December 4, 2020

Holy Week with Zechariah (1): Mismatched Expectations

Entry into Jerusalem, d'Ambrogio

Entry into Jerusalem, d’Ambrogio

A book which, as we have already seen, was arguably of great influence on Jesus, and which contained dark hints about the necessary suffering of the people of YHWH, is of course Zechariah, particularly its second part (chapters 9-14).

…The underlying theme of the passage, as of so much Jewish literature of the period, is the establishment of YHWH’s kingship, the rescue of Israel from oppression and exile, and the judgment both of the nations and of wicked leaders within Israel herself….

…There should be no doubt that Jesus knew this whole passage, and that he saw it as centrally constitutive of his own vocation, at the level not just of ideas but of agendas.

– N.T. Wright
Jesus and the Victory of God

* * *

Zechariah, whose oracles are included as a portion of the Book of the Twelve Prophets in the Hebrew Bible, was apparently on Jesus’ mind during Holy Week (especially the part of his book we know as chapters 9-14). Reason enough that these texts might be a source for our own contemplation during these days leading up to the Passion.

Probably the most familiar passage from this prophetic book is the one that mirrors the events on what we call Palm Sunday. This was the day of Jesus’ “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem.

The Entry into Jerusalem, Limbourg Bros.

The Entry into Jerusalem, Limbourg Bros.

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 warhorse 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.

– Zechariah 9:9-10, NRSV

The Palm Sunday story is one of those rare events that is recorded in all four Gospels: in (1) Matt. 21:1-9, (2) Mark 11:1-10, (3) Luke 19:28-40, and (4) John 12:12-19. All four Gospels link the narrative with Psalm 118 (esp. vv. 25-26), another passage that plays a key role in the Gospel accounts of Passion week. It is Matthew and John that specifically mention Zechariah 9 (Matt 21:5/John 12:15), but it is obvious that each evangelist is drawing clear allusions to the prophet’s words in that chapter.

We can make the following simple observations from this text:

1. This was to be a day of great rejoicing in Israel and Jerusalem.

2. This day would mark the coming of their victorious king.

3. Their king would present himself to them in humility — riding on a donkey.

4. His victory would mean the end of warfare, his reign would mean peace.

5. His rule would be universal.

N.T. Wright calls Jesus’ enactment of this prophecy on Palm Sunday, “a mismatch between our expectations and God’s answer.”

Sure, we all love a parade, and the crowd on that day by all accounts was celebrating and feeling good about their prospects as they cheered on Jesus. Furthermore, they explicitly recognized him in “son of David” language — they identified Jesus with the Messianic King. He was the One who had “come in the name of the Lord,” and they blessed him and cried out to him, “Hosanna!” (Lord, save us!). They cast down their cloaks before him, as the people had done before Jehu, king of Israel (2Kings 9:13). They cut down palm branches and spread them before his way (the ancient way of giving the “red carpet” treatment). This was reminiscent of the welcome Simon of the Maccabees had received 200 years before (1Maccabees 13:51). (Simon also cleansed the temple like Jesus, but that’s a story for another day.)

Clearly, the people saw Jesus in terms of victory over their enemies and restoration of the Davidic dynasty. In short, they were hoping Jesus would bring an end to the “exile” experience that they had been dealing with for hundreds of years. On Palm Sunday, they thought the time had arrived when they were going to win.

This is what they were expecting. God, in Jesus, had something else in mind.

  • They wanted deliverance, but there were greater enemies than Rome ruling over them. This king had come to set them free from evil powers, not enemy peoples.
  • They wanted a king to bring them victory, but the one who came would win only by losing.
  • They wanted their pride and renown as a nation restored, but their king would call them to take up a cross and follow him.
  • They wanted a special place among the nations, in a promised land, ruling over the peoples of the earth. However, their king offered welcome, on an equal basis, to people from all nations in order that he might call them his sons and daughters as well.
  • They wanted change, security, power and control. He offered them a servant’s position, and life that can only be gained by dying.

What am I expecting during this Holy Week?

What words and symbolic actions will King Jesus use to speak to me of his ways, which are infinitely higher than mine?


  1. This Holy Week I want the same things I want every week: I want God to deliver my wife and me from our suffering and fear, from our insufficient resources and our dysfunctional relationships, from all the mistakes we’ve made and continue to make, from the ability to wound each other and ourselves and others, from being wounded by others. I want God this Holy Week to free me from the prison of myself, and to give me the pure heart that I neither can nor want to give to myself.

    But I’m expecting this week to not be much different from any other week, except for the busyness of church activities replacing the busyness of daily life, since I’ve scheduled three days off from work. A service of healing on Wednesday, two Maundy Thursday services, the rigors of the long Good Friday service when the altar is stripped and we leave the sanctuary in silence, the long Easter Vigil service on Saturday night, up at 4:00AM Sunday morning for two Festival Eucharist Services with the choir, of which I’m a member, singing at both.

    If I have the sense of God speaking to me this Holy Week, it will not be in the flurry of religious activities and rituals. He will speak to me the way he always has: in the quiet moments, when he shows me myself and my inadequacies and the tawdriness of my desires, and silently draws me along behind him in his wake as he opens up the path into the life he has chosen for me, beyond my wishing or desiring, beyond my hopes.

    Lord, I’m not worthy that you should come under my roof, but only speak the word and my soul shall be healed.

  2. Robert, may God bless and heal you, body and soul, may He make His face to shine upon you and give you peace. May He show you the Way home and help you to walk in it.

    CM, given the state of spiritual evolution at the time of the original Palm Sunday, you could hardly blame the populace for feeling completely duped and bamboozled at day’s end. Their expectations crashed and burned before their eyes. Jesus started the process of cleansing and rescue from enemies internal and external, and then it fizzled out and he disappeared with less of a bang and more of a whimper. No wonder they were ready to call for his blood at the end of the week.

    In retrospect it seems apparent that Jesus inaugurated a new age just as he said with different perspectives of the rules, and a higher level of consciousness. It seems probable to me that we are again on the cusp of a new age and maybe no more prepared for it than those crowds two thousand years ago. I get the feeling that you may be getting glimmers yourself. One of my main goals is not to miss or misinterpret what’s going on this time around, but I’m certainly not infallible.

  3. I so often do not want the peace that God gives.

    But I want the peace the world offers.

    But it will not happen that way. God will not let us win. Not in the way we want.

    But we will win. In the way that He has set forth…through the Cross…alone.