Sunday, April 1, 2012

Triumphant Entry or Tragic Exit?

One of the things I love about the Gospels is that they are cohesive narrative units. They're not just a collection of unrelated stories or sayings, they are each a unique narrative telling the story of Jesus from a particular angle. Because of this, we need to remember to read passages in light of the entire Gospel narrative. On this Palm Sunday many will remember the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem with songs of praise and joy. But for the Gospel according to Mark, this story reveals an especially interesting twist.

Here is the passage from Mark 11:1-11:

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’”

They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted,

“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 heaven!”

Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.

This passage is super interesting in the context of Mark's narrative. Mark opens his Gospel (1:1-3) with an exciting foreshadowing: the God of Israel is coming...! Mark does this by weaving together two Old Testament texts: Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1. The conflation of these two texts expresses the tension that is felt throughout the entire narrative.

Isaiah 40 speaks of the eschatological return of God to Zion and the fulfillment of Israel’s hope. At the same time, Malachi 3 warns of God’s sudden visitation to the Temple and ensuing judgment upon Israel. The poignant question of Malachi 3:2, “Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” suggests that the coming of God may not mean blessing for Israel but rather judgment.

It is no mistake, then, that Mark’s Gospel points toward the climactic events of Jesus’ visit to Jerusalem where the "triumphant entry" reveals a tragic twist.

The scene of Jesus riding a colt from the Mount of Olives across the Kidron to the Temple mount is laden with royal overtones and certainly echoes the predictions of the prologue: at last the king is coming! While the allusion to Zechariah’s king clearly elucidates royal, even messianic, overtones, the citation of Psalm 118 provides essential disclosure of the tragic twist.

In ancient Israel, Psalm 118 was a song for worship in the Temple. The people likely began outside of the Temple and then processed into the Temple as they sang. The psalm was sung in they style of call and response, as the worship leader sang certain parts and the people sang others.

The quotation from this processional Psalm, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (11:9), proclaims the arrival of the victorious, Davidic king to his Temple.[1] However, the psalm's responsive line, “We bless you from the house of the Lord” (Ps. 118:26b), is missing in Mark's portrayal, indicating that Jesus received no welcome from those within the Temple.

This would seem to be an extrapolation of sorts if it weren’t for the amount of surrounding support. In 11:11b Jesus concludes his ‘triumphant entry’ by returning to Bethany – outside the city walls – after finding no place in Jerusalem. If this were truly a triumphant entry in the tradition of Psalm 118, then Jesus would have been welcomed into the Temple. But he is not.*

If you were to read on in Mark's Gospel, you would find a second citation of Psalm 118 in the Parable of the Vineyard. That parable makes it pretty clear that Jesus finds no welcome in the heart of Israel's religion. Here it suffices to comment that Jesus’ climactic arrival to Jerusalem exhibits the tension posited in the prologue: the king is arriving, but Israel may not be ready.

* This is not to say that this is exactly what happened in history (in fact, we don't know what exactly happened). What we do know is that Mark, the author of the narrative, used Psalm 118 in a very interesting way. Do you think that Mark was portraying Jesus as the Davidic King who is ironically rejected?

[1] Rikki Watts, Rikki E, “The Lord's House and David's Lord: the Psalms and Mark's Perspective on Jesus and the Temple,” from Biblical Interpretation, is.15 no, 3, 2007, 313.

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