Mark 11:1-10. They think it’s all over.

Now when they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord has need of it and will send it back here immediately.’” And they went away and found a colt tied at a door outside in the street, and they untied it. And some of those standing there said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” And they told them what Jesus had said, and they let them go. And they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it. And many spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields. And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!”

    Jesus comes to the final stage of his march on Jerusalem. He has gathered followers as he has come, and he is now at the head of a procession.

    1. What time of year is it in the Jewish festival calendar?
    2. Jesus has clearly made detailed preparation for this journey, making sure that a colt is available for him. Why does he think it important that he should ride into Jerusalem like this?
    3. Which Old Testament passages undergird the crowd’s reception of Jesus in Jerusalem? What do they tell us about how the crowd is thinking?
      • Why do they throw garments on the road?
      • Why do they cut leafy branches from the fields?
      • Why do they sing out in the way they do?
    4. Look at Jesus’ own choice of OT passages to evoke. What is it about Genesis 49 and Zechariah 9 that make them appropriate for this occasion?
    5. How does this scene round off the story Mark has been telling us from chapter 8 onwards?
    6. What should we take from this?

     

    1. What time of year is it in the Jewish festival calendar?

    It is Passover time. Worshippers from all over the land of Israel would have been gathering at Jerusalem in order to celebrate the Passover festival at this time of year. Jerusalem would have been swollen with huge crowds, as it was three times every year. Back in the time of Moses, while the Israelites were still in the wilderness, God had said to them that when they were in the land, he would choose a place to set his name. There would be one place in the land where God would dwell among his people, and the people should gather at that place to bring their offerings and tithes (Deuteronomy 12 and 14).

    So three times every year, the whole people gathered in Jerusalem for the appointed festivals. There were actually seven festivals. You can read about them in Leviticus 23. Falling earliest in the year, in the springtime, on the 14th day of the first Jewish month, was Passover. The Feast of Unleavened Bread began on the following day, and lasted for seven days. Later in the year, whenever the first of the crop was ready for harvesting there was the Feast of First-fruits. Seven weeks after that was the Feast of Weeks- the feast for the full harvest. At about this time, there would be the Feast of Trumpets (on the first day of the seventh month), Yom Kippur- the day of atonement, on the 10th day of the seventh month, and finally, on the 15th day of the seventh month, the week-long Feast of Tabernacles.

    Though there were seven festivals, many of them fell together- in the same way as our Christmas and New Year festivals run into one another, and Good Friday and Easter Sunday come together. And only three times a year- for Passover/Unleavened bread, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Tabernacles, were all the Jewish males to appear before God in Jerusalem (Deut 16:16).

    We’ve seen in Mark’s Gospel that as Jesus and his disciples have journeyed to Jerusalem, they have gathered followers. Jesus has set out on this journey with determination, knowing that it will end in his death. The disciples have come with him, and as they have been travelling up, more followers have joined Jesus’ retinue. As he left Jericho, it was with a “great crowd” (Mark 10:46)- and that’s not a great crowd as in “ No, thankyou, I mean, really, you’ve been a great crowd, a wonderful wonderful audience”. Mark means that it was a very big group of people. One of the reasons why the crowd would be so large is that it was Passover time. Streams of pilgrims would have been heading to Jerusalem anyway, and could have attached themselves to Jesus’ party without going out of their way.

    So Jesus arrives at Jerusalem when it is heaving with people at Passover time, as is made clear later on in chapter 14. We’ll look at why that matters in a little while. First, we’ll look at the manner of Jesus’ arrival.

    2. Jesus has clearly made detailed preparation for this journey, making sure that a colt is available for him. Why does he think it important that he should ride into Jerusalem like this?

    Jesus and the crowd come to Bethphage and Bethany. Here, Jesus gives two of his disciples very precise instructions about a colt. This seems to be some kind of a pre-arranged deal. Jesus has made some sort of agreement with a man who owns a colt, so that the animal will be available in an agreed place, tied at a door, for his disciples to untie and bring to him. This wouldn’t be unusual- Jesus made a similar arrangement regarding the availability of an upper room for the Passover meal (Mark 14:12-16). Some commentaries suggest that there was no pre-arrangement, and that Jesus simply had supernatural knowledge that there would be a colt tied up where he said there would, making this a kind of miracle. I suppose that’s possible, but I really don’t see the miracles as functioning that way. The miracles are called “signs” and “wonders”. The point of a sign is to signify, and the point of a wonder is to be wondered at. The miracles are publicly, obviously, supernatural occurrences. When Jesus walked on water, or fed 5000 people, he was publicly demonstrating that he was God’s king, and that his kingdom would be a place where he ruled over the dangerous chaotic forces of nature, and where he provided plenty for his followers. When he was tempted to turn stones into bread, Jesus refused to do a miracle in private to make life easier for himself. Perhaps the closest we have to a hidden miracle is at the wedding at Cana in Galilee, and even there, many people could see that it was a miracle that the water became wine. On this occasion, if it was a miracle, we’re not told that it was, and nobody else could have known that it was, so I think we can assume it wasn’t.

    Another detail in favour of pre-arrangement is that the question “Why are you doing this” is asked not by the colt’s owner, but by some bystanders. We can’t say for sure, but it looks as though the owner of the animal is well aware of what is going on, has left his colt tied there deliberately, and won’t himself be asking questions. Alternatively, the owner of the colt may actually be present in the crowd following Jesus- in which case, this is an arrangement made on the spot, and “the Lord” may refer to the master of the colt.

    Whether it was already arranged or not, but especially if it was, it is clear that Jesus has gone to considerable trouble to make sure that he rides into Jerusalem on a colt that has not yet been ridden. Why would he go to that sort of trouble? And why does Mark underline this episode at all? In Hebrew, things are emphasised by repetition, and Mark underlines the instructions by more-or-less repeating them. He records them once as they are given, and once again as they are completed. The execution of the commands are set in terms identical with the instruction (“Go”/ “they went”; “untie”/ “they untied”; “if anyone says to you”/ “and some of those standing there said to them”). Why would Mark want us to notice this arrangement about the colt? Why does it matter?

     It was not customary for pilgrims to ride into the city. Pilgrims walked the last leg, whether rich or poor. By riding, Jesus is making a tremendous gesture. He is setting himself apart from the other, run-of-the-mill, pilgrims. Many want to make the point that the choice of a colt as a mount shows humility and un-warlike character. That’s true, but the choice of any kind of a mount at all sets Jesus up as a grand figure. And the donkey is not an unroyal beast- David and Solomon rode donkeys. Horses and chariots were forbidden to kings of Israel. They were commanded to rely on God for their deliverance, and not on their own armaments. It was the corrupt kings who went to Egypt to get horses. So although a full-grown stallion may look more impressive than a young donkey, this is a refusal to follow the lead of unfaithful kings. It is a statement of trust in God rather than of peace and humility per se.

     By riding an animal that had never yet been ridden, Jesus is making another statement. It was a common cultural concept in Israel that animals for sacred purpose were not for normal usage- so we have it laid out as a requirement in Num 19:2 that an animal designated as a sacrifice for purification must never have worn a yoke. Again, the same requirement is made for a sacrifice of atonement for unsolved murder in Deut 21:3. And in 1 Sam 6:7, the Philistine oxen pulling the cart on which sat the ark of the covenant, had never been used for other things. The point here is that this colt is for holy purposes. The double gesture Jesus makes is meant to tell people that he has come to Jerusalem not simply as a king, but as God’s king. This is a holy donkey.

     Of course, this is all stemming from Zechariah 9, where the king comes to Jerusalem, “righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey”. Jesus has deliberately and consciously chosen to fulfil Zechariah’s prophecy. He wants to paint himself as the king who comes peaceably. “Having salvation” in the prophecy is not something the king brings as a gift to bestow on others, but as something given him- the Hebrew is clear about that, say the commentaries- he has been saved. This is the king (of Psalm 118), who has been battered and bruised, and is now delivered from his enemies. He comes humbly, not to make war, but to make peace, to cut off the chariot and battle bow, and to speak peace to the nations, and to rule from sea to shining sea.

     The crowd quite clearly understand (at least on one level they understand) and respond to these symbolic gestures from Jesus. They spread garments and branches in his path, and shout for him as he enters Jerusalem, acclaiming their king. They chant words from Psalm 118, which leads us on to…

    3. Which Old Testament passages undergird the crowd’s reception of Jesus in Jerusalem? What do they tell us about how the crowd is thinking? 

     There is a necessary distinction to be made between the scriptures quoted and echoed by the crowd, and those called to mind by Jesus himself. Both are accurate in their application of the Old Testament, but the crowd has seriously misunderstood the current situation, and we can see that from the OT passages they echo.

     There are many of these, but some loom especially large.

    a) Garments on the ground.

    Firstly, the crowd strew their garments on the ground for Jesus to trample on… just as the followers of Jehu had done for that man of blood in 2 Kings 9:12.  This may tell us something about the ideas of the crowd concerning what Jesus has come to do. They think he’s a king in the mould of Jehu. So who was Jehu? What was his role?

    Jehu was the man anointed to destroy the corrupt ruling order in Israel. When God told Elijah to anoint him, God said,

    Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria. And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel, and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place. And the one who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu put to death, and the one who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha put to death.” (1 Kings 19:15-18)

    So Jehu was appointed as one of God’s three executioners along with Elisha and Hazael. But where Elisha refused to be appointed to this task, Jehu took it up with relish. Elijah never actually anointed any of the three men. He had a peculiar interview with Elisha in which Elisha refused to take over from him, and he never seems to have taken matters any further. When Jehu is anointed, it is after Elijah’s passing from this world. It is Elisha who does the anointing, and he does it by proxy. Elisha sends one of the sons of the prophets to do the job, and warns him to get out of the vicinity as soon as he has done the deed. Elisha understood very well what role Jehu had to play, and how enthusiastically he would play it. Here’s how it happened:

    “And the young man poured the oil on his head, saying to him, Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, I anoint you king over the people of the LORD, over Israel. And you shall strike down the house of Ahab your master, so that I may avenge on Jezebel the blood of my servants the prophets, and the blood of all the servants of the LORD. For the whole house of Ahab shall perish, and I will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel. And I will make the house of Ahab like the house of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, and like the house of Baasha the son of Ahijah. And the dogs shall eat Jezebel in the territory of Jezreel, and none shall bury her.” Then he opened the door and fled.” (2 Kings 9:6-10)

    Jehu was then proclaimed king by his friends, who put their garments under him, and he lost no time in laying waste to Ahab’s dynasty. He saw his blood-letting as demonstrating his zeal for the Lord. When the crowd do the same for Jesus as Jehu’s friends had done for him, it’s a sign of their enthusiasm for him. But it’s probably also a sign that they expect him to start shedding the blood of the present Jewish leadership, and that they think he has been appointed by God to do so.

     b) Leafy branches.

    This links in to the time of year. The phrase “leafy branches” is to be found in Leviticus 23, concerning the feast of tabernacles or booths. This was a feast of thanksgiving, in which Israel were to celebrate the full harvest God had given them, and to remember that God had given them the very land itself, after a long spell in the wilderness where they had no harvests at all for a generation. To recall their wilderness years during this feast, Israel were to live in tents or booths, made of branches. They were to cut leafy branches and celebrate before the Lord (Lev 23:40). Israel cut branches to pay before Jesus, partly just because they’re excited, but partly because they see this as the time of full harvest. It is the time of the fulfilment of promises. The long slog of ploughing and sowing and watering is over. It is tabernacles time. Messiah has finally come. There’s been a long and hungry wait, but finally, the blessing has arrived. They think it’s all over; the time has arrived for the kingdom of God in all its fullness. They expect the end of history. Jehu will destroy the wicked rulers, and God’s harvest blessings will flow.

     c) Psalm 118.

    Finally, and far more explicitly, the crowd quote Psalm 118. They first say “Hosanna”, the literal meaning of which is “Save now”, but we all know how words shift in their meaning according to usage. Through liturgical use, “Hosanna” had become sufficiently disassociated from the original meaning that it could be used as a greeting addressing pilgrims. Then they say “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (Mark 11:9, a straight quote from Psalm 118:25), and, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David” (Mark 11:10, which appears to be commentary on the quotation from Ps. 118).

    What is Psalm 118 about? The psalm itself is a victory song to be sung by the king and others as he makes his way up to the temple in Jerusalem. From the content of the psalm we can tell that the king has suffered opposition, but is now coming up victorious over his foes to take his place in the capital city. The psalm is sung in parts, with different voices taking their proper parts. We can’t be too sure about who sings exactly which part, but it is certainly that sort of psalm. A possible outline is in the table below.

    Verse What’s going on
    1 The worship leader addresses Israel
    2-4 Different groups in Israel join him
    5-7 The lone voice of the king cuts in
    8-9 The choir/ everybody sings
    10-14 The king again
    15-16 All sing
    17-19 The king sings
    20 The gatekeeper’s big part
    21 The king
    22-26 The choir or crowd
    27 The priests invite the crowd to join the procession
    28 The king
    29 All join the final shout

     The central voice is clearly that of the king. He is a man who has been through the wars, who has appeared to be dead, but who is now triumphant. It may well have been written by David after Absalom’s rebellion. But although each psalm was written for a particular occasion, they didn’t stay there. They were added to the national hymnbook, and became part of the religious life of the whole people. This would have been sung in the temple at certain times- notably of course at the Feast of Tabernacles. Again, the crowd are saying, “Messiah is here, and it is time for the full harvest. The king has come. He has triumphed over his enemies” They are singing about Jesus as though his work was done and he was entering into his rest. And notice in verse 10 that they’re not just welcoming a king who comes in the name of the Lord. They’re welcoming a coming kingdom. They really think that this is the end of history. There will be a coronation, and Jesus will reign. The cornerstone has arrived, and the whole building will now fit together.

     4. Look at Jesus’ own choice of OT passages to evoke. What is it about Genesis 49 and Zechariah 9 that make them appropriate for this occasion?

      Zech 9:9-17 is very obviously in Jesus’ sights when he chooses to ride in on a colt. It’s plainly a royal and messianic image, and also a peaceable one, as we’ve said.

     Genesis 49 is also in view though. In Genesis 49, the old patriarch Jacob is at the end of a long and weary life. Just before his death, he calls his sons before him, and tells them that he’s going to prophesy about them. Jacob had twelve sons, but we’re only interested in one of them here. Judah is the son whose tribe gave rise to the kings. David was from the tribe of Judah, and so, of course, was Jesus. Jacob, in Genesis 49:8-12, identifies Judah as the king. All the other sons shall bow to Judah. In fact, the nations shall bow to Judah. Jacob looks far into the distance, and sees that Judah shall be king forever- the sceptre shall never depart from him. And what will Judah’s kingdom be like? It will be one of unparalleled beauty and fruitfulness. The king himself will have dark eyes and pearly white teeth. Wine will be as common as water- he will wash his clothes in the stuff. The earth will bring forth vines that are so strong and plentiful, that the king can tie his donkey to them. The donkey can eat all the grapes he likes- they won’t be missed. And the vine will be sturdy enough to hold the beast.

    Wine and grapes are tremendously important in scripture. They’re a sign of peace and prosperity and rest and celebration. In a world where sugar isn’t found in kilogram bags in the dried goods aisle, grapes are among the sweetest things you can eat. And wine is something to drink when you’ve finished all your work and can afford to rejoice and relax. When Noah gets out of the ark, the re-settler of the new earth, his first (and symbolic) act is to plant a vine. He wants to enjoy rest and blessing and sweetness. Of course, he then gets drunk, and that’s symbolic too- it turns out that after the earth has been cleansed by the flood, we’re still not ready for the re-uniting of heaven and earth after all. Israel couldn’t enjoy grapes in the wilderness, but to show the blessings of the land God promised them, the spies bring back a bunch of enormous grapes. When the ark of the covenant comes to Jerusalem, and David is overjoyed that God will dwell with him in his capital city, he hands out cakes of raisins. When Jesus wants to lay down a marker to show what his kingdom is all about, he turns water into wine as his first miracle. And here, Judah is going to be a king whose reign is one of such blessing that there are vines like oak trees. He’ll rest, and tie up his colt. He fought like a lion in v8-9, but now the fight is over. If his clothes are bloody, it’s not the blood of his enemies, but the blood of grapes.

    That’s Judah’s future kingdom, and Jesus is the final king from the tribe of Judah. But how does Jesus use this passage? In Jacob’s prophecy Judah is going to tie his donkey up and enter into his rest. Jesus isn’t doing that. Here, the donkey is being untied, not being tied up. Maybe that’s an over-subtle distinction. But it’s abundantly clear from the rest of the gospel that Jesus’ work is far from done. In one sense, it’s only just about to begin. So Jesus isn’t tying his beast of burden up, he’s letting him loose. The crowd have got it wrong. It’s not Tabernacles and time to enjoy the harvest. It’s Passover, and time to endure the wilderness. It’s not time for rest. It’s time for Jesus to take up his cross. This is what the disciples haven’t understood, despite very clear teaching on the matter. The crowd won’t understand it either.

    5. How does this scene round off the story Mark has been telling us from chapter 8 onwards?

     The disciples have persistently misunderstood Jesus’ purpose. They have, time and time again, thought that his kingdom will be just like David’s and Solomon’s, only better. They have sought the ministerial posts in this kingdom. They have argued over which of them will have the greatest glory. They have not expected suffering and death. When Jesus has spoken to them directly, telling them that he will die, Peter has told him not to talk like that. At least, he did the first time. The next two times, there was quite probably an embarrassed silence. They expected to fight, sure, but they expected to win. They didn’t think Jesus had come to die. But Jesus knew that that was the single greatest thing he had come to do. His work was just about to begin.

    6. What should we take from this?

    Simply that we should avoid the misunderstanding of the crowd. Too many Christians think that the Christian life is supposed to be easy. It isn’t. Jesus’ kingdom is one where you’ve got to die before you can start living. Before you can even see the kingdom of God, you’ve got to die to yourself and be born again. Die to sin, die to self, die to pride. And this is a cross which you are to take up every day. It’s not easy. It’s not fun. It’s not about victory and ease and rest. A rest remains for the people of God, but it’s not yet. There is a crown of glory, and a kingdom where the wine flows in rivers, and we have foretastes of it even in this world. But this world is a place for backbreaking work-  for donkeys and martyrs. That’s what we need in the kingdom of God.

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