As Jesus takes the last few steps of the journey, which began some time ago, to Jerusalem, the crowd grasp what it is that he has being showing them all along. And they strike up the appropriate chant:
Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in highest heaven.
Jesus’ whole ministry has been heading to wards this point at the gates of Jerusalem. And he has carefully set up this day for it to happen this way.
Jesus and the crowd of his disciples are approaching the final hill on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem. It is a road which is crowd with pilgrims like themselves coming to Jerusalem for Passover. When they reach the top of the Mount of Olives they will be able to look down into the Holy City, into the temple itself. So spectacular is the view that Jewish tradition holds that this is the place where the angel will stand and blow the trumpet to announce the Day of the Lord. It is from this direction that salvation will come. Near the top of the hill there is a village called Bethphage, identified by its closeness to the larger more easily recognised Bethany. As Jesus approaches Bethphage he sends two disciples ahead of him. Once again Jesus commissions a pair of his followers to further his mission. He tells them what they will find He tells them what to do. And the tells them what to say. From beginning to end, on this day, and for the rest of this week, Jesus remains in complete command of what is happen. As this drama plays out, it is Jesus who is its author and director. Of course when the disciples enter the village Jesus has directed them to, they find exactly what he said they would find, a young donkey tied up outside. They do as they were instructed and untie the donkey to bring it to him. And just as he predicted they are challenged.
“The Lord needs it!“
And Jesus’ word is enough. Jesus’ command needs no coercion. When Jesus speaks there is no threat of force, it is not backed up with violence. It is is heard and obeyed. When Jesus speaks, even when his word is spoken only by his followers, his word is effective to command. Jesus even at arms length remains in complete control.
Often we trouble ourselves over this scene. How did Jesus know? How did Jesus know that there would be exactly the right beast for his needs, in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. The obvious assumption of Luke (and the others) who remember and report this scene, is that it is another demonstration of Jesus’ divine insight. Time and again Jesus shows that he knows things that shouldn’t be possible to know. His authority in part comes from this insight, and the testimony of the Gospels is that this insight comes from God. Of course we have long since struggled with such miraculous explanations and prefer something more naturalistic. Jesus has friends and allies everywhere, why not in Bethphage. This is not so much foresight, we tell ourselves, as it is prearrangement. What the two disciples who ran to Bethphage for Jesus that morning didn’t know was that they were not the first envoys from Jesus to visit that village. Perhaps that telling satisfies our need for a rational explanation. But it doesn’t move us away from the same point. Jesus is in control, everything in this scene is being carefully stage managed by him. But even that explanation is hardly necessary. Donkey’s are common enough, it doesn’t take divine insight to predict with almost certainty that at least one donkey tied up outside. And Jesus is a shrewd enough judge of human nature to know that a command spoken with enough confidence is usually obeyed. But yet again we are back in the same place, Jesus’ personal charisma that gives him authority, which enables him to be in control on this day. Whatever the explanation of course we could still point to something else. Divine providence! However it was that Jesus knew and controlled this situation it resides within the providence of God that exactly what Jesus needed to fulfil God’s mission would be where it was needed when it was needed.
Jesus is of course being quite self conscious in what he is doing here. He knows, and he knows that the crowd knows,
what all this means. Long ago the prophet Zechariah spoke and said:
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. [Zech 9:9]
Quite deliberately Jesus fulfils Zechariah’s prophecy. Again we could trouble ourselves with how this might work. Did Zechariah know that this is what would happen on this day. Did he see the Messiah arrive at Jerusalem and do exactly this. Of course what he said has the potential to have fulfilled itself. Jesus knows that Zechariah has said that the Messiah will do this, he knows that the Messiah will look like this, and he knows that the humility associated with a young donkey are critical to the claim he is now making. So once again what we find ourselves with is Jesus in control. He chooses, even if Zechariah has chosen for him, to fulfil this prophecy. He does so deliberately to make a claim about himself. All along everything Jesus has said and done has been hinting at this. Now, by this action Jesus makes it his claim more or less explicit. Jesus declares: I am the Messiah, I am the one, in succession to David, anointed and sent by God, to save God’s people.
And Jesus followers know right away that this is the claim which he is making:
They brought it to Jesus, and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it.
Just for a moment Jesus seems to become passive. He steps back from directing the action and lets the event unfurl. He rides the wave of the crowd down into Jerusalem. The crowd hold an impromptu enthronement. They take the humble beast of burden which Jesus has provided them with. And with the resources they have to hand they turn it into a makeshift throne. They take hold of Jesus and place him on the throne that they have made. The parallels between this Sunday and next Friday should never be overlooked. Then a different crowd will enact a different kind of enthronement for Jesus. They will take hold of Jesus and place him on a cross. But today and Friday are both true representations of the kingship of Jesus. In both Jesus appears passive, at the mercy of the will of the crowd. Yet once again both Friday and today, Jesus remains in complete control throughout. Jesus has set this up exactly to happen in this way. He knows that when he claims the donkey the crowd will know what he means. He knows that provoking the power of this world, by reminding it that God is God, will have only one end result. Jesus never waivers from his mission, he never abandons the means of God, so throughout Jesus remains in complete control.
As Jesus goes down the hill towards Jerusalem he is given the red carpet treatment.
As he rode along people kept spreading their cloaks on the road.
It is clear that the crowd have understood what Jesus has being showing them. They welcome him as the king of Zechariah’s prophecy. They shout aloud at his triumphant arrival. And strike up a celebratory Psalm that welcomes Jesus as the King who comes in God’s name, and whose reign gives glory only to God. And it is at this point that they collide with the naysayers. As ever the Pharisees are there. Just as much as his closest followers, Jesus’ most persistent opponents are with him every step of the way. The Pharisees like everyone else know what this all means They know Zechariah’s prophecy as well as anybody does. What they are seeing make them nervous. It is probably the case that the Pharisees simply disagree with the claim which Jesus is making. For whatever reasons, because he comes from Nazareth,
because he is a carpenter who consorts with fisherman, tax-collectors and sinners, or because he doesn’t quite agree with their interpretation of the law, the Pharisees don’t think the claim which Jesus is making is true. They don’t believe that Jesus is king. Or even if they do, they think Jesus is being politically naïve. How could he defeat the power of empire? How can a travelling preacher overthrow the power of this world? For all their religiosity, and their loudly announced loyalty to the God of Israel, what the Pharisees actually show is a remarkable lack of faith in the possibilities that God might create. Their imaginations don’t stretch to seeing how God can save his people from this position. And they are terrified of the wrath, not of God, but of Empire. They actually fear the power of this world and want to withdraw from it. Which rather sums up the attitude of rather too many pious people throughout history. With this fear in their hearts they want to put a stop to this scene.
“Teacher order your disciples to stop.”
Jesus’ word is sufficient. Had he spoken now, he could have silenced the crowd. It has been clear from the beginning that Jesus is in complete control of this scene. From beginning to end everything has happened according to his direction. If Jesus had wanted the crowd silent, they would have been silent. But Jesus has more faith in God than the Pharisees, he knows that God will accomplish what God sets out to accomplish. God’s people will be saved. And this is the way which God is saving them. Jesus’ refusal to silence the crowd is his assent to the truth of what they are saying. This is his final underlining of the meaning of what he has done. He is the one sent by God! And even if the crowd were silent it would still be true. There is something about the brute materiality of the universe, just the way the world is made, that cannot fail to declare this same truth: Jesus is Lord!
“I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
Jesus is in Command by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0