Thursday, January 31, 2008

On a donkey

They brought the donkey and the colt, placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them.
~Matthew 21~

Jesus is very purposeful with his ministry. He says and does things that to the 21st century American do not seem to make much sense. But from a 1st century cultural viewpoint he is purposefully making a very loud statement. So what is this statement?

Matthew earlier in the chapter says that Jesus’ riding the donkey was to fulfill a prophesy in Zechariah 9. What is this chapter discussing? Chapter 9 begins by talking about how all the people groups that surround Israel will be destroyed. In verse nine the chapter takes a new twist as it begins to talk about Israel’s king. Here is how he is described:

Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion!
Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem!
See, your King comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem and the battle bow will be broken.
He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.

So Jesus rides into Jerusalem capturing this motif of the King of Israel bringing peace and the end of all war. He is greeted with shouts of “Hosanna” and with waving palm branches. Waving palm branches and shouting Hosanna means absolutely nothing to somebody in the 21st century, but in 1st century Palestine it had a huge message. Let’s break this down.

Palm Branches were the symbol of Jewish nationalism. In the book of Leviticus the people were commanded to wave palm branches during the Feast of Sukkot. This feast, also called the Feast of Tabernacles, was the yearly celebration of God bringing the people out of Egypt. The people lived in temporary shelters to remember that once their ancestors lived in tents as they were in the desert.

This festival took on a new meaning when the Greeks who had been forcing the Jews to take on pagan practices were overthrown. Thus freedom became forever linked with a violent overthrow of the oppressor. The Feast of Sukkot was reinstated and as a result the palm branch became the symbol of the Jewish people.

Hosanna means literally “save!” a phrase uttered during the Feast of Sukkot when the people cried out for the messiah to come save Israel from her oppressors. Any cry for a Messiah to come save the people was politically loaded. The messiah was prophesied to come and free the people from their captors. Once again, the violent overthrow of the oppressors had become linked to the concept of messiah.

So as Jesus is riding into the city proclaiming that he is coming as a King to bring peace, the crowds expect him to come as a conquering king. It only makes sense that when they realize that he did not come to lead the revolution that they would turn on him. Their misunderstanding of messiah led them to demand that Jesus be killed and ask for the release of an insurgent named Barabbas.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Son of David

I would like to start a series that will work through the book of Matthew. This may be my favorite book of the Bible right now. My New Years Resolution for the past couple of years has been to memorize the book, so I am trying this year to start by mapping the book out. While doing that I decided to write out a series of almost verse by verse pieces working their way through the book. So, without any further comments…Matthew.

Matthew 1:1 - A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David

So the evangelist starts out the story of Jesus’ life by calling him the son of David. So often we gloss over this statement by thinking only of the prophetic and messianic aspects of what it would mean to be the son of David. In the text who is the literal son of David? The answer of course is Solomon.

Now Solomon was the third and the last king to rule the combined 12 tribes of Israel. He assumed leadership over the nation after his father crowned him in Jerusalem. David was known as the warrior, Solomon was known for being a peaceful man. In the early years of his reign, he begins to build the temple of the Lord. In I Kings chapter 10, the queen of Sheba comes and is given a tour of Jerusalem, and her reaction is telling. She is amazed with everything she sees, to the point of prophesying that all of his splendor and majesty has been given to him so that he my promote justice and righteousness.

Solomon, at the height of his rule, is described as the defender of justice and righteousness. Sadly, this is not the entire story. The two chapters that bookend this story give a damning picture of Solomon. In chapter 9 we see Solomon building up the city of Jerusalem using slaves, and in Chapter 11 he marries foreign women, worships other gods and becomes an arms dealer.

At the start of the story, the children of Israel find themselves in slavery to Egypt. Because of their suffering under the heavy hand of their slave masters they cry out to God and he brings them up out of slavery. So when Solomon begins to enslave his own people to build the temple, he seemingly is forgetting the story of his people. The people who were once slaves are now using slaves to build their empire.

It is Solomon who builds the temple of the Lord-a beautiful elaborate literally gold plated building for the people to worship God at. It is also this man who begins to build temples to other gods. Thus at the highest point of the Hebrew kingdom, we are seeing their king compromise. The people of God fail to be the people of God.

The author also seems fit to describe Solomon’s other activities. He begins to accumulate weapons and horses. He becomes an arms dealer of sorts gaining much wealth as a result. The author describes Solomon’s tribute that is brought in every year: 666 talents worth of tribute money. It is the final touch in painting a picture of how far from the trajectory laid before him, Solomon had moved.

Maybe one way of understanding this book is to say that Matthew starts out his Gospel contrasting Jesus against Solomon. Once again Israel is at a high point. Jesus like Solomon before him has a chance to show the world what the promise of the nation of Israel is. How will this story end? That’s what the rest of the book is about.