(58) See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey – Matthew 21:5

With the city of Jerusalem buzzing with the news of him raising Lazarus from the dead and the religious leaders planning to kill him, Jesus keeps his head down until the week before the Passover. Between them, the gospel writers devote a third of their writing to Jesus’ last week on earth as it is the dramatic climax to his work on earth.

On the Sunday before the Passover, Jesus approaches Jerusalem. He sends two of his disciples to find a donkey in a village and he then rides into the city to a rapturous reception. Crowds flock into the street and cut down branches to line the road ahead of him. In doing this, Jesus is clearly fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah, “See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9 quoted in Matthew 21:5).

By fulfilling Zechariah’s prophecy Jesus was raising the people’s expectations. Immediately after prophesying that he will come gently riding a donkey Zechariah says that the king  “will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. 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” (Zechariah 9:10). For the Jewish people who had lived under repressive Roman rule for almost a century this raised their expectations that Jesus would be the one who would finally give them independence. No wonder the people cried out “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (Matthew 21:9 quoting from Psalm 118:26).

Jesus went straight to the temple where he threw out the money changers and those who sold animals for sacrifice. He called them thieves as they were not only operating in a place that was for prayer but were also exploiting the poor. The people thronged around him and he healed them as the children cried out in praise to him. The chief priests were horrified but Jesus quoted from a Psalm to explain their actions and by accepting their praise he confirmed that he was in no doubt that he was God himself.

Jesus spent the next few days teaching and healing in the temple. The religious authorities were afraid to arrest him because of the reaction of the crowd – any riot would have been quickly and brutally suppressed by the Romans – but they sent various delegations to trick him with questions.

One group asked him where his authority came from but he turned the tables on them by asking whose authority John the Baptist operated under. They realised that if they said it was God’s then he would ask them why they didn’t believe in him, but if they said it was by man’s authority then the crowd would turn on them. They feebly said that they didn’t know so Jesus said that he wouldn’t answer their question – which had the same answer – either.

Another group asked if they should pay taxes to Caesar or not. It would be unpopular with the crowd just to say yes and it would bring the wrath of Rome if he said no. So, he took a coin and asked them whose picture was on it. When they replied that it was Caesar’s he said the famous line, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21). Jesus upheld the legitimate responsibilities of the civil authorities, whilst making it clear that God had the ultimate authority.

After Jesus dealt with a few tricky religious questions he asked a group of Pharisees how the Messiah could be the Son of David and yet David called him Lord. How could a man call one of his descendants God? The Pharisees had no answer for this, so demonstrating the limitations of their knowledge. Jesus then launched into a public attack on the behaviour of the scribes and Pharisees. He exposed their pride, their hypocrisy and their distortion of the law, making a big deal out of minor matters whilst neglecting mercy and faithfulness. In another vivid picture he accused them of carefully removing a gnat that had fallen into their drink and then swallowing a camel that they had overlooked (see Matthew 23:23-24).

Jesus was at the height of his popularity with the crowds but now had a wide range of enemies who were determined to remove him from the national stage.

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