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Matthew 21:1-11

Lesson Focus

Jesus enters Jerusalem, not on a mighty warhorse but a donkey. He comes as the true but humble servant king. As our king is, so should we be.

Lesson Outcomes

Through this lesson, students should:

  1. Understand that Jesus’ nature is one of service and humility.

  2. Understand that our salvation comes not from a conquering king but from a humble servant.

  3. Be encouraged to live and act in our world with ways of service and humility.

Catch up on the Story

The Gospel of Matthew is beginning to draw to a close. Jesus has been slowly making his way toward the capital city of Jerusalem. While on the way, Jesus has cured the sick, healed the blind, cast out demons, paid his taxes, and been questioned by religious leaders out to get him and his well-meaning disciples alike. As readers of this Gospel, we have also been made aware that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to die but then be raised from the dead.

One of the stories directly before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 20:20-28) is a conversation between Jesus and the mother of two of his disciples. The mother wishes that her two sons would sit at the right hand of Jesus when he brings his kingdom. Jesus’ response to the mother and her sons shows us his understanding of the true nature of power, authority, and dignity in this world and the next. Those who wish to be great must become servants. Power, authority, and dignity belong not to those who are served but to those who do the serving. We must remember this episode as we look at this week’s text.

The Text

This is another text that is immediately very familiar to us. Every year on Palm Sunday, we examine this story about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. In fact, we often refer to this passage as “Jesus’ Triumphal Entry.” To be sure, the passage itself is very triumphant in its tone. I’m sure you can recall Easter plays you have witnessed or Cantatas that you have sung, which have, with much shouting and waving, celebrated Jesus’ coming to Jerusalem. For a good reason, too, that is what the text displays.

It is right, and a good thing to celebrate Jesus’ coming to Jerusalem, for it will be there that he will give himself up for our sake. Our salvation is made secure because Jesus came to Jerusalem. However, I think another layer of meaning is happening here that we often miss. How Jesus enters Jerusalem is, at the same time, triumphant and stately, as well as humble and lowly. Noticing a few things will help us see the humility of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.

Just before entering the city of Jerusalem, Jesus pauses to send two of his disciples into the village near Bethphage to fetch him a ride into the city. Jesus informs the two disciples, who are not named, that they will find a donkey and a colt in the village. They are to untie the pair and bring them to Jesus. Jesus tells them, “If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’” There will be no problem because Jesus has already taken care of things. We do not know whether he has done this earlier or if the owner knows of the request because Jesus has supernaturally taken care of the arrangement; we do not know. Some believe that Jesus used supernatural means to secure his reservation for the donkey. They believe that this helps point to Jesus’ divinity.

Matthew then informs us that Jesus desires to ride into the city on a donkey to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophets. Matthew quotes Zechariah 9:9. The Zechariah reference goes on, past the quoted part, to speak of God’s coming victory for Israel. The imagery proclaims that the one coming on the donkey is a mighty king who will be victorious in battle. With this reference, we get two competing images. One is a coming king who is great, mighty, and victorious in battle. At the same time, however, in Matthew’s contemporary setting, the donkey was not the ride of choice for conquering heroes. John Wesley notes that during the time of the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), donkey riding was not beneath someone of high honor. By the time Emperor Tiberius began reigning, attitudes had shifted (Wesley, 71).

Jesus, with his choice of a colt of a donkey for his ride into Jerusalem, declares that he is not the same kind of conquering hero that Zechariah describes; yet he is a conquering king nonetheless. His weapons are not the weapons of war but of humility, service, and self-sacrifice.

Being obedient, the disciples bring Jesus the donkey and the donkey’s colt.

Donald Hager comments that there is a good reason for mentioning o the two animals. Although it is unlikely that Jesus rode both animals, it was customary for a colt that had not been put to service before to be accompanied by its mother the first time it was used. Donkeys can be stubborn, and the presence of the colt’s mother would serve to calm the colt. (Hagner, 594).

The disciples then spread their coats on the donkey to make a seat for him. The party then progresses into the city. Somehow, perhaps there have been large crowds following Jesus this whole time, and the residents of Jerusalem come out to meet him and usher him into the city. Jesus may have been traveling with a band of pilgrims going to Jerusalem for the Passover festival.

This is Jesus’ big moment. He is finally proclaiming to the world, in a very public way, just who he is. Jesus is saying, with the images he evokes through his symbolic actions, “Here I am, I am the Messiah, the anointed of God, the coming King who has come to set things right. I am here to release the bonds of slavery, heal, and restore.” The crowds, for their part, do not miss the imagery. They welcome Jesus to the city in a way befitting the king he is. The crowd has prepared the way for the coming King. The path has been made smooth and straight with palm branches. Even the content of their shouting proclaims Jesus as the one for whom they have been waiting. The word “Hosanna” comes from an Aramaic expression that literally means, “help, I pray” or “save, I pray” (Louw and Nida, 429). The crowd is calling for salvation and, at the same time, giving praise to God because their salvation has now arrived. The whole city is in an uproar at Jesus’ entrance.

Yet, at the same time, Jesus proclaims that he is not the same kind of king for which they have been waiting. Jesus comes riding a donkey, a lowly animal. It is not a great warhorse that speaks of power and might but a beast of burden that now carries the world's savior into the city of Jerusalem. As with the conversation between Jesus and two of the disciples’ mothers, service and humility are the way of the Kingdom of God, not outright power and might.

These two images must be held in tension, Jesus as a conquering king who comes in power and glory to set things right and Jesus as a humble king who comes to serve. As much as we might like, especially at this time of year as we draw near to Easter, we cannot concentrate too much on the stately and kingly images evoked by Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, for it is not that image that ultimately wins the day and defeats sin and death. It is the image of God on a donkey that ultimately wins. It is the image of the God of all creation, the creator and sustainer of the universe, giving up the comforts of heaven so that he might become one of us, being obedient even to the point of a ghastly death on a cross.

So What?

It is safe to say that what the crowds saw that day was a stately and magnificent king. After all, some of them had seen Jesus do some pretty powerful things. His teaching had set their hearts on fire. Jesus was the promised Messiah who would come and liberate Israel. They failed to see, however, Jesus’ true nature as a humble servant. So, a few days later, these same crowds would call for Jesus’ death when he failed to deliver in the ways they expected.

Our fate will be the same if we do not pause and reflect on the nature of Jesus’ kingship as humble and lowly. The crowd that day expected Jesus to bring about political transformation to Israel. If we expect the same kind of world/culture/societal transformations from Jesus, we will call for his death as well. On the other hand, if we see that Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is really humble in nature, if we see Jesus’ kingship as one characterized by self-giving love and service, then we will expect different things from him. And we will understand our place in Jesus’ kingdom differently, too. We will not ask to sit at his right and left hands (positions of power).

Instead, we will ask, how might I serve? How might I become obedient, possibly even unto death? So today, as we wave our palm branches and shout Hosanna, let us celebrate not the warrior king but the suffering servant who takes away the world's sins.

Discussion Questions

Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

  1. Why does Jesus choose to ride a donkey into Jerusalem? Why does Jesus choose to ride at all? (He has been walking everywhere up to this point in the Gospel).

  2. Read Zechariah 9:9-17. What kind of imagery does this passage evoke? How might this imagery have stirred up the crowd?

  3. Read Matthew 20:20-28. What is Jesus’ response to the two disciples’ mother? What might both the disciples’ mother and the crowd want from Jesus?

  4. By this time in history, the donkey was thought to be a lowly beast of burden. What does this say about how Jesus perceives himself? What implications might this have for us as we seek to be like Christ?

  5. If the head of Webster Groves Church of the Nazarene is a humble servant king, what does that mean for us, the members of his body? What does this passage say about the church’s position and role in the world?

  6. What is God saying to you through this passage?

  7. What are you going to do about it?

Works Cited

Donald A Hagner, Matthew 14-28, (Dallas, Tex.: Word Books, 1995).

Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996).

John Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, Fourth American Edition (New York: J. Soule and T. Mason, 1818).