When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve. (NRSV)
Grace to you and peace from God our creator, and from Jesus Christ, our redeemer and friend, and from the Holy Spirit, our sustainer and guide.
Santee, if I am not mistaken, is a ‘horse friendly’ community. There are a number of properties with acreage for horses. This city is built on ranch land. There are a number of trails suitable for horseback riding in the area. So does anyone of you know what it takes to teach a horse to take a rider? A LOT of time and patience. And it goes best if the horse has been around humans, in particular the human who will be first to ride it. It will go better if it has seen other horses with riders, if it has had the saddle on a number of times before without a person in it, if it has learned to walk, trot and canter on command. And then of course it really helps if it knows and abides by the meaning of “Woah.” Even then, getting on a green horse is unpredictable business. Some of them do fine and some go a little nuts.
That is why it is noteworthy that Jesus asks for a colt that had never been ridden. You have to ask yourself what that is all about. If I was going to ride a horse into town, I would want an experienced horse. I would want a horse that is likely to be predictable, even stately. But that is not what Jesus wanted.
A horse that has never been ridden is likely to run this way and that, maybe even try to buck off the rider… especially one that is being ridden by someone they have never encountered. Horse trainers emphasize working with a horse for weeks to months before getting on to ride. Jesus didn’t do that. He had the disciples bring it and he got on and rode immediately. The fact that Jesus calmly rides this unbroken horse immediately conveys his power over all of creation. All of creation recognizes Jesus as their creator, so the horse doesn’t act up at all. Jesus has that kind of power over people too.
Jesus was making a statement imitating Pilate’s entry into Jerusalem, only completely turning it on its head. He was coming in from the east as opposed to Pilate’s entry from the west. He is riding in alone, as opposed to Pilate’s coming in with an entourage. Jesus is coming in unarmed. Pilate is most likely coming in via chariot, with all the battle regalia that goes with it.
On a deeper level, Jesus’s decision to come into Jerusalem on a colt that had never been ridden communicates the message that Jesus is doing something new, something that has never been done before. Jesus is approaching life and living from a new direction. Let’s look at each of those points individually.
Jesus is coming into Jerusalem from Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, which lie a few miles east of Jerusalem. Pilate lives in Caesarea Maritima, the Roman enclave on the Mediterranean coast, about 60 miles and a three day’s journey west of Jerusalem. He only comes to Jerusalem when he must. He has to come to Jerusalem for the Passover, not for religious reasons, but for a show of force. This holiday in particular makes the Roman authorities nervous. Jews come from far and wide to celebrate their ancestors’ complete annihilation of the powerful army of their Egyptian oppressors. There was always an undercurrent of hope in the Passover observances that God would do it again, and at least in the Romans’ opinion, enough crazies out there that might just try something in their religious fervor. Pilate couldn’t afford to let something like that happen. The big guys up in Rome would replace him in a heartbeat if he didn’t keep the peace. They liked him well enough up in Rome, and respected the leadership he had shown here in Judea, but the Pax Romana was much more important than any personal loyalties, so Pilate always made the trip to Jerusalem with reinforcements for the Passover. He could not afford to let anything happen while he was in charge.
Jesus was riding into Jerusalem alone, as opposed to Pilate’s entourage. Of course Jesus’s disciples were nearby, but they were on foot. No one was armed. It was a totally different vibe on the east side. Pilate would have been in his chariot, the “armored tank” of their day. He was likely not the only one in a chariot either. The Brigade commander at the very least would have also been in a chariot, with the foot soldiers in formation behind them marching double time. They would have timed their arrival to come into town at the busiest time of day, scattering people on the road right and left. The Roman Guard didn’t stop for anybody, so the people had no choice; it was get out of the way or get run over.
Contrast that with Jesus. Word travels fast in a city. Once Jesus’s disciples took the colt with the words “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately,” it didn’t take much to figure out what was up. The disciples led the colt out towards Bethany. Jesus would be coming AND SOON. Now, just as an aside, the synoptic gospels only tell of Jesus coming to Jerusalem this time. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, everything is leading up to this singular confrontation in Jerusalem. In John, Jesus was in Jerusalem for the Passover twice before, as well as this time. Whether the populace of Jerusalem had first hand experiences with Jesus or they had just heard of him, he had created enough of a name for himself that there was quite a buzz in Jerusalem. People dropped what they were doing and came to see him when they heard he was on his way.
When he rode into town they were ready. The disciples started it, but everyone put their cloaks down to pave the way in welcome. Was waving branches the equivalent of a ticker tape parade? Maybe. But if so, they were a little premature. They shouted Hosanna! Do you know what it means? It would have been so helpful in understanding the fullness of this story if the Bible translators had translated this word too. It means “Save us!”
The people of Jerusalem were like the disciples. They wanted Jesus to come in and overthrow the Romans. They even shouted, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” They knew what Jesus was capable of, but they were way off in how Jesus was going to bring that together.
One more thing Mark does makes it crystal clear to his original audience that knew the Hebrew scriptures but we miss. John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg tell it this way in their book “The Last Week.”
“The meaning of the demonstration is clear, for it uses symbolism from the prophet Zechariah in the Jewish Bible. According to Zechariah, a king would be coming to Jerusalem (Zion) “humble, and riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (9:9). In Mark, the reference to Zechariah is implicit. Matthew, when he treats Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, makes the connection explicit by quoting the passage: “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 (Matt. 21:5, quoting Zech. 9:9).2 The rest of the Zechariah passage details what kind of king he will be: He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations. (9:10) This king, riding on a donkey, will banish war from the land—no more chariots, war-horses, or bows. Commanding peace to the nations,3 he will be a king of peace.” (location 168 of 3364)
There you have it. Jesus, the King of a peaceful Kingdom comes into Jerusalem armed only with his love. But why has Christianity, especially in America, overlooked that point? We consistently turn to war among nations rather than hold out for peace. We continue to trust our military might to bring peace but it doesn’t. World War 1 was supposed to be the war to end all wars, but we have had almost continual wars since then.
Jesus has come to bring in the Kingdom of God. In the Kingdom of God, God is the highest authority. We pray for it every Sunday when we pray the Lord’s prayer. We pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. If that isn’t an offer to submit to God’s will, nothing is. But it seems we don’t really believe it, or we don’t believe it has anything to do with us, here and now. We are all too quick to trust our own authority. We are way too confident in earthly systems: of government, of business, of health care to provide our security. I’m not saying we eliminate them, but that we keep them in their right perspective. They are to be tools for carrying out our lives and callings as we live under God’s authority.
As we celebrate Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, please remember that if we welcome in the King we welcoming in his Kingdom. It is our baptismal calling to partner with Christ in bringing his Kingdom of Peace into reality in our lives. We are to be bringers of peace into our world, our community, our family, our very lives.
Please join me in prayer.
Holy God, come into our hearts and increase our faith. Inspire us in serving your people and being the church for the good of the world. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
blessings to you,
Scripture quotations are 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.
Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan. “The Last Week: The Day-By-Day Account of Jesus’s Final Week in Jerusalem.” Perfect Bound, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, 2006, Kindle edition.