Wait: Take time to sit in silence together, allowing space for God’s voice to be heard.
Read: Matthew 21:1-11
The climax of Jesus journey, which began in the imperial city of Caesarea Philippi (M6 16:13, 21) north of Galilee takes place here as Jesus enters Jerusalem. The references at the beginning and the end of this passage, to Jerusalem and “Nazareth in Galilee” respectively, contrast the two locations. Jesus has come from lowly, despised (s*@#hole!) Galilee to the revered urban centre of Jerusalem—from the exploited province to the exploitative centre.
There are a number of details in today’s story which are important to gaining an understanding of what is happening in the story. The reference to the Mount of Olives would, for Matthew’s readers, evoke an expectation of a popularly acclaimed leader (Messiah) coming to overthrow the ruling powers and free the oppressed. There was an expectation in that a Messiah would come from the east of Jerusalem,¹ and some twenty or thirty years before Matthew’s writing, a certain Egyptian “prophet” had gathered some thirty thousand followers and, approaching Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, attempted to take the city by marching around in “Jericho-style” hoping to see the city’s walls fall down. His movement failed, and most of his followers were killed or taken prisoner.²
Jesus’ entry on a donkey did indeed signify a royal entry, but not one associated with military triumphalism. In approaching Jerusalem this way, Jesus was inviting those present to understand his entry as a challenge to the current rulers of Jerusalem, while at the same time dissociating himself from violent revolt.
This common and scorned animal, not a war horse… or chariot or triumph…, bears Jesus. Imperial entrance processions… were intended to demonstrate authority, to intimidate, and to endure submission. Instead of celebrating captivity and domination with a parade of military might and violence, Jesus chooses what is royal but common, derided but liberating.³
Matthew’s quotation from the Hebrew Bible, which draws on both Isaiah 62:11 and Zechariah 9:9 evokes once again Israel’s story of liberation from the subjugation and domination of a foreign power—Babylon. But it isn’t only a message of liberation for Jerusalem, it is one of subversion and judgment. It is a “challenge to recognize its king” which, for the ruling powers, was not tolerable.4
Lastly, the branches laid on the road by the crowd evoke “the celebration when liberation Simon liberates Jerusalem from ‘the yoke of the Gentiles’…, and when Judas Maccabeus rededicates the temple after ending the tyranny of Antiochus Epiphanes” (1 Maccabees 13:41, 51; 2 Macc 10:7-9). 5 (Carter, 2000: 417)
All in all, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is a carefully staged piece of “political street theatre”.6 It is “[t]he first open statement of a hidden transcript, a declaration that breaches the etiquette of power relations, that breaks an apparently calm surface of silence and consent, [and] carries the force of a symbolic declaration of war.”7 He is bringing the hopes of the poor—for liberation from imperial powers and their local puppets—out into the open, and he is exposing the ruling powers’ exploitation and hypocrisy. He is uttering a truth which every exploited villager on the underside of Palestine knows but would not dare say in the open: “It’s time for a new king.” In doing so, he is beginning down a path of which their is no turning back.
- Take some time to imagine you are a part of the crowd in today’s story. What thoughts and feelings do you think you would experience?
- In what ways do you sense God’s Spirit inviting you to live out today’s story?
Close with the Lord’s Prayer
¹ David E. Garland, Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary (Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2001), 213.
² James D. G. Dunn, “Prophetic Movements and Zealots,” in The World of the New Testament: Cultural, Social and Historical Contexts, ed. by Joel B. Green and Lee Martin MacDonald (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), Kindle loc. 5857.
³ Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll, Orbis, 2000), 414-415.
4 Garland, Reading Matthew, 213.
5 Carter, Matthew and the Margins, 417.
6 Ched Myers, Binding the Strongman; A Political Reading of Marks’ Story of Jesus (1988: repr., Maryknoll: Orbis, 2008), 294.
7 James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven: Yale, 1990), 8.
Wait: Take time to sit in silence together, aware of God’s presence in a broken world.
Read: Matthew 21:12-17
Immediately after his entry into Jerusalem Matthew’s Jesus proceeds straight to the symbolic heart of the city—the Jerusalem Temple.8 The Temple was not only a religious centre, but also the centre of economic and political power in the region—power which Jesus had openly pitted himself against in his entry into the city. Now, in the Temple, Jesus aggressively confronts the ruling powers.
We can’t imagine, however, that Jesus’ action was an attempt to shut down, or even significantly disrupt the activities of the Temple. In actual fact, in an institution as large as the Jerusalem temple, Jesus would only have been able to create “as much commotion as one man could manage in a few minutes’ time in one portion of the open space in a complex encompassing about five or six city blocks, with hundreds of people coming and going. Most visitors to the temple that day would never have noticed it.”9
Rather than a sustained blockade, Jesus’ action was a symbolic one—one which today we might call nonviolent direct action. It was an action designed to expose the injustice of the institution and those who benefitted from it. Though it might seem that such an action would simply stir up tensions, it actually serves to expose already existing points of tension lying just under the surface. Nineteen centuries after Jesus’ action in the Temple, Martin Luther King Jr. would write:
“Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its pus-flowing ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must likewise be exposed, with all of the tension its exposing creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”10
The injustices which Jesus is exposing are made crystal clear in the words of the prophets:
“My house shall be called a house of prayer’;
but you are making it a den of robbers.”
The first line comes from Isaiah 56, where the prophet announces God’s radical inclusion which will see foreigners and eunuchs among those serving in the Temple—an unthinkable message for those concerned with their notions of purity more than people. The second line comes from Jeremiah 7, in which the prophet scathingly critiques those who trust in the sanctity of “the temple of the LORD” yet “oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow” (Jer 7:4, 6).
As if to say, “This is what God’s way of radical inclusion looks like,” we then find Jesus amongst the “blind and the lame,” and the children crying out their praise: “Hosanna to the Son of David”. We might remember Matthew’s prior allusions to a story concerning King David, who was said to “hate” the blind and the lame, who were not to be welcomed into “the house” (2 Samuel 5:6-10). Yet here, Jesus, the one in whom people see a popular leader who might liberate the people—like David was—welcoming them into the very “house” of God—the Temple. This is no accidental allusion. Jesus is subverting the Davidic traditions. He is indeed a figure who will bring liberation and the ability to be their own people in the face of outside powers—like David had. But he will not do it in the way David had—through militaristic might and triumphalism. Rather, Jesus’ freedom will be found in radical inclusion and generous justice.
- Where do you see unjust or oppressive systems in your world?
- Take a moment to consider ways in which you could take action, big or small, this week.
Pray for one another.
Close with the Lord’s Prayer
8 This differs from Mark’s account, where Jesus spends the night at Bethany before returning the following day (Mk 11:11-12).
9 Rensberger, David, “Jesus’s Action in the Temple,” in Struggles for Shalom: Peace and Violence across the Testaments, ed. Laura L. Brenneman and Brad D. Schantz (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2014), Kindle loc. 5151. Emphasis in original.
10 Martin Luther King Jr., Letter From a Birmingham Jail, 1963.
Wait: Take time to sit in the silence of repentance together, aware of our inadequacy and God’s grace.
Read: Matthew 21:18-22
Today’s reading contains a curious story about Jesus cursing a fig tree. Those of us who value environmental stewardship might be a little shocked at such a story. But when we read it in light of the previous episode, it may make more sense. Having confronted Jerusalem’s ruling elite through his “nonviolent direct action” in the Temple, Jesus now passes a fig tree which has no fruit. Matthew’s community might be reminded of the prophet Isaiah’s prophetic critique of Israel’s leaders in his day, whose “fruit” was supposed to be “justice” and “righteousness”, but instead amounted only to “bloodshed” and “cries of distress” (Isaiah 5:7). In cursing the fig tree, Jesus is prophetically pronouncing judgment on Jerusalem and its exploitative leaders.
Jesus goes on to speak of faith which moves mountains, in words which too often have been taken to affirm that “You can do anything for Jesus”, or worse, “If God is not answering you prayer, it must be because there is something wrong with your faith!” When read in the context of the narrative, Jesus is talking about a specific mountain—the Temple mount. And he is inviting his followers to a particular struggle—against the exploitation and injustice of the Temple system.
By the time Matthew wrote his Gospel, Jerusalem had been captured and the Temple burned to the ground. Matthew no doubt hoped that as they read this, they might see that God is faithful and active amongst those caught up in the struggle against injustice. And they might sense the invitation anew to live lives of love and justice, and that as they did, they might discover the authority to say to this mountain, “Be lifted up and thrown into the sea.”
- Imagine you are part of Matthew’s community reading today’s passage. What encouragements or challenges might it bring?
- In what ways do you sense God’s Spirit is inviting you to live out today’s story?
Close with the Lord’s Prayer
Wait: Take time to sit in the silence of gratitude together, giving thanks for the ways you’ve experienced God’s loving kindness.
This week’s Common Value: Restorative Hope
Read: John 20:1-18
- How might we participate in God’s hope this week?
Close with the Lord’s Prayer