On Palm Sunday when Jesus entered Jerusalem a crowd gathered, shouting:
“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
With a great deal of excitement, they hailed Jesus as the messiah, as one descended from David, the founder of Israel’s royal dynasty. This scene is typical of the coronations of Israel’s kings. Oddly, however, within days, the same crowd also demands his crucifixion… the rest is history.
Indeed, when in Matthew 21:1-11 Jesus rides into town most Christians assume he does so as a triumphant king, the sort of thing they expect of David’s descendant, except for one detail: he’s mounted on a donkey. Christians typically respond, “How nice, Jesus is so meek and humble. ” Or as one blog says, “The Lord’s King does not approach his capitol city on a horse, as if to wage war. Instead, he approaches humbly, on a donkey, because he is meek and lowly in heart and he brings peace.” [Link] We’re so used to this image that we aren’t the least bit disturbed by it. But I wonder how the people of Jesus’ time understood this detail?
For instance, what if Obama arrived at the Democratic convention riding on a go cart. I’m sure we’d notice and think twice about electing him for President. Its the kind of thing we might expect to see on Saturday Night Live or read in the ONION [link here], but not on the regular news.
This actually leads me to the idea that Jesus may be acting a part in a sort of comic skit: a ritual procession that’s intended to be ridiculous. Like in the Hunchback of Notre Dame when during the Feast of Fools the crowd crowns Quasimodo king: despite all the cheers and the hooplah, no one for a moment takes it seriously. And if you’ve read the book or have seen the Disney version, you know, it doesn’t take long for the crowd to turn on poor Quasimodo, hurling insults and pelting him with tomatoes and such. Within the blink of an eye all the frivolity and merrymaking becomes downright violent. Its obvious what could have happened if Esmeralda hadn’t intervened.
Such rituals were highly popular in the ancient world and throughout Europe until they were banned in the 17th century. For a limited number of days, roles were reversed: slaves traded places with their masters, and the lowest persons on the social ladder were elevated as kings and bishops. The social order was literally turned upside down. [Click here] for a look at a contemporary Feast of Fools celebration. Dressing a boy or a fool up in regal costumes and placing him on a donkey to process through the city was a typical part of the celebrations.
If for a moment we consider this as a possibility we will automatically ask the question: Why on earth would Jesus participate in such a parody? Some scholars claim that Jesus is exposing the fundamental relationship between the crowd and their rulers.
Feasts or festivals like the Ancient Babylonian Akity, the Roman Saturnalia or the Medieval Feast of Fools relaxed the strict rules and divisions which governed society. On every other day of the year kings, who exercised supreme authority, could not be criticized. However, during these festivals, the king became an object of derision and sometimes even physical abuse. Rigid social order created tension and resentment that if released on a regular basis prevented those tensions from spilling over into revolution. It is well documented that in primitive societies, the king, who was chosen from the people to reign for a limited period, was often sacrificed at the end of these celebrations, and was replaced by a new king. In more complex societies, a substitute is sacrificed instead of the king, channeling all the accumulated anger and resentment onto an innocent victim. By removing the chaos and violence inherent with political upheaval, this substitution allowed for the development of dynastic monarchies, stable governments, and a hierarchical social order. But again, peace was founded on the scapegoating of that unlucky individual.
Historians tell us that Israel was a boiling pot of tensions: the Romans had sent Pilot, an especially cruel governor to suppress rebellion; Herod, their king was incredibly decadent and corrupt; lots of people were talking revolution; As Matthew says, “the whole city was in turmoil;” Jerusalem was on the verge of violent eruption.
What if Jesus intentionally allowed himself to be designated a substitute for Herod, or even for Pilate? Certainly the passion story describes how all the anger and resentment floating anxiously around Jerusalem came to be centered upon one person. In that moment when the people were given a choice, rather than spare Jesus they demanded his crucifixion. With the result that all the tensions that had threatened to explode into violent chaos were directed at Jesus, who was until the very last mocked as the “King of the Jews.”
Recognizing that Jesus intentionally chose a donkey for his procession, “an animal associated with royal coronations and kings on parade in the city” [Ben Witherington III, Matthew, 391] many if not most scholars opt for the obvious explanation: that Jesus did this to fulfill the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9:
“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.”
This may be true, but at the same time Jesus recreated a scene that was repeated several times in Israel’s history before the prophecy was written. Ben Witherington, claims that the reference to Zechariah 9 in Matthew is drawing on 1 Kings 1:32-40, when King David on his death bed learns that his throne has been usurped by his eldest surviving son Adonijah. David insists that his youngest son Solomon be mounted upon David’s donkey and escorted to Gihon for his anointing. And this in turn was a repetition of 2 Samuel 16:1-14, when David himself mounted the same donkey. In the Ancient Near East to mount a donkey this way was symbolically equated with mounting the throne [See W. Boyd Barrick, “The Meaning and Usage of RKB in Biblical Hebrew” JBL, Vol. 101, No. 4 (Dec., 1982), pp. 481-503].
After anointing Solomon, the people sounded a trumpet and the crowd roared, “Long live King Solomon!” All the people followed him, “playing flutes and greatly rejoicing, so that the ground shook with the sound.”
Jesus was re-enacting what was originally enacted as a symbolic agreement between the people and their rulers. Indeed, when the people spread their cloaks on the ground before Jesus, just as they did for Jehu in 2 Kings 9:13, they symbolically turned over their lives, granting the king unlimited power and authority, but only if the king was first willing to humble himself. It established an unspoken understanding: the people who raise him up can just as easily bring him down.
As it is turns out the kings who were crowned in these rites, were far from humble leaders: David was the epitome of arrogance, Solomon had 1000 wives, 1400 chariots and 1200 horses, and Jehu’s reign was characterized by an endless series of bloody massacres. In 2 Samuel 16:1-14, David’s throne was usurped by his son Absalom, bringing Israel to the brink of a bloody civil war. To re-establish his relationship with the people and regain his kingdom David mounted a donkey and processed from the Mount of Olives to the Jordan, while the crowds both on the right and the left cursed him and threw stones at him. Kind of like the dunking booth at the school fair, when everyone takes their shot at the principal.
So contrary to our assumptions, when Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey, the people of the time would have understood him to be a king just like all the kings before him. Either Jesus was the next tyrant and was going through the motions of feigned humility or he allowed himself to be paraded like Quasimodo as a parody of the king, the innocent victim whose sacrifice absorbed all the mounting tensions, re-establishing the peace between the people and their rulers. Given what we know of Jesus, it could only have been the latter.
We should not however interpret Jesus as a naive fool, who like Quasimodo, was swept away in the crowd’s enthusiasm and subsequent violence. By commanding the donkey to be brought, Jesus intentionally sought his role as the substitute victim. And by mounting the donkey he exposed once and for all the true nature of this unspoken relationship between the rulers and the people.
As Matthew unfolds Jesus’ final week, and the events leading to his death, Jesus’ actions become even more symbolic, especially, for instance, when they are compared to the annual New Year Festival of the Babylonians and Assyrians. More on this in a future post…
But for now I have to wonder if there are moments in our own history when we have sacrificed someone lowly to maintain some unspoken agreement upholding our political structures and the status quo.