Two Kings in the Land?

Gospel: Matthew 21:1-11

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying 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. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.” And he will send them immediately. ’ [Or, The Lord needs them and will send them back immediately.] 4This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 

5 ‘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.’ 

6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd [Or, most of the crowd] spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The 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!’ 
10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ 11The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’

Two Kings? Who is our King?

You can listen to this sermon draft here.

Have you seen those big military parades in Russia and North Korea, and other places, that sometimes show up on the TV news— all the people stand and watch the might of the military going past? These are not just propaganda parades to tell the West how tough that country is. They tell the country's own people that resistance is useless. They keep the population in line.

Biblical scholars believe that each year there was a parade like that in Jerusalem. The Roman Army would march in from the west, with a big contingent, to make sure there was no trouble at Passover. The Festival of Passover celebrated the escape of Israel from Egypt, and Rome knew there would always be people there who wanted to begin the escape of Israel from Rome. So Rome had lots of troops on hand to make sure nobody caused any trouble. Resistance was useless.

Just before the Passover Matthew's Gospel writes about, Jesus had his own parade into town, from the east, from the Mount of Olives. The Mount of Olives was the place the prophet Zechariah had said the Lord would stand and begin the last battle to free Jerusalem from its oppressors. (Zechariah 14) We've just had the story of that parade read to us. It sounds very much like Jesus is doing some kind of street theatre that is giving the finger to the Roman Parade that happened at the same time on the other side of the city…

 … especially when we hear that Jesus was riding on, not one, but on two donkeys, at once. Did you notice that? It says, "4This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 

5 ‘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.’ "

    Matthew is deliberately misinterpreting the repetitive style of Hebrew poetry where the second line of a verse echoes the first line.

  Humble, and mounted on a donkey,
     and on a colt, the foal of a donkey...

   ... does not mean two donkeys. Matthew knew that. He's making sure we  ...  notice the donkey. Jesus is not on a horse— specifically, Jesus is not on a war horse. Jesus is riding a donkey. Kings came into a city on a donkey as a sign of peace and good will. (Zechariah 9)

So Jesus is saying, the Kingdom of Heaven is not like the Kingdom or Empire of Rome, which was built on war and oppression. The Kingdom of Heaven is a Kingdom of Peace.

But the Kingdom Jesus was talking about was still a kingdom in opposition to Rome's Empire. And Rome, and its lackeys in the Temple killed Jesus, because you can't have two kings in the land. Rome wanted to make it clear that if you follow this man, you will be killed, too. Resistance is useless.

What do you think it means that today    we Christians seem to live in peace with our government? Is it because Australia is such an enlightened, Christian kind of nation? Or is it because we Christians have fallen into line with Government policy? Who is our king? Most Christians don't sit in politician's offices and pray, or chain themselves to earthmoving equipment to protest new unnecessary coal mines that would destroy yet more land and air. Maybe we feel resistance is useless; the government makes up its own facts about refugees and climate change, and a whole lot of other injustices in the country. If we do protest beyond a certain point, we are arrested.

I'm not pointing this out to make us feel guilty or inadequate in our faith. I want to point out something that's happening in Matthew's Gospel, which we miss:

We live in an amazing moment in history where Christians have been able to live in relative peace and comfort, and privilege, in our country. I think that's rapidly changing; I find myself less and less comfortable with where we are going as a nation. But we do not live in Matthew's time, where brother delivered up brother to the authorities for the "crime" of being Christian. (Matthew 10:16-39)

This difference between our two cultures means we see any call to greater commitment to the gospel message, as a call that could result in us losing a great deal. Not so Matthew's readers. They heard the Palm Sunday story very differently to us. Matthew's readers did not see Palm Sunday as the beginning of an Easter faith where they might lose everything. They were living with that loss already. They were already living on the edges of their society.

Palm Sunday and Easter were, for Matthew's people, not a story of great challenge. They were a story of what was already happening to them. And they were a story of great promise.

Here's how it worked: We're in Matthew Chapter 26.

Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, 7a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. 8But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, ‘Why this waste? 9For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.’10But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, ‘Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. 11For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. 13Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’

My friend Michael Trainor tells me that to anoint the head is to anoint the whole body. So Jesus says, "She has anointed my body for burial." And to anoint the head of the house, in that society, is to anoint the body of the whole household. So the woman has anointed not only Jesus the head, but his body the church.

And Matthew's readers may have thought, "Yes… just as well, because too many of us have died for our faith." She did anoint us for our burial!

But then look at the end of the Gospel— we are in Matthew Chapter 27, now.

50Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. 51At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.53After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. 54Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’

His dying leads to the tearing and shaking apart of how everything works. His dying leads to… the resurrection of the saints. Who are the saints? The saints are the faithful people of God. They include Matthew's congregation. They include us…. The story of Palm Sunday and Easter Morning is the climax of the Gospel. People have seen Jesus heading for Jerusalem. They see him enter Jerusalem in opposition to Rome— even if he is calling for a better Kingdom— and they see him die. And they see that his death is their resurrection.

Rev Professor Bill Loader says "The life of grace must dodge between the powers." (Loader) It has always been true. In Australia today, that dodging between the powers is becoming more difficult, and more dangerous. We may come to the attention of government or to the attention of mobs who will seek to crush us. Pray that it does not happen to us. But remember that if it should, Good Friday and Easter Day say that faith, even faith to death, leads to resurrection… to real life.

Andrew Prior (Palm Sunday 2017)
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. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

Previously on One Man's Web
Matt 21:1-11 - Palm Sunday Misgivings- This Sermon Draft was based on this page.
Matt 21:1-11 - The Palm Sunday Flash Mob
Matthew 21:1-11 - The Sermon Draft: Palm Sunday 
Matthew 21:1-11 - Tell the Story

Kathy Donley 09-04-2017
I definitely appreciate your reflections about Christian resistance and what that could look like as a citizen of a country like Australia or the USA. I had a paragraph in an earlier Lenten sermon about how difficult the word “We” is. It is used by people in my congregation to mean We who have chosen to follow Jesus and to mean We who are citizens of the USA and sometimes, We who are Jesus’ disciples who are also citizens of this country. But because the same word means all those things, at any time that it is used, it is easy to conflate US citizens and Christians, as if there is no conflict between those allegiances. That paragraph got cut from the sermon because of length, but because I went to the trouble to write it out, I articulated it more clearly for myself and now I try to be much more aware when I use that word “We”. The section of your sermon that begins with “What do you think it means that today we Christians seem to live in peace with our government? Is it because Australia is such an enlightened, Christian kind of nation? Or is it because we Christians have fallen into line with Government policy? Who is our king?” was especially helpful to me.
Andrew Prior 09-04-2017
And then, of course, we are wanting to invite people to join us and not to exclude them. But we want at the same time we wish to separate ourselves from some of the other "We" we have been invited to join! No wonder we tie ourselves in knots! Thanks Kathy.

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