First Impressions of the Gospel of Matthew 2008

Part of the Christian tradition is cautious about first impressions. First impressions are often paired with "judging a book by its cover," and equally disparaged.

One should always be ready to reconsider the book. But as my son says, when it has the florid cover of a Mills and Boonproduction, "You just know what's going to be inside!" Slowly, I am learning to pay attention to my first impressions. There is always more to consider, and insight to seek, but often my first impression tells a surprising amount about a passage of scripture- or about myself! It makes sense. If I am being re-formed by my life in the church, surely my instincts count for something, and have themselves also been a little reformed.

These are mostly the First Impressions from 2008, which was a Year A in the Revised Common Lectionary. They are based in the Gospel of Matthew.  Many of these articles on Matthew were written for the churchrewired website at Scots Church Adelaide and first published there.

The Reading for Palm Sunday

Matthew 21:1-11

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 fulfil 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.’

Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves.  He said to them, ‘It is written,
“My house shall be called a house of prayer”;
but you are making it a den of robbers.’

The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’, they became angry and said to him, ‘Do you hear what these are saying?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Yes; have you never read,
“Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies
you have prepared praise for yourself”?’
He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.

The Sermon

When I was a kid watching snowy black and white cowboy movies on my neighbour’s TV, we knew that when a rider appears over the hill, something is about to happen. It is a portent of things to come.

In today’s reading, the reading for Palm Sunday, Jesus rides over the hill, and down into town. Jesus rides into town over the Mount of Olives, which is the place where the prophet Zechariah (Chapter 14) says, in the Hebrew scriptures, the Messiah will make a mighty act of judgement and rescue.

It’s like if the new Sheriff, the good sheriff, is riding into town, and the movie shows him slowly riding down on in past the town cemetery, with the camera slowly panning over the tombstones. We know this is a sign of things to come. Jesus riding into town over the Mount of Olives is a sign.

It was clearly a triumphal entry, the story of the crowds, and the branches, and the palms show us that, but it was a different entry. Jesus was not riding in on a war horse. Jesus came riding on a donkey. This was how a King came in peace.

There is a mixed message here. People laid their garments on the ground for a king; we can see that in the story of Jehu in 2 Kings 9. And branches were waved in celebration as the conqueror, the warring conqueror, who had brought freedom, rode into a city. And there is more…. temple cleansing was involved!

Hear the words of the second book of the Maccabees:

Now Maccabeus and his followers, the Lord leading them on, recovered the temple and the city; they tore down the altars that had been built in the public square by the foreigners, and also destroyed the sacred precincts. They purified the sanctuary, and made another altar of sacrifice; then, striking fire out of flint, they offered sacrifices, after a lapse of two years, and they offered incense and lighted lamps and set out the bread of the Presence. It happened that on the same day on which the sanctuary had been profaned by the foreigners, the purification of the sanctuary took place, …They celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the festival of booths, …. carrying ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place.

We get a hint of what is to come here, by the way Jesus has entered the city. And that’s what we see… he cleanses the temple.

That’s the contradiction, the odd bit in the picture. Jesus is different. He comes, not on a warhorse, like the Maccabees who rescued Jerusalem. But as a king of peace on a donkey.

Matthew is telling us things. It’s like the new sheriff coming to Tombstone City isn’t wearing a gun! The camera lingers on the rider as he passes by- his waist is bare. No gun, no rifle scabbard on the horse. Matthew shapes his story of the entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday around the book of Zechariah in chapter 9:

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.

Matthew is the gospel writer who loves to fulfil the Hebrew scriptures. But notice how he leaves out some of Zechariah. He drops the line “triumphant and victorious is he”. This is a different kind of King. Matthew down plays the triumphalism.

We see, too, that the people don’t understand what the reader of the gospel knows with hindsight, because

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.’

He’s not the Messiah, he’s just a prophet.


Now I want to make a couple of comments. Don’t just read Palm Sunday’s reading on its own. Look at what comes…

Jesus cleanses the temple. He does just what the Maccabees did. He cleans out the corruption on behalf of God. He purifies the sanctuary.

This is where he is different. He is not attacking the Roman overlords. He is like Pogo, who said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” He is laying down a challenge. The Jewish people werewaiting for a Messiah, for another Judas Maccabeus, who would be destroy and cast out the Romans. When Jesus came in the role of Maccabees, he said by his actions, YOU are the ones who are corrupt! Essentially, he ignored the Romans!

If he were here today, who would he target? Would he kick the Americans out of Iraq, or the Taliban out of Afghanistan? If he were here in Australia, in the northern suburbs, he would come to us! What would he say and do in our church here? We are the enemy! We are the ones who need to change! We are the ones who say we are waiting for Jesus…that we are Jesus’ people. Would we “get it”, if he arrived here? And how would we respond if he cleansed our temples?


If Jesus had been content to be a prophet, William Barclay said, no one would really have minded. But because he made greater claims, because he took the established religio-political system of the land head on, he had to be stopped. We see him crucified. Jesus seemed deliberately to  choose a course that resulted in him being killed.

When we say “What would Jesus do here, in our shoes?” maybe we should remember Palm Sunday. Jesus took a different course. It was not a safe course. It was a course he knew would get him into trouble. It was a course people would not understand. Will we take that course? It’s the only course he could take to be who he was.


The word Messiah literally means “anointed one,” one chosen and blessed by God, a special person.
What makes us an anointed one,
and what brings us through life to resurrection,
instead of just dying sorry little deaths…
ending up old, resentful, and disillusioned…

What anoints us and takes us through
is to live out our lives as our own Palm Sunday.
It is to choose to go on regardless,
regardless of the conventional wisdoms and safeties,
doing what Christ shows us is right
and calls us to do
instead of taking the safe path.

We sang the hymn this morning…

Ride on, ride on, in majesty
in lowly pomp ride on to die,
bow your meek head to mortal pain,
then take, O God, your power and reign.

Taking the power in life… as much as we are able
is to go through with our Palm Sundays….
to do what we are called to do…
imperfect as our discipleship may be
and to bear the cost…
and…. to find the glory.


Posted 23-3-2008
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.



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