I am always torn by this story—by the inherent social tension in the story. This passage and the accounts in the other Synoptic Gospels (Matthew/Mark/Luke) see this event as taking place on the first day of the same week in which Jesus would be crucified. And I see no good reason to argue with that apparent timeline. But it does result in a startling demonstration of the fickleness of human loyalties.
Here we see a crowd celebrating Jesus as a prophet and great man, even in the face of the consternation of the religious authorities (see Luke 19:39 & John 12:19). Yet it is impossible to entirely ignore the fact that the religious authorities themselves will be able to marshal a crowd that will shout for Jesus’ crucifixion only a few days later. There must surely have been some overlap in the two crowds. And there must surely have been a dramatic change in the mood of the city in a matter of mere days.
In all the Synoptic Gospels, the Triumphal Entry is presented as an event that is supremely under the sovereign authority of a lordly Jesus. This fact can be seen in the contrast between the Synoptic account of how the donkey came into the story and John’s account of it. This difference need not be taken as a contradiction. It can quite appropriately be understood in terms of differing goals in the telling of the story. John passes over how Jesus came to be on the back of a donkey. He simply says in John 12:14, “Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it.” The means by which he came to have found the donkey is not important to the point that John is making in the story.
The Synoptic Gospels all give some prominence to how Jesus came to be mounted on a young donkey. Some scholars from various points on the theological spectrum have addressed this matter in much way they also address the story of how Jesus and his disciples acquire a room in the crowded city where they are able to celebrate the Passover. These two acts – acquiring the donkey and acquiring the upper room for the Passover meal – have some notable similarities. Many commentators choose to naturalize the stories to take them out of the realm of the supernatural. Jesus’ disciples, these commentators say, acquire the use of the donkey (and the upper room) because Jesus is known to the owners and has made prior arrangements with them.
There is nothing inherently impossible or even objectionable in that explanation, except that it seems to run counter to the intention of the gospel writers. The only reason to propose a purely naturalistic interpretation on how the disciples acquired the donkey arise not from the text itself but from an interpreter’s a priori exclusion of supernatural involvement in the world. If an interpreter’s personal worldview excludes supernatural intervention in the world, then he or she is forced to reject the apparent intention of the writer and impose a more Enlightenment-friendly interpretation.
But if the acquisition of the donkey is simply the result of Jesus having make prior arrangements with the owners, then what point would there be in even including it in the telling of the story. Jesus sends word ahead to a friend that he would like to borrow his donkey. The disciples run ahead and pick up the donkey. Nothing remarkable there. Yet the gospel writers do find the acquisition of the donkey to be remarkable, and so they remark on it.
The only really good reason for including this event in the telling of the story is if we are meant to recognized the acquisition of the donkey as an expression of Jesus’ supernatural and sovereign arrangement for his fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy (Zech. 9:9). Jesus is not just mimicking the words of Zechariah. He is supernaturally and truly fulfilling the messianic prophecy of Zechariah. He is the heaven-sent Messiah of God.
But did the crowd gathered along the road into Jerusalem that day actually think that Jesus was really claiming to be the messianic king? Maybe not. What if the crowd took Jesus’ actions to be political theater? “Look, friends,” Jesus seemed to be saying. “The Roman dogs won’t understand any of what I’m doing, but you will. Look at what I’m doing here on this donkey, and remember what God promised us through Zechariah. Someday we’ll have a real king of our own who will push these Gentile dogs out of our country. These Roman soldiers watching all this don’t get any of it. But you do. Someday we’ll have our king, so keep the faith and stay strong. The Day is coming.” And the crowd cheered, “That’s right! Someday we’ll have our own king!” What fun it must have seemed to some of them. He was sticking his thumb in Pilate’s eye, and Pilate didn’t even recognize it.
The temple authorities, who tended in those days to try to walk the tight rope of staying on the good side of the Roman authorities, did recognize what he was doing, and they were horrified. “Stop this foolish street theater! You’ll whip this crowd into a political frenzy with this little pantomime of Zechariah. And if the Romans figure out what you’re doing, you’ll bring them down on all our heads.”
But, of course, Jesus wasn’t pretending. This was the real thing. This wasn’t street theater. This wasn’t a pantomime of Zechariah. This was the actual fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy. Who would have believed that?
Now move on through the week. The populous watches Jesus violently cleanse the temple on purely religious terms. They listen to this “last will be first and first last” humility talk. They hear that he approves of paying Roman taxes (Mark 12:13ff)! They hear him talk about the destruction of the temple. And they begin to wonder, “What do you suppose all that stuff with the donkey on the road into the city was all about? You don’t think he actually believed it, do you? You don’t suppose he actually thinks he’s the messianic king, do you? That raggedy Galilean carpenter?”
Then the dirt really hits the proverbial fan. The temple authorities arrest him and turn him over to the Romans. Their next view of this “King” Jesus really is political theater, but this time it’s the Romans who are staging the show. There he is – this Galilean carpenter “king” – beaten to a pulp, just to make sure there’s no mistake about who’s really in charge here. He’s dressed up as a caricature of a king, a crown made of thorns pressed deep into his flesh scalp and a rob of royal purple sweat-stained and bled-through where the skin had been stripped from his shoulders and back. Some king! And where are his true believers, those disciples of his? Gone! Melted into the woodwork. Just a few sad-faced old women left. Well, the crowd isn’t going to stick its neck out for him, if his own followers won’t do it.
Besides, look at him up there. He’s pathetic. He’s making us look foolish. A little street theater was fine. We can all appreciate that. But those are real Roman legionaries with steel lances and swords. Are we supposed to pick up our pitchforks and cattle prods and take them on? Not likely. “Crucify that nut job! We love Caesar!”
You know, things aren’t so very different today. Our king still doesn’t fit the world’s standard of royalty. Standing out as different in a hostile crowd isn’t very comfortable. Most of your non-Christian friends and neighbors wouldn’t really get Jesus. They’ll try to put their own spin on him, and when he inevitably doesn’t fit in with their take on him, they’ll get angry with him. . . .and with you. Keep your cool. Let his love shine through you. When they see that in you, some of them will start to get it. And remember, whatever the rest of the world thinks or says, Jesus really is King and Lord. So, be at peace.
© 2016 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.