Commentary on Matthew 21:1-17
Modern people swim in a sea of “spectacle,” that is, the use of compelling or provocative public theatre to shape imagination, usually mingling images of power with religious symbols.
Modern spectacles run the gamut from television advertising, to major sporting events, to mega-church worship, to terrorist acts. The ancient Romans used gladiatorial games, venerations of the emperor, and public crucifixion of criminals as tools to convey the message that Rome’s dominion was not only inevitable, but divinely ordained. Even Israel’s prophets used spectacular public enactments to bring their messages more powerfully to light.
Jesus, the prophet from Galilee, also deploys spectacle as he and his followers join the throng of pilgrims entering Jerusalem at Passover. He choreographs his approach to Jerusalem to resemble the advent of conquerors and kings throughout the Mediterranean world. If the people of Jerusalem were following the script, they should come out to meet him on the way, outside the gates of the city, and sue for peace, pledging their obedience in hope of the king’s benevolence. Failure to welcome the conqueror appropriately could bring destruction upon the city. Given the ambivalent reception accorded this approaching conqueror and king, will he come into the city to redeem or to destroy? His entry, in fact, puts the whole city into “turmoil” (Matthew 21:10, lit. “shakes,” as in an earthquake). Once inside Jerusalem, Jesus engages in a second spectacle, a “prophetic sign-act” in which he sweeps the temple mount clean of those whose financial interests impeded access for all to the temple. The “cleansing” rivets attention on his words, which signal both judgment and hope for deliverance.
The passage begins on the Mount of Olives, where, according to Zechariah 14:4, God was to begin the final battle against the nations and inaugurate a new creation. It ends at the temple, the focal image of deliverance, healing, and hope for Israel and the whole creation. In the Old Testament the temple is a microcosm of the creation as God meant it to be. Jesus thus enters Jerusalem not merely as a human political figure, but as the Lord and King of all creation. This spectacle has cosmic reach and implications.
Because spectacle and prophetic actions carry complex layers of meaning, we should not be surprised that scholars struggle to understand precisely what these actions meant. The evangelists, including Matthew, offer scriptural cues to direct the readers’ reflections, but the effect is nonetheless that of an explosion rather than a narrowing of meanings. But both the focus on the temple and notes of tension and paradox run continuously through this material. Jesus is at once both a commanding figure, a king on his way to the coronation, and a jester, mocking the conventions of power. Matthew’s Jesus both cleanses the temple, readying it to fulfill its promise, and warns that its destruction is imminent. He comes as both deliverer and agent of judgment. He is Lord of the temple (and thus of creation) and its janitor, just as Adam was called both to exercise dominion over and serve the creation.
In the same vein, Jesus’ preparations for entering the city mingle images of divine authority and humility. He sends two disciples ahead to secure both a donkey and a colt for him to ride. He seems to possess detailed foreknowledge both of the animals and of the circumstances the disciples are likely to encounter in their quest to secure the animals. He even provides the two disciples with words to say if they are challenged: “The Lord needs them.” Davies and Allison suggest that these words signal the recovery of “the lordship of Adam over the animals”1 (cf. Genesis 1:26-31). Jesus is God’s image bearer, who exercises God’s dominion for the sake of the whole creation, as Adam was meant to do. Matthew’s distinctive and emphatic assertion that Jesus borrows two animals for his entry into Jerusalem underlines Zechariah’s dual assertion that the coming king is both powerful and humble. The colt is the animal traditionally used in coronations of Israel’s kings, and the donkey is a humble beast of burden. In Zechariah 9 the humble king is also the Divine Warrior who subdues the nations and exercises dominion from sea to sea, to the ends of the earth (Zechariah 9:10), yet another image of the fulfillment of Adam’s (humanity’s) vocation in Genesis 1:26-28.
As Jesus makes his way toward Jerusalem, the crowd hails him as David’s Son, shouting the words of Psalm 118:25-26, a psalm chanted at major festivals as pilgrims approached the temple. It celebrates God’s steadfast love and deliverance of the righteous sufferer, who endures rejection. Jesus himself will soon employ this same Psalm (118:22) in a rebuke of Jerusalem’s ruling elite (Matthew 21:42), who reject the chief cornerstone, yet another term with temple resonances.
Jesus’ intention, however, has not been simply to make a spectacularly ambivalent and ironic entry into the city. He now proceeds to his real goal, the temple (probably the court of the Gentiles, in particular), where he performs another spectacular sign-act. The scriptural cues (Matthew 21:13) that accompany the expulsion of those engaged in temple commerce are drawn first from Isaiah 56:7, “my house shall be called a house of prayer,” part of a vision of Jerusalem restored, as a place where Gentiles (the “nations”) gather for prayer alongside the outcasts of Israel. These words envision the fulfillment of the temple’s (viz. creation’s) purpose at the same time they implicitly challenge the priests who have made the temple unsuitable for such prayer. The second line of Jesus’ statement is drawn from Jeremiah 7:11, part of Jeremiah’s scathing temple sermon (Jeremiah 7:1-8:3) directed against those who appeal to the temple for safety while engaging in theft, murder, adultery, and idolatry. Jeremiah goes on to prophesy the destruction of the temple. Is Jesus’ signaling the same? Is his ambivalent sign-act a promise of restoration or a warning of impending destruction? Or both? Again and again in this passage, through Jesus’ spectacular actions and his use of scripture, we see him laying the foundations for a new temple through which God’s purposes for the whole creation will find fulfillment.
After two thousand years we may have forgotten that the church itself is God’s prophetic sign-act, a living spectacle meant to reveal Christ’s humble dominion and to bring blessing to the world. At times the Church is a sign of judgment, at times of redemption, but always a people through whom God’s intentions for the restoration of heaven and earth are made known in spectacular ways.
1 W.D. Davies and Dale Allison, The Gospel according to Saint Matthew, Volume III, ICC (T&T Clark, 1997), 117.