When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”11The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Translation: And when they approached into Jerusalem and came into Bethphage, into the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, "Go into the village, the one over-against you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied and a colt with her. Loose (and) bring to me." And if anyone might speak to you, you will answer, 'The Lord has need of them,' and immediately he will send them." And this had happened so that it might be fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, "Speak to the daughter of Zion, 'Behold, your king comes to you, meek, and mounted upon a donkey, and upon a colt, a son of a beast of burden." And the disciples went and did just as Jesus appointed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and they placed the garments upon them, and they sat (him) upon them. And a very great crowd spread their garments in the way, and others were cutting down branches from the trees and were spreading in the way. And the crowds, the ones going before him and the ones following, were crying out, saying, "Hosanna to the son of David. Blessed (is) the one coming in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest." And when he entered into Jerusalem, all the city was shaken, saying, "Who is this?" And the crowds were saying, "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee."
Background and situation: The original source is Mark (11: 1-11)--the other parallels are Luke 19:28-38 and John 12:12-19.
Mark has three passion predictions which are mirrored in Matthew (16:21-23, 17:22-23, 20:17-19), each with some Matthean additions. In the first passion prediction, Matthew adds to Mark a statement about the necessity of going to Jerusalem (16:21): "From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem." (Jesus doesn't actually head south until 19:1.) In our text for Palm Sunday, he has arrived.
Dueling processions: Jesus was approaching Jerusalem from the east. Bethphage is just to the east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives is just east of the Temple. (Random factoid: The word Bethphage means "house of figs.") The Mount of Olives was, in Israel's Sacred Memory, the place from which an assault on Israel's enemies was to begin (Zech 14: 2-4).
The direction of approach is significant for at least two reasons: (1) Coming to the city from the Mount of Olives is a prophetic and eschatological image, and (2) there were two processions into Jerusalem during the time of passover; one--the procession of the Roman army--came from the west; the other--those with Jesus--came from the east.
The Roman army was coming to maintain order during passover, a time when the population of Jerusalem would swell from around 50,000 to well over 200,000--both conservative estimates. Moreover, passover was a celebration of liberation from Pharoah in Egypt, and Rome was uneasy about the anti-imperial message of this association.
The Romans were headquartered at Caesarea Maritima, a city built by Herod the (so-called) Great to honor Caesar Augustus and make money for himself. Herod built monuments to Caesar at every opportunity.
Caesar Augustus was Octavian, Julius Caesar's nephew and adopted son. During the Roman civil war, Herod had been an ally of Octavian's enemy, Mark Antony. Shifting his loyalty to Octavian after Antony's defeat was a nifty piece of political footwork on Herod's part, and may also have added to Herod's ebullient enthusiasm for all things Octavian. He even named the harbor Sebastos, which is Greek for "Augustus."
Sebastos was one of the finest harbors in the world. It was constructed over a 12 year period (25-13 BC) and was state-of-the-art for its day, rivaling both Athens and Alexandria. It was used primarily for the export of agricultural products from the region--or, to put it another way, it provided an efficient harbor for the plunder of the region--and could also be used to supply the Roman Army in case of war with Parthia.
The procession of the Roman army from Caesarea Maritima to Jerusalem would have been an imposing sight--Legionnaires on horseback, Roman standards flying, the Roman eagle prominently displayed, the clank of armor, the stomp of feet, and beating of drums. The procession was designed to be a display of Roman imperial power. Message? Resistance is futile!
The counter-demonstration of Jesus came from the east, the opposite direction. Jesus comes to the city not in a powerful way, but in a ludicrously humble way, inciting not fear, as in the Roman procession, but cheering crowds who clear his way and hail his presence. Sarcasm and irony are often the only mechanisms available for the oppressed to express themselves. The procession of Jesus creatively mocks the Roman procession.
The password: Just before Jesus makes his final approach to Jerusalem, he sends two people into a nearby village. The two disciples are instructed to go into the village and, as soon as they get there, they "will find a donkey tied and a colt with her." They are to take this donkey and colt. If anyone were to ask them about it, they are to give the "secret password" and say, "The Lord has need of them."
It appears there was a network of Jesus supporters operating "under the radar." Moreover, this network of Jesus supporters reaches even to a village just outside Jerusalem. The Galilee-based Jesus movement reaches even into Judea, even to the very gates of the city of Jerusalem itself!
Mark has a longer episode here in which the two disciples are questioned, say the password, and are then cleared to take a single colt. Matthew shortens the exchange. The custodians of the donkey and colt are told only that "the Lord" needs the animals.
In this passage, Matthew, for the first time, directly associates Jesus as king. (The magi were looking for the "king of the Jews" in 2:3, but here the association is more explicit.) Jesus is treated as a royal figure throughout. He doesn't get on the donkey. He is "sat" on it by others. Therefore, when Jesus' secret followers in the nearby village hear that "the Lord needs them," from Matthew's perspective, that is enough to say.
Riding on two animals at once:
And this had happened so that it might be fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, "Speak to the daughter of Zion, 'Behold, your king comes to you, meek, and mounted upon a donkey, and upon a colt, a son of a beast of burden." And the disciples went and did just as Jesus appointed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and they placed the garments upon them, and they sat him upon (them).
Matthew then inserts the twelfth of fourteen "quotation formulas" from the Old Testament: "Speak to the daughter of Zion, 'Behold, your king comes to you, meek, and mounted upon a donkey, and upon a colt, a son of a beast of burden." The quote appears to be a combination of Isaiah 62:11 ("speak to the daughter of Zion") and Zechariah 9:9 (the rest). This (mostly) Zechariah text is the interpretive center of the passage.
From the Zechariah text, Matthew leaves out the phrase "triumphant and victorious is he." Jesus is obviously not going to be that kind of king, at least not yet. As Matthew recounts it, the quote accents the humility and meekness of Jesus.
In referring to both a donkey and a colt--"humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey"--Zechariah was using a grammatical device known as "hendiadys," which means expressing a single idea with two nouns. This parallelism is quite common in Hebrew poetry. For example: "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path". (Ps. 119: 105) The statement expresses one thought in two complementary ways.
Scholarly opinion is all over the place on this one. Some say that Matthew flat misses the parallelism. Others say he knows about it but ignores it. In any case, Matthew does clearly refer to two animals, both a donkey and a colt.
Some have cited this as evidence that Matthew didn't really understand the Hebrew language or the Hebrew people. Any Hebrew would have known that parallelism is about speaking of one thing in two ways. Gasp! Was Matthew a gentile?
No. Matthew was Jewish himself, and knew full well about Hebrew poetry and the parallelism in Zechariah. He also knew full well that Mark, his source, clearly has only one animal involved in Jesus' procession. Therefore, Matthew was deliberate in making the change to two animals--"and he sat on them" (epekathisen epano auton).
Yet others have said that, since Matthew was Jewish, he must have been a first century fundamentalist to take Zechariah so literally. No again. Matthew is not a literalist or a fundamentalist. When he quotes from the Old Testament, Matthew feels free to tweak the texts he quotes in order to suit his purposes. This is hardly the style of a literalist.
Yet here, Matthew quite obviously refers to two animals and everybody since has been scratching their head over why. Most likely, it was to underscore the fulfillment of the Zechariah text--not just one fulfillment, in other words, but a double one! As John P. Meier more delicately puts it, "Matthew is more interested in literal fulfillment than historical probability" (p. 232).
I would put it some differently: Matthew knows full well that Jesus did not ride two animals at once. He doesn't care. His point is not historical precision, but theological insight. His point is that "your king comes to you," which is the fulfillment, in a complete and total way, of the prophetic Zechariah text.
And a very great crowd spread their garments in the way, and others were cutting down branches from the trees and were spreading in the way. And the crowds, the ones going before him and the ones following, were crying out, saying, "Hosanna to the son of David. Blessed (is) the one coming in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest." And when he entered into Jerusalem, all the city was shaken, saying, "Who is this?" And the crowds were saying, "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee."
Matthew anticipates the Hollywood "red carpet" by about two millennia. He shifts focus to the action of the crowds--"a very great crowd" spread both garments and branches onto Jesus' path. In 2 Kings 9:13, strewing cloaks onto the path was a sign of royal homage. ("Then hurriedly they all took their cloaks and spread them for him on the bare steps; and they blew the trumpet, and proclaimed, ‘Jehu is king.’") The crowd, by strewing cloaks onto his path, is treating Jesus as a royal and kingly figure, which is further underlined by their comparison of Jesus to the Great King David.
Notice that Jesus was not welcomed by the people of Jerusalem. These crowds were not composed of Jerusalem city dwellers, but rather "the ones going before him and the ones following." Most likely, this refers to the disciples and those who joined the movement along the way to Jerusalem.
This crowd is enthusiastic, shouting "hosanna to the son of David." The literal meaning of "hosanna" is "save us" or "save, we beseech." Indeed, the crowd appears to be quoting from Psalm 118: 25-26: "Save now, we beseech you, O Lord...Blessed is the one that comes in the name of the Lord." (In 11:3, the disciples had asked, "Are you the one that is to come?" That question is now answered by the crowds.)
Psalm 118 speaks of being surrounded by many who threaten the nation's life--"They surrounded me, surrounded me on every side; in the name of the Lord I cut them off!" The Psalm calls for "the gates of righteousness" to be opened: "This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it." The psalm even refers to waving of branches. Those waving branches will go right to the altar itself!
Psalm 118 is a psalm of victory: "There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous!" In the present situation, Jerusalem is under the brutal yoke of a foreign power, and the Temple is corrupt and in cahoots with the oppressors. Jesus the Lord enters the city, more than a match for them all.
The crowd seems to have in mind for Jesus the kind of kingdom now held in hallowed memory, the Golden Age of David, a time of prosperity, yes, and also one of military power and territorial expansion. Yet, Jesus is not committed to a path of "glory," as in a Davidic-style kingdom, but rather a path of defeat. He will not reign from a palace, but from a cross.
When Jesus actually entered into Jerusalem, Matthew says that "all the city was shaken." Seio means moved, shaken to and fro, with the idea of shock or concussion. It's the word for earthquake, and where we get our word "seismic." An earthquake will also occur at the death of Jesus (27:54). The city shook with fear when Jesus was born (2:3)--Now, the place is roiled, shaken, and shocked when he enters as an adult.
The closing verse is reminiscent of a call-and-response liturgy. A: "Who is this?" B: ""This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee." (See the latter verses of Psalm 24, for example.)
The dialog is between the city and the crowds. The city asks the question: "...all the city was shaken, saying, "Who is this?" The crowds answer that this is "the prophet Jesus." In doing so, they are fulfilling the text of another prophet, Zechariah. They are telling "the daughter of Zion," which is Jerusalem, who comes.
The crowds' assessment is said to be lacking by many scholars because the crowds only identify Jesus as "prophet" and not as "king"--the assumption being that "king" is a higher title than "prophet." Is a political title really higher than a Biblical and spiritual one? Would that have been the point of view of Matthew?
The crowds are also providing some cover for Jesus. The high regard in which the crowds hold Jesus, particularly as prophet, prevents the political authorities from arresting him in public (21: 46). Yet, we also know that this is also the city that kills the prophets (23:37), and we are under no illusions as to what will come next.