He Was Welcomed as a King
We know the story. Collectively, in this room, I am guessing it has been told to us more than 10,000 times. We have heard it so many times that we have a picture in our mind’s eye of the scene – Jesus serenely riding on a donkey, crowds waving palm branches and shouting Hosanna!, children running ahead of him in the street, Pharisees grumbling and warning them to be quiet.
But that is not the way Luke tells it. So, this morning, we are going to look closely. Why did Luke tell it the way he did? What did he want us to hear?
Jesus’ request for a colt was significant. Jesus sends two disciples to get the donkey as they stand at the Mount of Olives, after they have finished the twenty mile climb from Jericho to Jerusalem. N.T. Wright describes the journey, “Mile after uphill mile, it seems a long way even today in a car. You wind up through the sandy hills from Jericho, the lowest point on the face of the earth, through the Judean desert, climbing all the way. Halfway up, you reach sea level; you’ve already climbed a long way from the Jordan valley, and you still have to ascend a fair-sized mountain. It is almost always hot; since it seldom if ever rains, it’s almost always dusty as well….Even when you drive, rather than walk, from Jericho to the top of the Mount of Olives, the sense of relief and excitement when you reach the summit is intense. At last you exchange barren, dusty desert for lush green growth, particularly at Passover time, at the height of spring. At last you stop climbing, you crest the summit, and there before you, glistening in the sun, is the holy city, Jerusalem itself…”
Jesus is standing there, at the summit when he sends his disciples on to the village to get the colt. He is setting a scene. Old Testament prophets used dramatic symbolic actions to get their message across when words had failed. William Barclay writes, “It was just such a dramatic action which Jesus planned now. He proposed to ride into Jerusalem in such a way that the very action would be an unmistakable claim to be the Messiah, God’s Anointed King.”
The Greek word is the word “colt” and almost always refers to a young horse or pony, but here means a donkey foal. Luke used the word, almost certainly, because it is the word that is used in the Greek translation of Zechariah chapter 9 verse 9 that prophesies, “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
Donkeys then didn’t have the negative connotations that we have given them. In fact, kings only rode horses when they were going into war. They rode a donkey when they came in peace.
And it had to be a young foal, never before ridden. According to Old Testament law, animals that were to be used for sacred purposes could not have been used for ordinary labor. And a king would not ride an animal that anyone else had ridden because it could have been contaminated and it was below his royal dignity, and according to the Mishnah Sanhedrin, no one else was permitted to ride the king’s horse once the king had ridden it.
I used to wonder about how Jesus knew where they would find the donkey and how telling someone “The Lord has need of it” was going to make the owner okay with the disciples taking their donkey. Until I realized that Bethany is the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus. Jesus spent a lot of time here. This is planned. Jesus made arrangements with the owner to tie the new donkey near the city gate. “The Lord has need of it” is the password.
As they arrive with the donkey, the disciples spread their garments on it for him to ride, and they line the streets with their coats. This, too, is symbolic. In 2 Kings, when Elisha sends a young prophet to anoint Jehu as king, the prophet approaches Jehu sitting with his fellow military officers and calls him into the house alone, where he anoints him and gives him God’s message and then opens the door and runs. Jehu comes out and the other officers ask him what happened. Jehu said, “Here is what he told me: ‘This is what the LORD says: I anoint you king over Israel.’” And here’s how they responded, “They quickly took their cloaks and spread them under him on the bare steps. Then they blew the trumpet and shouted, ‘Jehu is king!’”
Jesus is leaving no doubt in anyone’s mind that he is claiming to be the promised king. And the disciples are removing their coats, the signs of their status, to cushion his ride.
As he descended into the deep valley that runs between the Mount of Olives and the hill on which Jerusalem sits, the disciples started celebrating…not just the 12 but the crowd that has amassed, following him from town to town. They start singing and praising God with Psalm 118, the 26th verse was a greeting of a king, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD.”
Some of the Pharisees in the multitude come to Jesus and ask him to rebuke his disciples, to reprimand them. Scholar and preacher Fred Craddock wonders why they asked Jesus to scold his disciples. “Perhaps they feared that calling Jesus King would be misinterpreted and create political repercussions. If so, their reason might have been from self-interest; that is, let us not upset the Romans and lose what few benefits we now have. Or their reason might have been concern for Jesus’ safety…Of course, the Pharisees could simply be registering their own disagreement or disbelief.”
Jesus should have entered Jerusalem quietly. It was the Passover. The streets were crowded with pilgrims; he could have come unnoticed. At this point, the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who found out where Jesus was should report it so that they might arrest him. Instead, he set the scene, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
Luke doesn’t tell us about the others along the way, the crowds who heard the disciple’s celebration and joined in, grabbing palm branches from the trees along the roadside and following the procession. Luke doesn’t mention the fickle crowd who shouts “Hosanna!” now and “Crucify!” later in the week.
Luke focuses on the disciples, those who believe and follow Jesus. They will be shocked and confused and scared and distraught before the week is over. They knew he was their king, but they didn’t know his crown was thorns and his throne a splintered cross. They couldn’t be silenced as he rode down from the Mount of Olives into the holy city, but they would be silenced as he hung up on the cross for the world to see.
Will we? When Jesus leads us to sacrifice, to loving people who are hard to love, to welcoming the outcast, to caring for creation, to tending wounds that are emotional, to providing dignity to those who don’t thank us, to caring for people who might hurt us, will we follow or will we hide? When Jesus leads us to doing what is right even though it doesn’t benefit us, in fact, it requires us to sacrifice? Will we cry out? Or will we be silent?
Because God will provide a voice, even if it has to be the rocks.