This is the thirty-first installment, comprising Act 5. Scene 1, chapter 11: 1-11, in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I am blogging on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the thirtiethinstallment here. Links to the entire series are available in one spot at The Complete Gospel of Mark Online Commentary.
This is my division of the Gospel:
Act 1, 1:14-3:6;
Act 2, 3:7-6:6;
Act 3, 6:7-8:26;
Act 4, 8:27-10:52;
Act 5, 11:1-13:37;
Act 6, 14:1-16:8(20).
1 When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 2 and said to them, "Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. 3 If anyone says to you, "Why are you doing this?' just say this, "The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.' " 4 They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5 some of the bystanders said to them, "What are you doing, untying the colt?" 6 They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. 7 Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. 8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. 9 Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! 10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!" 11 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve. (NRSV)
Is it my imagination, or does the dramatic tension rise again as Jesus enters Jerusalem? I do not think it is simply my imagination. Mark’s dramatic proclivities have prepared us for this entry as well as any Western film which has primed us for the hero’s entry into a one road town to face down the bad guy, gun hanging in its holster on his right leg, hands dangling loosely at his sides. We know what is to come, but how will it play itself out? Mark has had Jesus tell us three times in Act 4 that he is going to Jerusalem to fulfill his mission, that he will die and that he will rise again. These three Passion Predictions have been met with incomprehension for the most part by his disciples, who attempt to turn the conversation, in various ways, to human success, achievement and honor. As they come near to Jerusalem, we wonder how this will play itself out, not just for Jesus, but for his followers and the crowds which have often been near to him. We remember, too, the chilling foreshadowing, which Mark left us at the end of Act 1: “the Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him” (3:6). Why do they want him dead? Their purposes as we have seen are at odds with those of Jesus, at least in some fundamental ways, but both see Jesus’ death as the necessary outcome of his mission.
The tension is seemingly undercut by the casual approach to Jerusalem which Mark describes, but in fact it places Jesus’ entry in the prophetically drenched tradition of Messianic hopes, the edges of which Mark has been traversing for the whole of the Gospel. So as they approach Jerusalem and Mark locates their entry “at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives” (11:1), and Jesus instructs two of his disciples to “go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately,’” (11:2-3), it creates the dramatic context in which all that has been and will be unfolds. Jesus knows, for instance, that there will be a colt awaiting his disciples that has never been ridden. Jesus’ need for the colt will be understood, somehow, by the owner, when the disciples tell him that “The Lord needs it.” And, finally, Jesus identifies himself, or the fulfillment of his mission, or perhaps both, with the Lord. In either case, Jesus knows the will of the Lord. The prophetic context has been set in these simple instructions.
Indeed, when the disciples go and take the colt, which they find just as Jesus said, “some of the bystanders said to them, ‘What are you doing, untying the colt?’”(11:4-5), which is a fair question. You might ask the same question if someone decided to take your car while you were standing in front of it. It is more than just the owner of the colt, though, whom we might expect to question why someone is taking his colt - these are actually just bystanders. It actually ramps up the prophetic nature of the action. They know these disciples of Jesus do not own the colt, but when the disciples "told them what Jesus had said…they allowed them to take it” (11:6). This means that the prophetic nature of the act is “known” in some manner to a diffuse group, even by these bystanders, who are not major players in the unfolding drama. All has gone according to plan, just as Jesus outlined it.
When the disciples bring the colt to Jesus, therefore, anticipation is high. These simple instructions have heightened our expectations as to Jesus’ next move. Jesus sits upon the colt (11:7) and Mark now tells us that a crowd has gathered and “many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’” (11:8-10). These verses give us the culmination of the prophetic nature of Jesus’ actions. First, by riding on the colt into Jerusalem, Jesus is placed by Mark as the one who fulfills the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9-10:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.
This is a messianic prophecy in the context of the eschatological end, the triumph of God's plan. The warrior Messiah enters Jerusalem as a sign of contradiction, “triumphant and victorious” – in what way? – but “humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt.” Zechariah foresees a King whose dominion is worldwide, commanding peace to the nations. Mark does not explain how this victory will be won, unless we have missed it along the way, but he implies that in some way it is being won even by his entry into the city.
Second, the response of the people to Jesus, shouting out to him, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!,” indicates their acceptance of this prophecy. They are shouting words from Psalm 118:25-26,
Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of the Lord.
“Hosanna” is a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew “save us.” Whether they are acknowledging Jesus as a savior, and in what way, or simply acknowledging him as king, they are certainly in Mark’s dramatic context welcoming him as from God. There is an element to their cry which is hard to pin down, but the addition of “blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David” to the Psalm leaves no doubt of the eschatological and messianic fulfillment which Mark sees in this entry. Jesus is the davidic king, whose coming has been awaited for generations.
Everything has been put into place. Jesus enters Jerusalem as the fulfillment of prophecy, as the coming king, as the eschatological harbinger of the new age. Mark brings the scene to a subtle end, though, letting it all sink in as Jesus goes to survey the Temple of Jerusalem. It is a subtle end because the Temple is the center not just of Jerusalem and the Jewish sacrificial cult, but in ancient near eastern thought, the center of the world, the navel at the center of the world, the cosmic rock which links heaven and earth, the dwelling place of God. Jesus’ survey of the Temple mount without a word or insight into his intentions raises our expectations once again, just as we are coming to terms with Mark’s presentation of Jesus as the king who is to come. Jesus “looked around at everything” (11:11) in the Temple and then left with “the twelve.” Welcomed into the city as king, he leaves the city with his closest disciples as night as falling, the next step undisclosed.But the Temple must be at the center of his plans. Why else would he "case the joint" wordlessly before leaving the city?
John W. Martens
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