Seismic shocks!

Matthew 21:1-11 (Isaiah 50:4-9a Psalm 31:9-16 Philippians 2:5-11 Matthew 27:11-54) 

Seismic.  What a powerful word; and one that could well describe the period of change in which we find ourselves these days.  The English word comes from the Greek seismós which means to shake.  And, that’s the root word behind eseisthē, which in the Triumphal Entry text in Matthew describes the “turmoil” into which Jerusalem is thrown (Matthew 21:10): “When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”

Matthew takes great pains to show Jesus as the Messiah, entering into Jerusalem in a contrasting mixture of humility and yet as the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scripture’s promises of salvation and restoration.  Jesus is humble and yet he is the King (vs. 5).  Matthew omits Zechariah’s description of “triumphant and victorious” from the quotation in verse 5, to emphasize Jesus’ humility.  Yet the imagery is unmistakable:

From the Mount of Olives (from the east) shall come the day of the Lord which will save Jerusalem (Zechariah 14:1-11).

From the Mount of Olives “David” will return, for it was over that hill that he fled the Holy City to escape Absalom – weeping as he went.

The two prophecies quoted in verse 5 are firstly from Isaiah (62:11b) describing God’s vindication of the Holy City; and then  Zechariah (9:9) describing the defeat of God’s enemies and the restoration of Israel. 

As for Jesus’ mode of transportation, this must be a deliberate allusion.  After all, Jesus has walked for years on foot, and now needs an ass to sit on for the last two miles of his journey?  I think not!

Taking the donkey from its owner may be a form of requisitioning (angareia) which was a prerogative of royalty.

The shock to the religious system can be easily understood: Here is the Messiah, the new David, riding into town in the midst of the solemn Passover festival, yet with the people paying him homage in kingly terms: Hosanna (meaning “save us”) Son of David (vs.9); and waving palm fronds more commonly used at the celebratory festivals of Tabernacles and Hanukkah.  This shakes the authorities!

Yet, seismic shocks are not always negative.  In the Hebrew Scriptures such shocks announce the presence of God (Joel 2:10-11 and Psalm 67:8, for example).  In the New Testament, earthquakes signify great salvific events such as the death of Jesus (Matthew 27:51, 54) and the appearance of the angel before the women at the empty tomb (28:2).

We have much to learn from the text of the Triumphal Entry:

Humility can be earth shaking, and life changing.  A world accustomed to power (its accumulation and strategic use) will react strongly against “threats” such as humility and love.

God in Christ Jesus is always more than we anticipate or expect.  The crowds recognize in Jesus the fulfilment of First Century messianic expectations.  Those expectations will be challenged considerably when Jesus dies the death of a common criminal.  God is full of surprises!

In Matthew’s Gospel, the crowd personifies en masse, the disciple of Jesus.  But, don’t get big headed – the crowds that shout Hosanna, will soon shout Crucify!  Lutherans recite our reformation slogans, such as Simul justus et peccator (at one and the same time justified, and a sinner).  Yet, we can underestimate the powerful ways these are manifested in life.  “Hosanna” and “Crucify” show this in stark reality.

Seismic shocks can be incredibly destructive – of that there is no doubt.  The shock (turmoil) of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem led to Calvary.  On Calvary, Jesus suffered and died.  In the garden, by the tomb, the hearts of the women were broken, and tears were shed.  Yet, Sacred Scripture invites us to acknowledge the deep meaning of eseisthē: death, suffering, loss, yes; but also salvation, love, and sacrifice.

As we live in our time of eseisthē we have the opportunity to live, love and witness – not as ones with their heads in the sand, or through mere wishful thinking; but as ones who acknowledge God in the midst of turmoil.  Not God as the cause of turmoil, but as one joining us in its midst; sustaining us; surprising us with the ways in which life and light are revealed in the face of death and darkness; offering restoration when all seems lost.