Historical and Cultural Contexts of Words
READ MATTHEW 21:1-11
Matthew, like all the evangelists, has a particular audience in mind as he writes his Gospel. It is generally agreed that Matthew is writing to the Jewish-Christian audience, some of the first Jews to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. His readers, then, would have been familiar with the promises of the Hebrew Bible including the words of the prophets. It is important for Matthew to speak to his audience in their own symbolic language. The early Christian elders who decided to place Matthew’s narrative of the life and ministry Jesus in first position among the Gospels understood it as a bridge from the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament to the New Testament. Old symbols renewed, is one way to conceptualize Matthew’s work. Matthew had to be translingual and transcultural. Much like the effective preacher today, Matthew attempts to distill the eternal of the Law and the Prophets and temporarily compress it into language and images that can unfold in new contexts which the original writers never imagined.
The preparation to enter and the entrance into Jerusalem represent a kind of homecoming for the incarnate Word of God. In the sequential images, Jesus is recognized as the Lord and King. It is important to notice however, that these images and Matthew fulfill the longing for the Messiah in oddly unconventional ways. While it seems that Jesus accepts the role of Lord, he does not demand the donkeys. He requests them of their owner for temporary use. And he will send them back immediately (Mat 21:3).
In the triumphal entrance into Jerusalem, Jesus is not portrayed as a type of conquering Alexander entering the city atop his ever steady Bucephalus. Instead Zechariah 9.9 retools the image to remind us of the true role of a ruler: to create conditions so that the people may live together in peace. I wonder if it was not the intention of Zechariah to flip the image of the victory dance and song, an Ancient Near Eastern tradition in which the women led the celebration of the victory that their god and their god’s warriors had won. Matthew takes this image and reminds us of Zachariah’s celebration of peace and harmony. Isaiah’s eighth century word of comfort to Ahaz includes the promise that the fetus developing in the womb of one of his courtiers, will be known not as a warrior, but as The Prince of Peace. The quotation from Zechariah continues: 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. (Zec 9:10)
FOR REFLECTION AND ACTION
How many languages and cultural impediments must we cross to return to something like the original meaning of the text and then bring it forward to speak to today’s audiences in the United States? What would it mean today for Christians to truly worship Jesus as the prince of peace? Can we diminish if not eliminate martial metaphors from our preaching and teaching of the faith? Can we trust God to be our armor, and encounter our neighbors as friends rather than enemies?
By Peter Nash
Peter Nash is the Franklin I. and Irene List Saemann Professor in World Communities and Professor of Religion and Liberal Studies at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa. He teaches primarily in the areas of introduction to Scripture, the Church’s roles in creating supporting and dismantling racialized and gender bias societies, and teaches travel seminars during May terms.