Christian missionaries, Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer. After hearing about Jesus, they volunteered as aid workers in Afghanistan in 2001, their primary desire being to serve the poorest of the poor. Talk about entering an antagonistic city! They were arrested by the Taliban and imprisoned for a hundred days.

But here is what Heather said about her sense of God’s calling:

I was not confident I had much to offer a devastated nation like Afghanistan. I had no experience to qualify me – only average talents and abilities. In prayer I felt God ask me if I could do three things: Can you love your neighbor? Can you serve the poor? Can you weep as I weep for poor and broken people? I came to see God didn’t need someone with extraordinary gifts and achievements. He just needed someone who could love, share life, and feel for others as he did. He was looking for faithfulness, not fame.”[1]

We are prisoners of hope, captives to a greater calling and a deeper service. We are held by the Gospel, claimed by God to serve in a world that still resists the grace and justice that Jesus brings. In spite of living in a world of cruelty, nevertheless we persist, because we have seen Jesus come into town, seen him just as he is – triumphant, victorious, and humble.

And we will see him again. Oh yes, we will see him again.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] “In Taliban Hands,” Adventist Review, 2002

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