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Triumphal Entry?

March 29, 2015

On Palm Sunday many churches celebrate Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem. But if you read the Gospel accounts, it is clear this was not so much a triumphal entry as a triumphal approach. And it’s the crowds–including the disciples–who have followed Jesus from Galilee that are feeling something triumphant is happening.

The viewpoint of the crowds is seen in their shouting Hosanna to the Son of David, echoing Psalm 118, where a king comes triumphantly and victoriously, as God’s powerful right hand helps him cut off the nations and enemies against him. Thus in Mt. 21:6-9 this crowd that has been following Jesus towards Jerusalem is celebrating the coming victory of this new king, a victory over the Romans and the Jewish leaders who collaborate with them.

But when Jesus actually enters Jerusalem, the reception of the city is quite different (Mt. 21:10). The city is “shaken;” (the same Greek word is used in Mt. 2:3 for the response of Jerusalem–especially Herod–when the wise men inform him of a newly born king). There is no triumphal celebration in Jerusalem. They ask suspiciously: Who is this? And the crowds, faced with this reaction from the city, respond differently than what they were shouting before they entered; they say, “this is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee.”

So there are two groups of people involved: the hopeful but easily intimidated crowd that approached Jerusalem with Jesus; and the suspicious and intimidating crowd who lived in Jerusalem. Their viewpoints differ greatly.

But the most important viewpoint is that of Jesus. Mt. 21:5 says his intention in telling two disciples to get two donkeys (mother and son/colt) was to fulfill what the prophet (Zechariah) said about a humble king riding on a donkey, even the colt of a donkey. In Zech. 9:9-10 the prophet contrasts a humble king on a donkey with warrior kings on war horses. Some translations of 9:9 include the phrase “triumphant and victorious is he;” but the NIV is closer to the original Hebrew text with its translation: “righteous and having salvation.” The salvation this humble king brings will be a peace that will spread to all nations–from the River (Euphrates) to the ends of the earth (as far west as Spain) (9:10).

Mt. 21:5 is also often translated as the king who is “humble,” but the Greek word is more often translated meek, where the focus is being gentle and kind. So the salvation this king brings is not a triumphant victory over powerful enemies like the Romans, but a humble peace from faithful disciples who become gentle and kind. This Greek word is used two times earlier in Matthew. In Mt. 11:25-30 Jesus contrasts his “babes” (little children, aka his disciples) with the “wise and understanding” (the ruling fathers of Israel) and contrasts their heavy yokes and burdens with the “rest” he brings as one “humble” or “meek” and lowly in heart, for his yoke is “kindness” (a better translation than “easy”). His meekness is about being kind and gentle, rather than harsh and violent. The other use is Mt. 5:5, Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Presently, the harsh and violent fight it out for parcels of earth; but in the end, disciples of the gentle and kind king will simply inherit the earth from their heavenly Father.

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