Mark: Why the Gospel is good news
Week 11: Triumphal Entry. Mark 11:1-11
Sermon: Sun 20th March 2016
Some historical background data
With this passage, Jesus enters Jerusalem the City of David and the City of God. He and we might have expected this city to receive its own Son with joy, but in a profound irony Jesus is rejected and murdered in this city. There is an important political background to the way Jesus is received: through Israel’s history there had been a sustained tension between the North (called “Israel”) and the South (called “Judah”). This tension, for example, was responsible in no little degree for the hostility between the Houses of Saul and David in 1 & II Samuel, which we have studied recently.
Later, after Solomon’s death, Israel separated into two kingdoms: the Northern kingdom of Israel, which came to an untimely end in 722 BCE when it was incorporated in the Assyrian Empire as an Assyrian Province, and the Southern kingdom of Judah, which became an Assyrian vassal-state though it retained its identity as “Judah. In 587, Judah was taken over by the Babylonian Empire and most of its elite taken into exile. After that it was ruled in turn by Persia, Greece, and Rome, as was the Northern territory which had been the kingdom of Israel.
In the time of Jesus, Rome had given the whole of Palestine to Herod to rule as Rome’s client king (37-4 BCE). However, after Herod’s death Rome split the country among his sons: Herod Antipas got Galilee, Jesus’ home, (4 BCE – 39 CE), Archelaus got Judah but very quickly made such a mess of it that Rome took it back under Direct Rule (6 -41 CE); so in the time of Jesus, Galilee and Judah were effectively different countries under different kinds of rule within the Roman orbit. When you combine this fact with the historical reality of long-held tension and mutual suspicion between Galilee and Judah you find a reason additional to his actual message for the persecution of Jesus by the Jerusalem rulers: to them he was nothing more than an upstart Galilean, a country bumpkin having the cheek to tell them how they ought to run their affairs. We always have to remember that religion and politics were inextricably linked in the ancient world in a way that is quite foreign to our age in which, for many reasons, the two have become (unhelpfully) separated.
The Passage in its Literary Context in Mark
Our set passage begins a new sub-movement within the broad second movement I sketched in the last study, 8.31-16.8, which describes what is usually called the “Week” of Jesus’ Passion. In actual fact, though, this became the normative way of understanding Jesus’ time in Jerusalem only from the fourth century; the Synoptic Gospels don’t give us this time period specifically (more on this below).
8.31 to 10.52 showed Jesus’ repeated efforts to help his confused disciples understand that he was offering them death to self, not high position and honour; now in 11.1-15.39 he will engage more intensively with his opponents, who are Jerusalem’s religious leaders who, growing ever more angry and threatened, will hand him over to the Romans for execution.
OT Background: Festivals
It adds immeasureably to our understanding of Jesus if we appreciate that almost everything he does and says comes out of the Old Testament. In this sense Jesus shows us what it means to belong to a religious tradition which at one and the same time gives us the language of faith which we use to live our own lives, but which also has to be adapted to be relevant for our own time. Jesus did both: he used the language he inherited but changed it radically, both to recover what had been lost through inattention and routine; and to bring out, prophetically, the underlying meanings that now needed to be revealed in order that the tradition be a living aid to faith rather than a dead weight.
Thus Mark describes Jesus entering Jerusalem at a time that recalls the Feast of Tabernacles. Now, if it be true that Jesus entered Jerusalem during this Feast when the waving and strewing of branches was a feature of processional practice as Chilton & Goode suggest [2009:45], Jesus would have to have been in Jerusalem for many months, because Passover, linked to his death in all the Gospels, occurs in the period called Nisan which falls in March to April, whereas Tabernacles falls in September to October. If this be so, it is clearly inaccurate to think of a “Week” of Jesus’ Passion and, in fact, the Synoptic Gospel accounts do not tell us the length of Jesus’ final stay in Jerusalem. John 12, of course, does suggest a period of a week, but as Witherington notes correctly (2001:308) “this may be a theological construct suggesting Jesus’ reconstruction of the world in a week”.
However, the actual historical reality is less important than Mark’s reason for bringing Tabernacles and Passover into close connection in his narrative, but before we get to this it is worth pausing on the meaning of Tabernacles which is of great significance for Mark’s narrative. The Feast of Tabernacles or Booths (Hebrew name: Sukkoth) came at the time of the year when Israel looked forward to a new future, with two other major feasts on this theme in close proximity. The New Year begins with Rosh Ha-Shanah on 1-2 Tishri (September to October), followed by the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) on 10 Tishri, with Tabernacles (Sukkoth) on 15 Tishri. Thus, Mark uses Tabernacles as the focus for Jesus’ entry to highlight the new future his coming offers, the offering of this new future always in Israelite tradition being the work of the Messiah. The Passion story, in which Jesus’ looming death is so dominant, begins with the powerful image of a future characterized by newness and hope.
Furthermore, as Chilton & Goode tell us: “The Aramaic Targum of Zechariah predicts that God’s Kingdom will be manifested over the entire earth when Israelites and Gentiles present the offerings of Sukkoth at the Temple. It also predicts that these worshippers will prepare and offer their sacrifices themselves without the intervention of middlemen” [p.45]. You can see from this that Jesus’ message that believers no longer needed intermediaries between themselves and God in order to know the salvation of God didn’t come out of nowhere, but was drawn out by him of aspects of Israelite tradition he believed pointed to himself as God’s Incarnate Son.
Thus, the connection in Mark’s narrative between an entry recalling Tabernacles and a death linked to Passover is almost certainly an imaginative connection rather than a factual one. However, it is a brilliantly accurate one in the way it undergirds Mark’s message about the significance of Jesus. As Witherington notes helpfully, “More thought should be given to the suggestion that Jesus was deliberately summing up or coalescing elements of several feasts by his symbolic prophetic acts (as?) though they all transpired at Passover” (ibid, p.308), Passover being, of course, the celebration of Israel’s escape from God’s judgement on the nations.
The Text itself
Matthew and Luke join Mark in noting that Jesus’ route passes through Bethphage and Bethany near the Mount of Olives [v.1] which is the accepted place of the eschatological (End-time) revelation of God’s glory [see Zech 14.1-9]. This detail, then, tells us that Jesus has his sights on the End; that in his entry the End has come (still in our own time-period, of course). That Jesus intends to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey [v.2] is not a sign of humility as is often taught – at that time donkeys, not horses, were commonly used to carry humans. Rather, it is a sign of royal authority as only kings rode into a city; ordinary people walked, especially when entering as pilgrims. This way of entering thus makes a deliberate claim (note that Jesus has spent most of his ministry walking). The claim is enhanced by the instruction that the colt should never have been ridden [v.3], which means that its use is consecrated to this occasion – rather in the same sense that we consecrate – set apart - bread and wine for the eucharist, not using it for other purposes.
What follows is a scene of extravagant, uninhibited, joyful symbolic service to Jesus as first the disciples throw their cloak on the donkey for Jesus to sit on [v.7], followed by the people spreading their cloaks and leafy branches (there were no palm trees in Jerusalem) along the road [v.8], shouting Hosanna!...[vv.9], which is a quotation from Ps 118.26, a psalm of praise. Hosanna is the transliteration of the Hebrew word which means Save us now please – you can see the note of urgency it carries.
We should not imagine that all or even most of the people understood the symbolism of this occasion, which we can see retrospectively: rather, they, no doubt enthusing one another as people in crowds can do, were honouring Jesus as the great teacher and worker of miracles they knew him to be. This is followed by an adaptation of the cry from Ps 118.26, a pilgrim psalm regularly used to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles, which when applied to Jesus, picks up the description of him offered by Bartimaeus [v.10. This repetition highlights the importance of the Messianic title, Son of David]. Mark uses these details to build a powerful, poetic picture of the eschatological king, the Davidic Messiah, arriving to take his place as ruler of his city. In addition to the details I’ve already mentioned Eugene Boring [2006:315] tells us that Mark uses the verb kathizo = sat, in v.7, a verb more often used of a king seated on his throne than of a man seated on a donkey (for which the usual verb would be epibaino).
In v.11 Jesus appears to undertake an inspection of the Temple and its precincts, prior, perhaps as Witherington (ibid, p.311) suggests, to sizing it up for destruction or judgement, like the angelic figure of Ezekiel 40-48. Whatever be the case, Mark’s Jesus, as usual, is in a hurry to carry out his mission so much will happen on the very next day [v.12].
Questions for Discussion
Share what struck you in the sermon you listened to on Sunday
Using the notes explain the importance of the way Jesus enters Jerusalem. Focus on the meaning of the details: the Mount of Olives, the fact that Jesus rides a colt, that the colt has never been ridden before, the cry of Hosanna, Jesus’ intention when he went to the Temple and Looked around at everything
Go over the background information provided in the notes and discuss what, if anything, you’ve found enlightening and helpful in it
Finish your discussion by each drawing out from the session what you will take into your own life from this study