Matthew is written to a Jewish audience and is filled with discourses that help instruct Jewish people on how to live. Matthew is all about declaring that Jesus is King. The Jewish people, known for having begged God for a King (and reaping what they sow as a result), are still looking for a political revolution. The Sadducees, the ruling class that conflates Roman rule with Jewish culture, aren’t helping matters. They are like Ted Cruz announcing his candidacy at Liberty University—where does the state end and faith begin? For some, like Simon the Zealot, they are causing him to want to separate from the Romans and create a Jewish revolution—even with violence.
Matthew’s audience is still befuddled at the lack of revolution. Imagine, again, that you are a disciple and you’ve been hanging out with Jesus. He keeps saying that the Kingdom of God is near and that the Kingdom of God is like this. Surely, Israel is God’s Kingdom and Jesus is going to usher it in.
But then Jesus starts talking about dying. When he lists it for the third time, it is right before the Triumphal entry, and the disciples still don’t get it.
Clear as day. Jesus says it: I am going to die. This is the deal. I’ll be tried unjustly by my own people (by Matthew’s audience!), I’ll be flogged, killed, and then I’ll resurrect, changing the whole world.
It seems like his disciples don’t get it. They may, but Matthew makes it seem like they don’t, possibly because Matthew’s Jewish audience doesn’t get it either. I’m not sure we get it either.
Lent is still not a revolution for us. We are clouded with death, mourning, sorrow, temptation. The world is hard, oppressive. At the very least it’s weird. We may expect something of Jesus—maybe a political revolution or any number of other things—but he always delivers something else.
Matthew places the infamous request of John and James’ mother after this moment of prediction. I think it’s to show us how much his audience doesn’t get it. How much we don’t get it. Their mother asks Jesus if he will honor his favorite disciples by granting them a seat next to him in his kingdom. She’s still thinking a political kingdom is coming, with seats of honor, no less. I almost feel bad for her. She doesn’t get it and her kids have triangulated her into their mess (or maybe she is what caused it all).
Jesus, as he often does in Matthew, reiterates that they don’t know what they are asking. Can they drink from his cup of death? The one he just predicted that he would drink from soon. They agree that they can, and their fate is sealed. But still, all of this nonsense about honor seats isn’t really Jesus’ realm, so he can’t really answer it. In fact, by virtue of drinking from the death cup, the honor seat is totally flipped upside down. Jesus came to die to save us, not to kill to save us.
In fact, when his disciples grumble about the audacity of James and John and their excitable mother, Jesus again teaches them the fundamentals of the backwards kingdom. He says that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them—the best rulers of Gentiles are tyrants over their people (totally a jab at Claudius, this insecure Roman emperor who has to kill rebellious senators to keep his power). But in Jesus’ way, the servant is greatest—if you want to be first, become someone’s slave. “Just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, to give his life a ransom for many.”
The rules are changing. The world is changing. Jesus is ushering in a revolution.
Finally, Matthew ends chapter twenty with Jesus healing two blind men (symbolic of James and John?). They can’t see and they ask Jesus, the son of Man and the son of David, to have mercy on them. Jesus heals them. And he heals all of us. We can now see clearly. We can see clearly his alternative way of doing things.
Jesus is demonstrating his authority when he goes and he gets the colt and its mother (colts that hadn’t been ridden yet were often accompanied by their mothers). His meekness as a King is not one that lacks authority. He gets what he wants.
Some people like to emphasize the fact that Jesus came in on a donkey, and not like a Roman official would with the militaristic horse. This is not unique to Christ. Many peaceful officials would arrive on the assuming beast of burden.
But even in his meek form, there are people in the crowd who know who is he and they are declaring that he is the Son of David! He is well known in Galilee where he is from, but even in Jerusalem many know of him. And when they don’t, they are corrected.
Jesus shows us who he is on Palm Sunday. He models his meekness, his backwardness, and he fulfills Zechariah’s prophecy. He is making himself known.
But it seems to me the Jewish people think this Holy Week is going to be a week of triumph and conquest. They are ready to be freed from their Roman oppressor. But the way of Jesus is unique. It’s unique to the whole world. It’s available to them too.
Truly, the Jewish people that Matthew is writing to and that Jesus is showing himself to in the Triumphal Entry will be redeemed, but so will their Roman occupiers. The Revolution is not in the politics, though the church certainly can be political. It is Jesus and who he is forming us into as a body.
Jesus does not want us to form a nation-state that spreads its own Gospel. He doesn’t want a Messianic government that tries to save the world. He wants us, as people, to be his agents of salvation. We are the changed ones, changing the world.
The revolution is not based in principles. It’s based on a person. Jesus is the revolution. Jesus is uniquely the revolution. He is distinct. He can’t be replaced with a competing philosophy. I’m not even sure Jesus competes. I don’t really think he is just the best option of all the options. I think he transcends options and reconciles all of them.
A good question for American Christians is what divides us? What are the arguments that prevent us from following Jesus? I’m not really a fan of dumbing down Jesus, but I also don’t like Jesus with a lot of additives or extractions. I don’t expect Jesus to mix well with existing power structures, but I also think he is all things to all people.
Isn’t that a paradox? The narrow path, the cup of death that we all drink to follow Jesus, is welcome to all. But it’s not so easy to traverse the path and drink the cup. So many distractions, so many personal interests. Perhaps we want to sit at the place of honor. Maybe we think we need to triumphantly enter on a horse. But Jesus calls us to radical servitude. In that very sentiment, he subverted the Jewish tradition and culture, and does ours too.
When we usher in such a radical, but humble expression of the revolution; a meek, but audacious revolution, I think people find faith in Christ. So often the church is not known for that. My practical advice for how to do that?
Hold your tongue. Listen first. Respond in love and with something to say beyond a reaction. It’s so easy to just blurt out our defense or our argument. Just wait for a moment. Be known for your humility.
Be less concerned about your rights. Americans love individual rights. It’s kind of the basis of the Enlightenment. For a moment, think of someone better than yourself. Allow someone else to have them first.
Be OK with rejection. Put yourself out there. Make an invitation. Be vulnerable. Lead with your generosity. If someone rejects you, forgive them and let the Lord handle the dirty work.
There are more ways we can bring the revolutionary love of Jesus. It may not feel like a revolution has happened, but I think those who need the revolution and aren’t merely entitled to it, it will be known.