Commentary on Mark 11:1-11
Mark 11:1-11 depicts Jesus as a long-awaited king. It does this in both obvious and subtle ways, and with a heavy dose of tension and irony.
It helps to recall that, for Mark, the very title “Christ” denotes royalty. The Greek christos translates the Hebrew mashiach, meaning “anointed one” (thus making “Christ” and “Messiah” equivalent terms). It is true that various kinds of Old Testament vocations entailed anointing; not only kings, but also priests and occasionally prophets. Mark, however, gravitates towards the royal connotation when referring to Jesus as the Christ/Messiah. This is in keeping with one relatively popular Second Temple Jewish hope, whereby God was expected to send an anointed king in the last days to defeat God’s enemies and restore God’s people—even creation itself—to a state of everlasting peace.
It also helps to recall the history of Jerusalem as a royal city. It was King David who made Jerusalem the capital of his kingdom, and it was David’s son, King Solomon, who built the first temple in Jerusalem. The Old Testament historical books consistently remember Jerusalem as the “city of David,” while certain psalms explicitly connect Jerusalem, or Zion, with God’s king (Psalms 2:6; 48:2; 149:2). Among those Second Temple Jews who envisioned a royal Messiah, it was not hard for them to envision the Messiah ruling from Jerusalem. In this way, the end would recapitulate the beginning.
Bearing all of this in mind, we can imagine how some characters inside this week’s story might experience Jesus’ actions as a “triumphal” entry, bringing him one step closer to establishing his throne in the ancient city of kings. The star-struck disciples, for example, already know that Jesus is the Messiah (Mark 8:29-30) and have been anticipating a future of greatness and glory alongside their master (Mark 9:33-34; 10:35-37). And while Jesus has not divulged his messianic identity to the public, he has performed countless marvelous acts under the banner of God’s “kingdom” (Mark 1:15; 4:11, 26, 30; 9:1; see also 9:47; 10:14-15, 23-25; 12:34; 14:25).
No wonder, then, that by the time Jesus arrives in Jerusalem for Passover (his first and only visit in Mark), public opinion has turned decidedly messianic. Bystanders welcome Jesus into the city not only with the standard pilgrimage refrain of Psalm 118:26 (“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”) but with an explicitly royal/Davidic elaboration: “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” (Mark 11:9-10). They also ceremoniously cover the ground in ways that signal Jesus’ royal identity: with cloaks echoing the coronation of King Jehu of Israel (2 Kings 9:13) and with branches echoing the conquering of Jerusalem by Simon Maccabeus (1 Maccabees 13:51). Surely there was exhilarating gossip behind these actions: How will God install him as the end-time king? Will he brandish the sword (Mark 10:46-47)? Will he summon down an angelic host (Mark 8:38)?
The tragic irony, of course, is that Jesus is headed to a shameful execution—and he knows it. From the moment that he divulged his messianic identity to his disciples, he has prophesied this fate (Mark 8:31). He has even prophesied this fate as occurring in Jerusalem (Mark 10:33-34). Not that Jesus’ mission per se is to die. Rather, Jesus knows that his unbridled approach to human wholeness has proven too disruptive and offensive for those wielding power. Jesus chooses death because toning down God’s healing love—to avoid death—is not an option for the Messiah. Jesus can only love at full speed. And Jesus knows that this same love will overcome death itself (see Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34; 12:18-27; 14:28). This is not your normal power-wielding, army-raising king.
Jesus’ symbolic use of the colt makes the point well. It is clearly an allusion to Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Mark 11:7; see also Matt 21:4-5, which quotes Zechariah directly). The Markan Jesus enacts this prophecy presumably because of its counter-cultural image of a victorious king—humble on a colt rather than haughty on a warhorse. The importance of the allusion is signaled by the detailed account of Jesus’ instructing two of his disciples to find the colt and procure it for him (Mark 11:2-6). Mark does not want us to miss Jesus’ deliberateness.
I admit to some ambivalence when it comes to this royal/messianic motif. On the one hand, it is clear that Mark wants us to view Jesus as a king, but only by helping us re-imagine the very concept of king in accordance with Jesus’ mission. It is a challenging journey that begins with the quotation of a royal coronation psalm at Jesus’ baptism (“You are my Son” Mark 1:11; see Psalm 2:7) and ends with repeated mockery of Jesus’ professed kingly status in his final hours (“Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe,” Mark 15:32; see also 15:2, 9, 12, 17-20). Between these royal moments, Mark tells the story of Jesus on a mission, not to conquer peoples and land, but to restore broken humanity to its divinely created wholeness. That is the kind of king Mark calls us to follow, and the kind of kingdom Mark’s Jesus calls us to enter.
On the other hand, I worry that our celebration of Jesus’ kingship contributes to the imperialism that Mark ultimately wants to subvert. In his recent commentary on Mark, Warren Carter goes to great lengths to show how Mark’s subversion of imperialism (and gender hierarchies) cannot always escape the theological re-inscription of those same harmful structures. How easily we miss, for example, that Jesus essentially commandeers the animal that is meant to symbolize his humility!1 This is a king who gives his life for the mission of humanity’s healing, but not without countless displays of spiritual and rhetorical power—in keeping with a conventional male king.
I say all of this as a deeply “creedal” Christian who professes the lordship of Jesus. Personally, I am not yet at the point of replacing the word “kingdom” with the word “kin-dom,” although I respect those who do and acknowledge the very Markan logic of their word choice (“Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother,” Mark 3:35). My point is that we underestimate the power of our Christological language at the peril of those we are called to love and serve. It is easier to scoff at extreme manifestations of Christian nationalism—like those present at the attempted insurrection on January 6, 2021 (never mind the long, genocidal history of European colonialism in Christ’s name)—than it is to remain diligent about our own words. Do we provide the kind of nuanced pastoral discourse that subverts oppressive hierarchies and promotes unbridled human wholeness? Or do we leave problematic ambiguities hanging in the air, clichéd “Hosannas” that reinscribe the very kingdom that crucified Jesus? As Peter learned in Caesarea Philippi, it is not enough to get the words right. Jesus must also define the words for us (Mark 8:27-33).
- Warren Carter, Mark (Wisdom Commentary 42; Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press), 306.