The triumphal entry was a potent symbol of the Jewish Resistance and the Roman Repression that came in response. Josephus describes this violent cycle, how Titus’ final siege of Jerusalem killed over 1 million people. That’s out of 4-5 million Jews in the Roman world. Mark was writing the Jesus story during this same bloody period.
Jesus has spent 3 years in the countryside, building a widespread movement for personal, social and economic transformation. From the start, he quoted the call of the Hebrew prophets for justice, freedom for the oppressed, good news for the poor, recovery of site for the blind and the year of the Lord’s favor.
Now Jesus shows up at the seat of political power – Jerusalem – acting out the revolutionary ritual of the triumphal entry with a mass movement of God’s people rising up together. But Jesus’ triumphal entry had a very important twist from the normal kings’ entrance on a war horse. Zechariah is critical to understanding how the donkey changes the triumphal entry script:
I 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
Jesus banished the tools of imperial conquest and violence. Coming to turn things upside down in some very uncomfortable ways. He came not on a warhorse, but on a humble donkey.
Jesus approached the authorities in Jerusalem and called them out on their oppression and abuse of power. This was a wide ranging, systematic indictment of political oppression as well as personal sin. In challenging the oppression of the Pharisees, Sadducees and Rome, Jesus was challenging the heart of all systems that dominate and control. What alternative was he proposing?
In his phrase “my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” Jesus refers to Isaiah 56:4-8. Jesus puts foreigners, exiles and eunuchs in the center of the house of prayer. Not just exiles of Israel, but those even beyond: the immigrant who came to take their jobs. Those outside traditional male and female roles. These are people that even today we have been taught to fear and loathe. And here at the climax of Jesus life and ministry, he welcomed them into the center.
Jesus comes into our space telling us to put those people in the center. We are getting uncomfortable. Like the priests and scholars, we panic.