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