Commentary on Matthew 21:1-17
Most of the time, Matthew’s story overshadows Mark’s. But when it comes to the Triumphal Entry and the Cleansing of the Temple, our imaginations typically follow Mark’s story line.
Matthew’s is quite different. Matthew’s Jesus is Israel’s king, the Son of David come to rule the Holy City. Preachers will grapple with what that means for contemporary believers.
In Matthew, Jesus sends his advance scouting party, stages both his procession and his temple demonstration, performs healings, and engages his first conflict with the temple authorities all in one day. He then returns to Bethany to spend the night. Picking up on this chronological unity, the Narrative Lectionary treats this sequence as a sustained body of action.
The unfortunate fig tree must wait for day number two.
Messianic for sure
Matthew is not prone to subtlety, peppering the Gospel narrative with a dozen “fulfillment citations:” “such and such happened to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying … ” Professors especially appreciate Matthew’s citation of Zechariah here. Perhaps because Matthew is ignorant of Hebrew poetic conventions, the quotation requires Jesus to ride two differently sized animals at once (21:7)! Never has a classroom illustration required less explanation.
In addition to this fulfillment citation, Matthew provides us with two spontaneous exclamations from the crowds, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” (21:9, 15), along with two additional testimonials from Israel’s Scriptures (21:13 see also Isaiah 56:7, Jeremiah 7:11; 21:17, and Psalm 8:3 LXX). It is Matthew’s way to ground Jesus in the testimony of Israel, all the more so at this critical moment as Jesus enters the Holy City for the first time. Even the children acclaim Jesus’ arrival, and Matthew has a special interest in children.
Distinctive royal connotations attend Matthew’s messianic proclamation throughout the Gospel. Matthew’s genealogy introduces Jesus as “son of David,” and Herod fears the birth of a new king. Translations obscure the royal dimension of the Great Commission, according to which Jesus possesses royal power, exousia.
Matthew’s portrayal of the triumphal entry emphasizes this royal dimension. The quotation from Zechariah calls attention to the distinctive way in which Jesus exercises dominion. Zion’s king is indeed humble (21:5): his yoke is easy, and his burden is light (11:30). The crowd recognizes Jesus for who he is, the Son of David, as do the children (21:9, 15).
So clear are the royal expectations that the chief priests and scribes caution Jesus to slow things down (21:16). We have reason to be suspicious of these characters. For one thing, Matthew describes them here as acting out of anger rather than concern (21:15). And although this is the chief priests’ first appearance in Matthew’s story, the scribes have earned nothing but scorn to this point in the narrative. But neither has Matthew set the priests against Jesus as his enemies to this point. A first-time reader may simply suspect that, however mixed their motives, the priests simply want to maintain order. That would be their first priority.
That priority has no room for a messianic claimant, much less a would-be king who lays claim to the Temple as his own house. Although the quotation about “My house” (21:13) may refer to God’s ownership of the Temple, nothing in Matthew’s account clearly distinguishes God’s ownership from that of Jesus. Jesus continues to exert his messianic identity in his own distinctive way, not by taking up arms but by bringing healing to ordinary people.
Sketching the scene
Matthew has not yet informed us that it is Passover season, one of Judaism’s three major pilgrimage festivals. This information would be helpful, as it would explain the dynamics that drive the story from this point.
By ancient standards Jerusalem was a significant but not massive city, with a residential population of about 25,000. The Romans preferred to keep it lightly garrisoned, leaving local affairs to the Temple authorities. Only during the major festivals did the Romans perceive a need for additional security, especially so for Passover, which had political undertones. Passover, after all, celebrates Israel’s deliverance from captivity, and occasional outbreaks of sedition attended the season. Thus, the Passover season brought crowded and somewhat tense conditions to the city.1
The triumphal entry and Temple demonstration should be understood in this context: Jesus is initiating conflict during a stressful period with revolutionary associations. The “son of David” acclamations only fuel the tensions. Matthew focuses the action upon Jesus as if his actions disrupted the entire city and everyone in the city could see what he was doing. Even a modern tourist would realize that could not be the case. Ancient Jerusalem, with its grand temple, was far too large and its streets too narrow for even a processional parade and a Temple demonstration to gain more than street-level attention. However it is Jesus who initiates the action, Jesus whom the crowds acclaim, and Jesus for whom the priests and elders are waiting the next day (21:23).
Postponing the plot
Indeed, Jesus is not innocent victim — at least, not in the sense of being passive. Having condemned corruption in the Temple, he initiates hostilities with the Temple authorities (21:46). But Matthew delays that sort of conflict for later in the story, focusing for now upon the royal acclamation Jesus receives. He does not come with weapons or armies, although he does bring crowds. He is David’s Son, come to claim his throne. The question for Matthew’s readers and hearers is: now that we have acclaimed Jesus along with the crowds and the children, will we continue in this way as conflict escalates?
- For a dramatized account of these matters, see Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’ Last Days in Jerusalem (New York: HarperCollins: 2007).
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Righteous God, you brought your son Jesus into Jerusalem to show people the radical grace of your love. Show us this grace, and give us eyes to see your goodness. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
All glory, laud, and honor ELW 344, H82 154, 155, UMH 280, NCH 216, 217
Prepare the royal highway ELW 264
Give me Jesus ELW 770
Hosanna to the Son of David, Dan Schutte