The Humble King

April 2, 2023 homily on Matthew 21:1-11 by Pastor Galen Zook


I love parades. I love the music, the energy, and excitement, and the crowds of people. And so when I hear or read the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey while the crowds of people waved palm branches and called out “Hosanna!”, I’m reminded of the Mayor’s Christmas parade, coordinated by our very own trustee and board member Tom Kerr. Every December for the past 49 years, Tom and his wife Sharen have coordinated the biggest parade in the state of Maryland. 

The parade has 115 groups, including balloons, floats, marching bands, and more. All of the high schools in Baltimore and Baltimore participate. It takes over 60 people to work the parade, including many of us. Our board chair, Carl Baker, always drives one of the convertibles. Bill DeHaven and I always serve as judges. Zack Brown and Tom McGraw usually work the last division, which means they have to get there really early and work hard all day behind the scenes and never get to see the actual parade. And then of course there are the crowds of people who come to watch the parade – over 15,000 people line up along the parade route to watch and cheer.

Jesus’s “Triumphal” Entry

And in many ways, Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem had many of the attributes of a wonderful parade. There were crowds of people lined up along the parade route. There were the marchers – Jesus and his disciples, with Jesus as the guest of honor and parade marshal, both participating in the parade and directing his disciples where to go and what to do. Jesus’s disciples worked the logistics – procuring the donkey, and putting their cloaks on the donkey for Jesus to sit on. And there were even judges, the people in Jerusalem who were asking themselves, “who is this?” (a question that myself and the other parade judges have to ask ourselves quite a bit when we lose track of where we are in the parade schedule!)

But the crowd in this case were not just spectators – rather they became participants in the parade themselves. Matthew tells us that the people were taking off their cloaks and spreading them on the road and cutting branches off the trees to lay on the ground to form the equivalent of a “red carpet” for Jesus. They called out “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Matt 21:9). Since these words were taken directly from Psalm 118, most likely they were singing these words. And so the crowd was singing and participating in the parade.

The Fickle Crowd

Now, given the energy and enthusiasm of the crowd on that Palm Sunday, we may find it odd, then, that just a few days later, that very same crowd turned against Jesus. When Jesus was arrested and betrayed, and taken before the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate, the crowd that on Sunday had cried out “Hosanna!” called out for him to be crucified. When Pilate offered to release a prisoner, the crowd called out for Barabbas – a known criminal and murderer – to be set free, rather than Jesus.

And so we wonder, why the drastic change? Why was the crowd so fickle? How could they go from praising him one day to calling out for him to be executed 5 days later?

Parade with an Edge to It

But if we look a little more closely at what was going on on that Palm Sunday, we discover that the “parade” of people entering Jerusalem was not just there for fun and entertainment. This was not, in fact, the Mayor’s Christmas parade. Rather, for many, it was more of a protest march, and some of the people in the crowd wanted it to be something even more. 

You see, we learn later in the Gospel of Matthew that this was the season of Passover when crowds of people typically flocked to Jerusalem to celebrate and remember how God had delivered their ancestors from slavery in Egypt so many generations before. Many people would go on Pilgrimage to Jerusalem. If they lived far enough away, it may have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Others who lived closer went every year and stayed with friends and relatives in the city of Jerusalem, or even set up camp for several weeks outside the city.

And every year as these crowds flocked to Jerusalem, they not only remembered what God had done in the past – in freeing their ancestors from slavery – but they were also praying and longing for God to do it again – to free them once again from tyrannical rule. The Jewish people of Jesus’s day were living under Roman occupation. Their political leaders were really puppet leaders, set up by the Roman government to simply keep the peace – but they had no real political authority of their own. Even the high priest in their temple was a political appointee, appointed by Rome. (Imagine if your pastor were appointed not by the Bishop, but rather by the government?) 

And so neither their political nor their religious leaders had their best interests at heart. And so they longed for someone who could lead them to freedom like Moses did so long ago. And they wanted a king like King David – who was both a military leader and a spiritual leader. They longed for someone who would lead a violent revolution against Rome, and restore their power and authority as a sovereign nation.

And now here was Jesus — the miracle worker who had fed multitudes with just a few loaves of bread and a few fish. He had healed people and even brought the dead back to life. He had calmed a storm at sea and even walked on water. Imagine what someone with that sort of power could do? And now here he was, making his way to Jerusalem – their capital city – and at Passover time, no less! And so they thought, “perhaps this is it! Perhaps God will finally overthrow the yoke of oppression and set us free from captivity!” And so the people called out to Jesus to save them, and they hailed him as the Son of David – their term for the king who was to come – the king they hoped would bring them political freedom and salvation from their earthly enemies. 

Not the King they were Expecting

But of course, as we know, and as the crowd should have known, this is not why Jesus came, and one way this was evidenced was through Jesus’s choice of transportation into the city of Jerusalem.

You see, there were two reasons why kings of that time period would choose to ride into a city on a donkey. One was as a symbol that they were coming in peace. If the lookouts on the city walls looked out and saw the monarch of an enemy territory approaching the city on a stallion, they would know that the king or queen was trying to intimidate or perhaps even attack them. But riding on a donkey was a symbol that they were coming in peace.

The second reason was when a monarch would ride into their own territory – either a city that they had not yet visited that was under their rule and reign – or perhaps returning after a battle. Riding on a donkey symbolized victory in this case – no need to flaunt their power, they had already won!

And so the people should have known that Jesus was not coming into the city of Jerusalem to stage a violent takeover – and yet many chose to overlay their own hopes and aspirations for a violent revolution on top of Jesus. They wanted to make him into the type of king that they wanted him to be. And when he failed to deliver what they wanted, they were willing to cast him aside in favor of someone who they thought could give them what they wanted.

The Kingdom of Peace

In truth, Jesus’s choice of a donkey to ride into Jerusalem could be interpreted both as a symbol of peace, and of victory, since he both came to usher in and proclaim an eternal kingdom – a kingdom marked by peace and justice – a heavenly, eternal kingdom – and not just for the people of Israel, but for the whole world, as predicted by the prophet Isaiah, who said, “Great will be his authority, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore” (Isaiah 9:7).

Jesus announced God’s victorious rule and reign by defeating the power of sin and of death and oppression in whatever form it takes. And he did this, not through staging a political coup, but rather through living a life of self-sacrificial, unconditional love – and by teaching his followers to do the same. Jesus loved the world so much that he was willing even to give his life on the cross for the sins of the world. 

Imagine if everyone in the world were to live like Jesus lived, and to love like Jesus loved. The world truly would be a different place. It would be revolutionary. And this is what Jesus came to do – to show us how to live, and how to love and to empower us to do so. 

The Humble King

As the Apostle Paul tells us in the book of Philippians, “And being found in human form, he [Jesus] humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:8-11).

Now, it strikes me that even today we so often overlay our own hopes and dreams onto Jesus. Rather than accepting Jesus for who he is and why he came, as the humble and victorious king who gave his life for the sins of the world, we continue to parade whatever depiction of Jesus most fits what we want. Throughout history, Jesus has variously been depicted as a conquering military hero or a pushover, a cut-throat businessman, a hippie, or a symbol for the working class. He’s been depicted as a patriot or a hippie, a democrat, a republican, and a socialist. Some see Jesus as an ATM in the sky, who gives us whatever we want whenever we want, or as someone who promised to give us the good life here on this earth.

But if we are to worship and follow Jesus, then we must accept him on his terms – not ours. If we try to force Jesus into our mold or craft him into our image, then we will come away disappointed, and it may even lead us to reject him altogether, like so many in the crowd.

How much better to accept Jesus for who is was and is – the humble king, who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, proclaiming the peaceable and victorious kingdom. The servant who was willing to bend down and wash the feet of his disciples, and who taught his disciples to do likewise. The Savior of the World, who loved the world so much that he gave his life for us on the cross – shedding his blood for the sin of humanity. And the victorious king who conquered sin and death and the grave through dying and rising again and who will one day return. 

So let us hail Jesus as our King – but on his own terms. Let us follow him wherever he leads. And may we too follow in his footsteps, and seek to live the way Jesus lived, and love the way Jesus loved, with God’s help.


Published by Galen Zook

I am an artist, preacher, minister, and aspiring theologian

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