"Daddy, I don't understand"
Mark 11 and Matthew 21 together tell a rather dramatic, often intense, remarkably tender, and yet in places even violent story about who Jesus is. Continue reading . . .
Mark 11 and Matthew 21 together tell a rather dramatic, often intense, remarkably tender, and yet in places even violent story about who Jesus is. I know of no better way of communicating the point of this narrative than by drawing you into it, as if you yourself were alive in the first century, physically present in Jerusalem, witnessing these events first hand, or as we say today, up close and personal.
So try to envision yourself as best you can in the first century, around 30 a.d. You are a young Jewish boy or girl, living with your family in the city of Alexandria, Egypt. The time has come for you to make your first visit to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. During the course of your journey your father once again tells you the story that Jewish fathers have been telling Jewish sons and daughters for centuries. It is the story of what happened in Egypt on the 14th day of the month Nisan, many, many years ago.
The people of Israel were at that time in slavery in Egypt, but God was about to intervene to set them free. On the night that would come to be known as Passover, “the angel of death” swept through the land, killing the first born in Egypt. But death “passed over” those homes where the sacrificial blood of the lamb had been applied to the doorposts.
And now here you are, centuries later, traveling with your parents to Jerusalem to celebrate that glorious deliverance.
“But daddy, where will we get a lamb or a goat to sacrifice in Jerusalem?”
“Don’t worry,” your father replies, “there will be many for sale in Jerusalem when we arrive.”
As you draw near to the city, your heart is pounding fiercely with anticipation and excitement. Your mind is filled with thoughts of the holy city and, most of all, the Temple of God, the most sacred of all sites.
What you as yet do not know, indeed could not know, is that after the events of the coming week the annual tradition of securing a lamb for Passover would never again carry the same meaning it once had. Something was happening that week which would forever transform the significance of this Jewish festival.
Something else you couldn’t have known is that a man named Jesus, together with his disciples, was making his own plans for entering the city. They had been in Jericho and the trip to Jerusalem was approximately 17 miles, nothing by today’s standards but quite a trip when you had to make it on foot. On the way they passed through Bethany and the tiny village of Bethphage (lit., “house of figs”). According Matthew 21:1, Jesus and his disciples crossed over the Mt. of Olives which was located due east of Jerusalem.
At that moment Jesus dispatched two of his disciples into the village: “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once” (Matt. 21:2-3). In case you’re wondering, the mother donkey was probably brought along in order to induce her offspring to cooperate.
We don’t know how Jesus knew there would be a donkey and her colt at that precise time and place. Perhaps the words “the Lord” in v. 3 refers not to Jesus but to the owner of the animals who was with Jesus. If so, this was all pre-arranged. But more likely the Spirit had revealed to Jesus the presence of these animals.
But why all the fanfare about a donkey? After all, it wasn’t customary for pilgrims to enter Jerusalem for the Passover riding a donkey or any other animal. The final stage of the journey was always completed on foot. And if he was insistent on riding, why not on a white stallion or in a royal chariot, either of which would be more fitting for a king than riding on a donkey!
The answer is found in vv. 4-7 where Matthew alludes to a famous prophecy found in Zechariah 9:9 – “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
By securing a donkey and making his entry into Jerusalem in this altogether unconventional way Jesus is claiming as clearly and boldly as he can to be Israel’s Messiah, the promised one, the savior from sin, the ruling King, the sacrificial Lamb of God whose blood will accomplish once and for all what the blood of hundreds of thousands of sheep and goats could never accomplish in the centuries preceding. Jesus is saying, in no uncertain terms, “You know the one of whom Zechariah spoke in 9:9 of his prophecy? I am He!”
The Messiah was to come riding a donkey because it was a sign of peace. To come on a horse would have signaled a declaration of war, a man seeking a military triumph. But Jesus is the Prince of Peace. He came not to wage war but to end it. He came not to alienate but to reconcile. He came not to condemn but to heal and save. He came not in self-serving pride and pretense, but in humility and lowliness.
“Daddy, look! Who’s that man on the donkey? And why are all those people throwing their clothes on the ground and shouting? And what does ‘Hosanna’ mean?”
“My goodness, you’re full of questions, aren’t you?”
The father would likely then have told his children that “Hosanna” was a cry for help, asking that God “save us now, we pray” or something similar. It was also a word that the people of Israel would use as an acclamation of praise, shouting their worship unto the Lord.
But at this point, all you can think about is getting to the Temple and hearing the wonderful sounds of fervent prayer and heartfelt praise of Almighty God. Sadly, though, you are met with other sounds of an altogether different spirit.
“Daddy, look at all the merchants! Why are all these salesmen here? Wow, look at all the money! Daddy, I don’t understand. This isn’t what you said it would be like.”
“I don’t understand either,” your father responds, sadly and somewhat confused.
“Daddy, look, people over there are buying a lamb for the sacrifice. Get one for us, just like you said.”
Your father soon returns, empty-handed and downcast. “I can’t believe what I just saw,” he says. “They’re charging three times what a lamb is worth. I can’t afford what they’re asking. This is outrageous!”
“Daddy, look. Isn’t that the man we saw riding into town on the donkey, the one everyone was praising and singing to? He looks sad. He looks like his heart is breaking. Daddy, he’s crying. Wait a minute. He’s not crying anymore, and now he looks really, really mad. He’s got a whip in his hand. Look out! Move back! Watch out for that table. It’s a stampede!”
“Shhh. Son, be quiet. I think he’s going to say something. Listen!”
“It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you make it a den of robbers” (Matt. 21:13).
Let’s shift gears for a moment and try to understand what this Jewish father and his children had just witnessed.
During Passover the population of Jerusalem swelled to 10x its normal size; thousands in and around the Temple complex gathered to pray, to offer their sacrifices, to perform ceremonial cleansings, rituals of purification, paying their tithes, and no doubt watching and wondering what would come next.
Jesus would have been deeply pained by what he saw. What a sorry spectacle. It sickened him. Instead of a quiet courtyard where people could pray and praise, there was a noisy trading center, a veritable religious flea market! Instead of the dignity and reverence of a prayer meeting, there was the sound of cattle and the bleating of sheep. Instead of songs of praise and adoration, there is noisy, even angry commerce.
All pilgrims were required to bring a sacrifice. If you were too poor to afford one, the Law of Moses provided an alternative (see Lev. 5:7,11). Each animal had to undergo a rigorous inspection for defects and deformities. Even the slightest physical flaw would force you to purchase one of the animals from the merchants at an inflated price.
On the Mt. of Olives there were four markets for selling animals. In a.d. 66, Josephus tells us that more than 250,000 lambs were required for Passover! A quarter of a million! The going price was outrageous. This was price gouging at its worst. Two pigeons that normally sell for 25 cents might now sell for as much as $4.00.
Many people from places such as Persia, Syria, and Egypt would have brought foreign currency with them. The “money-changers” referred to in v. 12 were there to exchange it into Jewish coins for use in the Temple . . . for an outrageous fee, of course!
Every male Israelite between 20 and 50 years of age had to pay a Temple tax, but only in Tyrian coinage because of its high silver content. So another exchange was required, and another fee had to be paid.
There was extortion, bribery, theft, dishonesty, and greed everywhere . . . all in a place designed for prayer and praise.
Finally, Jesus had seen and heard enough. So here, in prime time, so to speak, with maximum exposure, he goes into action.
It must have been an incredibly violent outburst. Rage, anger, indignation drove him. He got physical. According to Matthew 21:12 he “drove out” the merchants. The word is the same used often of exorcising or expelling demons. Jesus suddenly becomes a bouncer! He grabbed them by the scruff of the neck, kicked them in the seat of their pants, overturns their tables, and knocked them from their perches.
When the time for his crucifixion has come, he will permit them to lay hands on him and carry him off. But not now! They are frozen, powerless, in awe, stunned and fearful! Jesus made an absolute shambles of their religious bazaar. The disarray and confusion must have been something to see: animals running everywhere, doves flying to freedom. But no one could so much as lift a finger to protest his actions.
In the next article we’ll look more closely at the meaning of this event.