If Matthew 21 all the way to the end, 28 verses, was the plot of a musical, today's scripture is the overture. The overture is the musical portion the orchestra plays before the musical starts, and in it, bits of the melodies that will be heard during the rest of the evening.
This seems like such a tiny portion of scripture, to introduce such a huge week. That's probably appropriate though, since there is so much detail packed into these eleven verses; details that set the stage and set up the importance of the next seven chapters of Matthew.
We have been reading stories from the gospel of John during Lent, but for today we are reading from Matthew. Remember I mentioned that each gospel writer, writes in such a way as to drive home a particular perspective about Jesus. During Lent, reading John, we could see how the relationship between Jesus and those he met was central. For Matthew, Jesus is Israel's king, the Son of David come to rule the Holy City. We can see that by the references Matthew makes in this scripture, to prophets of old and Zechariah in particular. Zechariah 9:9 is quoted in verse 5, “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.”
The Matthew version of this introduction is the only gospel that mentions two animals. Others only say colt. A colt is the usual means of entry for a king's coronation. But a donkey is a humble beast of burden. Jesus can't ride both the colt and the donkey at the same time. This addition by Matthew was intentional, as a way of saying that yes Jesus is king, but a humble king. In a way, Jesus' entry into the city is mocking the normal entry of a king by the colt and a donkey, and the waving of branches and the cloaks lining the ground on the road like a red carpet, just as later we will read about Jesus being mocked.
Another intentional addition was to name the location of the events as the Mount of Olives. Zechariah 14:4 reads in part, “On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which lies before Jerusalem on the east;”
The other places where Matthew makes sure the story reflects the kingship of Jesus, albeit a kingship like no other, is by quoting Psalm 118, a typical song sung at the beginning of Passover. Only Matthew adds the words “Son of David!”
The last reminder of Matthew's emphasis on the kingship of Jesus is part of the gospel that we haven't read today. Matthew's gospel is the only gospel that doesn't begin with a story of John the Baptist early on. Matthew's gospel begins with a genealogy, going all the way back to Abraham, showing Jesus as the Son of David, the king promised to the people. These are the ways Matthew sets the scene for the remainder of the gospel. It's as if he's saying, “First, let's get one thing straight.” Jesus is the king promised by the prophets.
There are seven chapters after the reading for today. There are over 100 more pages of commentary in one of the books I study this from! Of those seven chapters, the next four are some of the most lengthy and memorable of Jesus' discourses. The parables and events: cursing the fig tree, the wedding banquet, the wicked tenants, the 10 bridesmaids, the questions to Jesus about paying taxes, being David's son, and all of the stories of the foretelling of the destruction of the temple, persecutions, the end of the age. My bible with the words of Jesus in red, has about 5 or 6 pages that are completely red.
If we jump right from this tiny introduction of events, straight to Easter next week, there is so much that we miss. I don't just mean that we miss the enormity of Easter if we don't also experience the bleakness of holy week. I really mean that we miss how much time is slowed down over the coming week. In just seven more days, so much of what we love about Jesus' message to us will happen: the deep emotions of Jesus from being arrested, betrayed, questioned, mocked, and the pure ugliness of an execution so painful and public, until death; the desperation of Pilate who really doesn't want to make this decision.
From this side of the resurrection, this week is a week to be savored. Take just a little bite. It's not good for you to chew on the whole thing at once. Here, says today's scripture, have just a taste. Experience the slowness and fullness of each day during this time. This story is eternal.
Today the story of all stories begins. Today is the beginning of the answer to “Why do the stories of Jesus matter?” They matter because from here on out, we will find out just how much Jesus has done for us and taught us just in his last days. The reading from today gives us a taste of the irony of hearing these very crowds later rejecting him. Today we set the tone.
Resurrection will have the last word. But pretend for a moment that we didn't know that. Can we put ourselves into the scripture for today? We do that when we wave our branches and shout Hosanna today. We sing songs about a triumphal entry, knowing that the triumph comes at a cost. God chose this cost. I am really opposed to gnashing our teeth and tearing our garments and covering ourselves in sack cloth. We don't hold guilt for Jesus' death. There isn't anyone to blame for Jesus dying. There's only someone to thank. We can thank God who made this choice. For us. For us to have our lives and our world and be God's stewards of all that we have. Our lives don't come without much suffering and many challenges and transitions and losses and deep grief. But God didn't put just one person in the Garden of Eden. He put two humans. Right from the beginning God set us up to have one another.
We have each other today too. Even though we are sheltering in place and visits are impossible, we are still with each other. Here we are today, experiencing with each other, what is for some of us, the first major disruption in societies around the world. Some of us have watched our country go to war, more than once, have lived through the fright of polio, and the measles. Some of us have only heard about American events and events around the world from history books. In many years, others will be reading about 2020 in history books. What will they read?
We can help write those future history books by what we do now. What we do as a society will be different than what we are able to do as individuals. We can't all be heroes all the time. Remember that everyone had big life problems before this virus was put on top of all that. People who are ill are still ill and maybe more worried than before. People who can't cope, still can't cope and getting to resources is even harder. Poverty still ravages individuals and communities, only now it's even harder to get by every day. Our own community witnessed the story of a house fire just last week, reminding us that life's ills aren't only in the form of this virus.
What we can write for those future history books is how compassionate we were with ourselves and with one another; how we stepped up little by little to meet just one small challenge at a time; how each of us found some small skill or activity that it turns out everyone needs right now, like sewing masks, keeping our local restaurant in business, playing with a child because as resilient as children are, their confusion is great, reaching out, writing a note, spreading kindness when we get the chance. In short, how can we, as poet John O'Donohue says, “Endeavor to remain aware of the quiet world that lives behind each face.” (from “For a New Position” in To Bless the Space Between Us)
As Easter people we know a story about triumph. We believe in a God that would even give up his only Son, in order to have a real relationship with us. We believe in a God who cares and is always with us and helping us and showing us the way. We hold on to that knowledge. The knowledge that is “too wonderful for me.” The story is ours.
So for today, let's start with just a taste. This Holy Week will bring us more. Let's do this. Together. Let's open the curtain.
Reverend Debra McGuire
April 5, 2020