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Ride On! Ride On in Majesty

Ride On! Ride On in Majesty

Matthew 21:1-11

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

17 April 2011

 

 

    At the end of the Book of Genesis, Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, the one who stole from his brother Esau, argued with his father-in-law Laban, enjoyed the sexual competition of his two wives and their handmaids, wrestled with God in the night, and mourned his son Joseph when he thought he had been killed by wild beasts, this very Jacob lies dying in Egypt with his twelve sons around him. Jacob is not much of a hero; he is a clever, cunning scoundrel, really. Yet, he is still the recipient of God's grace. Here at the end of his life he does something that none of the other patriarchs had yet done. He blesses all of his sons.

    Abraham, you might remember, sent Ishmael off into the wilderness to die, almost killed Isaac, and then sent away without inheritance the six sons he had with his second wife Keturah. Isaac turned around and offered only one real blessing for his two sons Esau and Jacob who became locked in competition for it, and Jacob won it by trickery and deceit.

    Jacob, after his long and not very good life, has maybe learned a lesson. He offers blessing to all twelve sons. And in his blessing for his son Judah, we read:

 

Judah, your brothers shall praise you; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father's sons shall bow down before you. Judah is a lion's whelp; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He crouches down, he stretches out like a lion, like a lioness—who dares rouse him up? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and the obedience of the peoples is his. Binding his foal to the vine and his donkey's colt to the choice vine, he washes his garments in wine and his robe in the blood of grapes; his eyes are darker than wine, and his teeth whiter than milk.

 

    Isn't that a nice little plug for oral hygiene at the end, which is really something we should all remember when passing along blessing to our children.

    Oh, Jacob. Yes, he remembers to bless all twelve sons, but in Judah's blessing he says all the other brothers and their descendants will bow down before Judah and give tribute and obedience. This dysfunctional, yet God-graced, family still has some things to learn.

    It is from this passage that the phrase "Lion of Judah" comes. And, according to the genealogy Matthew gives at the very beginning of his gospel, Judah is the ancestor of Jesus.

    Relevant to us today is the reference to the donkey's colt. According to the textual notes in my Bible, in the ancient Near East, the traditional transport for kings, rulers, and the gods in stories was donkeys. In our imagination, the donkey is a rather humble animal, especially compared with the brave steed of a warrior. But in its origin as a biblical symbol, riding on a donkey's colt is a sign of blessing and sovereignty.

    

    Now, this image of riding on a donkey appears again in the Hebrew Scriptures in the book of the prophet Zechariah. Zechariah is one of those biblical books that probably most of us have trouble finding, buried back there in the Minor Prophets. Remember that the Kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Babylonian Empire and their evil king Nebuchadnezzar. The people were taken into exile, living away from their homeland for seventy years. Finally, after the Persian Empire defeated the Babylonians, the Jews were eventually allowed to begin returning to their homeland, which they did in successive waves over many years.

    When the people were allowed to return home, they were full of hope. When they got home and saw how much work they'd have to do to rebuild the cities, the walls, the temple, and their way of life, they weren't quite as hopeful. And the great visions of hope and change didn't come as quickly as they had expected. It was in this context that Zechariah preached.

    The passage relevant to us comes from the second section of the Book of Zechariah, which scholars date as even later and written by some anonymous person who appended their visions to those of the earlier prophet Zechariah. This second set of visions is even more bleak, reflecting a period when there was a crisis of leadership. This pseudo-Zechariah, then, looks back upon Jacob's blessing of Judah for his own vision of what the new ruler should be like. We read:

 

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.

He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem;

and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations;

his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.

 

As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you,

I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.

Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;

today I declare that I will restore to you double. . .

 

On that day the Lord their God will save them

for they are the flock of his people;

for like the jewels of a crown they shall shine on his land.

For what goodness and beauty are his!

Grain shall make the young men flourish, and new wine the young women.

 

    Overlook for a moment that final line wherein the young men get drunk on grain alcohol and the young women enjoy the new wine. What we have is a vision of the abundant blessing that God, in God's grace, will bestow upon these troubled people.

The king who will lead the armies of God, the armies that will bring destruction upon the nations – if you read the rest of the passage there are some pretty graphic descriptions of the vengeance that will be enacted – this king of hosts comes riding in triumphant, victorious, and humble. And according to the oracle, "on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey."

Notice that now it is humble for a king to ride a donkey and not a horse, but pseudo-Zechariah wants to make the connection explicit with the blessing back in Genesis, so he makes sure to use the words donkey, foal, and colt, all three of which appeared in the passage in Genesis. So, he engages in some repetition in order to emphasize his point and draw our attention to the scriptural connection with the ancient blessing. The purpose of this scriptural connection, then, is for those who heard pseudo-Zechariah's message to hope that God would quickly send a new ruler from the line of Judah to take charge during the troubled times in which they lived. And this ruler would bring about the vision of grace and blessing.

 

Finally, then, we jump ahead to our gospel story today the next time that the donkey and the colt appear in the biblical tradition.

One feature of the Gospel of Matthew is that the author is constantly looking for any Old Testament references he can borrow. At times he strains the original texts to their breaking points to get them to fit into the life of Jesus he is telling. At times it is rather comical. And today is one of those instances.

Matthew wants us to understand Jesus' entry into Jerusalem as fulfillment of the oracle from Zechariah and the original blessing of the descendants of Judah to be the rulers of the people. And so to get us to understand that connection, he quotes from Zechariah and also draws on this image of the donkey and the colt.

But notice something in today's Gospel story. In verses 6-7 we read:

 

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.

 

    Matthew is so intent on making sure the story fits the vision in Zechariah, that unlike Mark, Luke, and John who only have Jesus riding in on one animal – a colt in Mark and Luke and a young donkey in John – Matthew has Jesus riding in on two animals – a donkey and its young colt. Now, this is a rather funny image.

    In his commentary on the passage, O. Wesley Allen, Jr. writes:

 

Do you think Jesus had one leg over the tall donkey and another over the small colt? Do you think he stood on both like an acrobat in the circus, one leg straight and the other bent? Or did he, like some artists have tried to render it, sit sidesaddle on the donkey with his feet on the colt?

 

    Now, I don't think Matthew is a dumby. I think his comically literalist rendering is meant to make us pause and look for what is really going on here. And what is going on is that this lion of Judah riding in on the donkey and the colt isn't going to demand that all his sisters and brothers bow down before him and pay him tribute, nor does he come riding at the head of an army that will slaughter the enemies of Israel. Instead, this Jesus comes as the agent of the God who blessed the scoundrel Jacob and chose the exiled and hopeless Jews to be agents of world salvation.

    Frederick Buechner writes, "Is it possible, I wonder, to say that it is only when you hear the Gospel as a wild and marvelous joke that you really hear it at all?"

And what might that joke be? He writes,

 

It all happened not of necessity, not inevitably, but gratuitously, freely, hilariously. And what was astonishing, gratuitous, hilarious was, of course, the grace of God.

 

    Thank Goodness!

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