Uniform 03.30.2014: Crowds Lining the Streets

Zechariah 9:9; Matthew 21:1-11

Parades are exciting events. From a festive celebration like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City, which attracts thousands and is aired on television all over the United States, to the small-town events that honor local heroes, parades cause people to line the streets.

When I think of a parade, I envision myself in a uniform and tall hat, complete with chin strap and plume, marching down the main street of my small hometown with a flute at my lips as part of the high school band. The drums timed our careful steps, and periodically we played a song. Crowds lined the streets for us. I also picture my two daughters as small children, proudly riding on a truck trailer, wearing angels’ wings and halos and tossing out candy as part of our church’s preschool department. Crowds lined the streets for them. Finally, I imagine an Atlanta road, with car after fancy car carrying a member of the Atlanta Braves baseball team in celebration of their championship. Crowds lined the streets for them too.

In our New Testament text, Jesus is a one-man parade. Fulfilling an ancient prophecy from Zechariah, he comes not as a member of a high school band or a preschool choir or a sports team. He’s not the mayor of the town or the winner of the pageant or Santa Claus. He doesn’t throw out handfuls of candy. He isn’t riding a beautiful black stallion worthy of the Messiah. In spite of this, crowds line the streets for him. They even take off their cloaks or break off palm branches and spread them on the ground, making their own version of a “red carpet” for this long-awaited celebrity.

And here Jesus comes “mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Mt 21:5; see Zech 9:9). Something about him makes this crowd want to make his parade bigger. Masses of them walk ahead of him and behind him. It’s loud and exciting. The energy is contagious. Who needs candy when you’ve got the one who comes in the name of the Lord (Mt 21:9)?

Yet, as we know, the crowds lining the streets and then filling the streets had expectations that weren’t going to be fulfilled in the way they wanted. This one-man parade wouldn’t make a stop at the government building and overthrow the ruling powers. He wouldn’t sit tall on a powerful horse and smugly accept the people’s applause and accolades. He wouldn’t stand on a podium at the end of the parade and give a big speech that someone had written for him.

Instead, this man would ride slowly down the path, with trouble in his eyes and sadness shadowing his face. He might offer a smile to a little child or extend his hand to a woman in pain, but he would keep his mind on the things of God. Even as the crowds around him shouted and shoved and laughed, he kept quiet and pondered his destination.

And it seems that the people there that day eventually recognized that something had changed. This parade, this welcome celebration, wasn’t working out the way they had hoped. By the time Jesus reached Jerusalem, “the whole city was in turmoil” (Mt 21:10)—to the point that they were no longer certain of who he was.


1. When is the last time you attended or took part in a parade? What was its purpose? What was the general spirit of the crowds that lined the streets?
2. Palm Sunday (which is on April 13 this year) is traditionally a time of joy and excitement. It has the spirit of a parade. What is Palm Sunday like in your church? Do you have any traditions that help you celebrate this special day?
3. Imagine being a member of the crowd near Jerusalem that day. You have heard stories about the Messiah all your life. You know the prophecies by heart. You see this mysterious man coming over the hill, and he’s riding…a donkey. Still, everyone’s been talking about him. The crowd is shouting and making a path for him. What do you do? How do you feel? What do you hope will happen as he passes by?
4. Imagine being one of the disciples that day. You too have heard stories about the Messiah all your life. You know the prophecies by heart. But this is Jesus—your friend, your teacher, your healer. You’ve spend endless hours with him, and you’ve heard him talk about things that make little sense to you. Today should be a great day for him. He should be cheerful. Look at how the people are lining up to welcome him to Jerusalem. And yet you see the weariness in his face. What do you do? How do you feel? What do you hope will happen as he makes his way down this crowded street?
5. How can we celebrate Jesus with humility and gratitude for what he went through during his last few weeks of life on earth?

Reference Shelf

As the Passion Narrative begins, and if we read Matthew’s account side by side with Mark’s, we are left with a great appreciation for the First Evangelist as an editor of his source material, compressing and smoothing out the Markan account and deftly integrating much more teaching material. Perhaps the most poignant and significant story of a Jewish royal figure’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem in the midst of opposition and controversy is found in 1 Kings 1:32-40, a story about Solomon riding into town on a donkey and being anointed king in succession to David.

The story in part in 1 Kings 1 is about Adonijah, who had set himself up to be king. This story is set at a time when David is dying and the successor to the throne is in doubt, and so like our story it has an ominous undercurrent, including an implication of great danger to Solomon himself. Besides the riding into the city on the donkey, the acclamation, the rejoicing, and the like, one needs to keep steadily in view the name of this king—Solomon, whose name comes from shalom, the word for peace and well-being. He was David’s “peace child,” and if ever there was a royal figure who was meant to be both king of peace and also a sage of the Davidic line, this was the man. It is of course true that our Matthean narrative quotes and alludes to Zechariah 9:9-10, but what is often not noticed is that the promised eschatological king who comes in righteousness and having salvation and gentle and riding “on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” is also the king for whom God is going to take away the weapons of war, and “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.” I submit that this apocalyptic prophetic word is drawing on the portrait of Solomon, part of which we have quoted (see also 1 Kgs 3–11), and we must bear in mind that Solomon reigned over the Holy Land when its boundaries were at the maximum extent.

This whole Solomonic tradition both in 
1 Kings and in Zechariah guides the way our
 First Evangelist portrays the entry of Jesus into
 Jerusalem, including even the way he edits or
 adds to the Markan account. For example, at
 Matthew 21:8 he adds the phrase “to the son of
 David” after the word “Hosanna,” and he then 
deletes Mark 11:10a, “Blessed is the kingdom of
 our father David that is coming.” The First
 Evangelist is following the “son of David
 (Solomon)” messianic traditions, not the
 “messiah like our father David” traditions. The
 addition of Zechariah 9:9 in Matthew 21:4-5 simply provides further confirmation of the portrait of Jesus as the greater than Solomon, peaceful sage/king coming to town. The clincher that this is what the First Evangelist is up to is the use of the verb epikathizø in v. 8 [7], found nowhere else in the New Testament and used twice in the LXX of 1 Kings 1:38, 44 of Solomon riding his donkey to be anointed king.

Most importantly, it must be noted that almost all of the important emendations of the Markan account by the First Evangelist serve the agenda of portraying Jesus as sage and Wisdom, like but greater than Solomon. Notice that it is no accident that the narrative in Matthew 21 includes three parables-in-action/prophetic signs—the riding into town on the donkey, the symbolic action in the temple, and the cursing of the fig tree (the only punitive or negative miracle in the Gospels). These are the only three actions before Jesus begins his controversy dialogues and his final discourse in this Gospel. They set the stage for this teaching material. In short they present Jesus as a prophetic sage, like but greater than Solomon the temple builder, for this is Jesus who announces the end of this corrupt temple and the in-breaking of the eschatological age both in symbolic action and in word, as we shall see.

The story seems to begin with Jesus’ supernatural knowledge of the existence of a waiting animal. This is wisdom well beyond Solomon’s kind. If the village opposite Bethphage means Bethany, then this may simply be a story about Jesus knowing about the resources he could use at his friends’ house. They would know well who “the master” was, who was in need of it, and they would not have hesitated to let him use the animal. Kyrios in v. 3 probably should be translated “master,” a term of respect referring to Jesus as the master teacher rather than “Lord” at this juncture. We are dealing here with the notion of impressing or commandeering of an animal into service, which was a regular procedure in the extant transportation system. A legitimate claimant could borrow an animal in this fashion if he had higher status (i.e., was a master teacher).

What is distinctive about the Matthean account compared to Mark at this juncture is that in Matthew there are two animals instead of one—both a donkey and the foal of a donkey are requisitioned in Matthew. There was a tradition in early Judaism that great teachers or royal figures might requisition an animal when the need arose. Hagner, taking his cue from Mark 11:2, which tells us that Jesus rode an animal on which no one had ever sat before, points out that a foal was normally broken or introduced into service while accompanied by his or her mother (see m. B. Bat. 5:3), and all the more so if the animal was going to be used in a noisy crowd. The two animals were seen as a single inseparable unit. It is hardly plausible to argue either that a Jewish Evangelist like our author wouldn’t recognize parallel construction in Zechariah 9:9 or that he actually envisioned Jesus riding two animals at once.

This act is both deliberate and deliberately symbolic, for Jesus nowhere else rides in a way that places himself above the others, and the choice of animal is important. Jesus chose not a war horse, but a donkey, which was an animal associated with royal coronations and kings on parade in the city. But the choice of animal, while it has royal associations, nonetheless is associated with gentleness and humility. This acted parable or prophetic sign act was indeed meant to say something about Jesus himself. It was a symbolic and indirect calling card, but at the same time it was a repudiation of a sort of Davidic messianism that Jesus did not come to enact.

Verse 8 by contrast involves a symbolic gesture by the crowds, but who are these crowds? Are these Galileans who came with Jesus to Jerusalem and had seen his mighty acts before? Are they simply people who recognized the prophetic signal in Jesus choosing to ride into town on this particular animal? We are told that the crowd laid cloaks and branches from trees on the ground. The action of spreading a cloak was a way a poor person could, so to speak, roll out the red carpet for someone noteworthy, and it was used to honor kings in Israel (cf. 2 Kgs 9:13). The cutting down of branches was another sign of homage or respect for royal figures, and if they were in fact palm branches (cf. John 12:13), there were Maccabean overtones (cf. 1 Macc 13:51; 2 Macc 10:7). It must be remembered that this crowd is going up to a festival, and thus when we get to v. 9 it is possible to make too much of what is said for the good reason that pilgrims would regularly sing the Hallel psalms and the psalms of ascent or going up to Zion (cf. Pss 118, 125–135), so some of the chanting may be precisely of this nature without the crowd fully realizing who Jesus was or his significance. The first acclamation, however, is important—“Hosanna to the son of David” (contrast Mark 11:9-10).

Verses 10-11 bring us to the point where we have distinguished the residents of the city who ask “Who is this?” which is not a mere request for a person’s name, but rather “What should we make of this man?” when Jesus enters the city, which we may contrast with the crowds who came with Jesus, perhaps many of them Galileans who proudly announce, “This is Jesus the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.” The whole city is said to be stirred by what is happening (cf. 2:3). While the crowd’s acclamation falls short of making completely clear who Jesus really is, nonetheless, Jesus’ symbolic act coupled with the raucous crowd must have raised the temperature of the city a few notches and raised the blood pressure and anxiety of the Jerusalem Jewish officials.


Ben Witherington III, Matthew, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001) 287-393.

Bonnie Chappell is the editor of the Uniform Series Bible Study. She is a graduate of Mercer University and Vanderbilt Divinity School. She is an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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