Secret of the Messiah — True Nature of the Kingdom
Editor’s Note — Part 8 of Jesus, Kingdom Builder, a 13-part study of St. Matthew’s Gospel by Dr. Sri. The series will run every two weeks.
“Ssshhhh. . . . Don’t tell anyone yet!”
That is basically what Jesus told the twelve apostles once they realized that He was the Messiah. In Matthew 16, we saw that Simon Peter was the first person to explicitly declare that Jesus was the long-awaited Davidic king. In dramatic fashion, Jesus praised Simon for his insight and gave him a preeminent office in His Church, as symbolized by the keys to the kingdom. Yet, at this exciting moment, Jesus did something which on the surface doesn’t seem to make much sense: “Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ” (Mt. 16:20).
Why would Jesus be so secretive? Didn’t He want people to know His messianic identity?
Jesus’ push for secrecy is understandable when we consider the first century Jewish context. If word got out that He was claiming to be the Messiah, this might have attracted the wrong sort of attention. Given the political and militaristic emphasis attached to the Jewish messianic hopes in Jesus’ day, such a public proclamation of His messiahship might have put Him in a dangerous situation. Anyone gathering a large group of followers and then claiming to be their anointed king certainly would have been considered a threat to the foreign powers that ruled the land. In fact, the last time would-be messiahs entered the scene in Palestine, just one generation before Jesus, their movements were swiftly squashed by Herod and the Roman armies, and the leaders were executed. Jesus was not ready for that quite yet. Although His time would come soon, He still had some work to do in His kingdom-building plan.
One such task involved redefining the popular notion of messiahship, divesting it of the political and militaristic connotations it carried in many sectors of first-century Judaism. Jesus began with His own disciples, who were not immune to this popular way of envisioning the Messiah. Imagine what the apostles were thinking once they realized that their own leader was the Messiah- King. What exhilaration and anticipation must have filled their hearts once they knew that their Jesus was the one spoken of by the prophets—the one who would rise victoriously over Israel’s enemies and restore the kingdom. Since Jesus had invited them to be co-leaders of His movement, the apostles probably hoped to obtain high-ranking offices once the kingdom was established.
Much to their dismay, Jesus had another type of kingdom in mind, one that He wanted His apostles to understand. Notice how immediately after Peter’s recognition that Jesus was the Messiah, Our Lord painted a stark picture of what kind of Messiah He was to be. In the very first verse after the scene of Peter’s profession of faith, Matthew tells us how Jesus began telling His disciples about His upcoming death in Jerusalem:
From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised (Mt. 16:21).
Think about how much of a shock this would have been to the apostles. What kind of Messiah was this? How could the Messiah be killed? Even Peter—who was just praised for recognizing Jesus as the promised Messiah—cannot comprehend the idea of the Messiah-King’s dying at the hands of His enemies: “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Mt. 16:22).
This was the first time Jesus spoke to the apostles about His future death, and this difficult conversation could not have come at a more strategic time. Now that it was clear to His disciples that He was indeed the Messiah, Jesus needed to stress to them that His royal reign would be established not on the battlefield or in the political arena, but through His death on the Cross. And right away He warned the apostles to think twice before vying for offices in His kingdom. Far from being able to ride the Messiah’s coattails into powerful positions in the kingdom, the apostles will face a radical challenge if they wish to participate in Jesus’ reign:
If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Mt. 16:24-25).
The pathway to Jesus’ kingdom is not military muscle or monarchical might, but sacrificial love and service.
Journey Toward Jerusalem
From this point on, Jesus’ movement in Galilee picked up a new focus. In Israel’s history, Jewish kings reign from Jerusalem. Therefore, if Jesus was the Messiah-King, He must go to the capital city to be enthroned. This is why Jesus begins speaking of His death in Jerusalem and taking His movement in the direction of the holy city.
Along the way, we see him continuing to redefine the notion of the Messiah and the kingdom for His apostles, emphasizing how His reign will be quite different from the world’s view of governing authority. In Matthew 18:1-4, Jesus extols certain qualities that few government leaders would see as essential to their authority. For Jesus, humility and childlikeness are fundamental characteristics of His kingdom: “Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom” (Mt. 18:4). Another feature of the kingdom of Jesus is forgiveness and mercy. Peter asks how many times he should forgive someone who harms him. “Seven times?” Peter asks. Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven times” (Mt. 18:22). This kingdom of forgiveness would have stood in contrast with many Jewish groups that wanted revenge on their pagan enemies.
Yet even after speaking about His upcoming death and the self-sacrifice, humility, and forgiveness that are hallmarks of His kingdom, the apostles still do not get it. A story in Matthew 20 illustrates how the kingdom is still understood in political categories. As Jesus and His followers were drawing nearer to Jerusalem, the mother of James and John approached Jesus on her knees with an amazing request: “Command that these two sons of mine may sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom” (Mt. 20:21). Not understanding the true nature of the kingdom and the price which Jesus will pay for it, the mother of these two apostles asks Jesus to give her sons the first places in His kingdom.
Jesus uses this as another opportunity to emphasize what His kingdom is really all about. He turned to the apostles and asked, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” (Mt. 20:22), referring to His imminent suffering and death. Jesus then contrasts His kingdom with the kingdoms of the world:
You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mt. 20:25-28).
In Jesus’ kingdom, to serve is to reign.
The Coming of the King
Finally, Jesus arrives at Jerusalem (cf. Mt. 21:1-11). Here we come to a famous scene from the Gospels with which Catholics are quite familiar. The drama of “Palm Sunday” is relived every year in the liturgy when Catholics carry branches and process into church, recalling Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem with the people greeting him as “the Son of David” and waving palm branches like they did when Judas Maccabeus freed the city from the Syrians (cf. 2 Mac. 10:7).
Notice how the people of Jerusalem gave Jesus a royal greeting. They, in a sense, rolled out a royal carpet for their monarch by spreading out branches and their garments on the ground where Jesus would walk—a custom ancient Jews did for kings in the Davidic monarchy (cf. 2 Kings 9:13). They called Jesus “the Son of David” and sang “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.”
One question we should ask is why the people gave Jesus this royal treatment. If Jesus instructed His disciples to keep His messianic identity somewhat quiet, why do the people come out to honor Him as their king entering the capital city? It all has to do with the donkey.
Riding on a Donkey
It is significant that Jesus deliberately chose to enter Jerusalem riding on a donkey. This little detail alone should tell us something significant is about to happen. Nowhere else in the Gospel do we read about Jesus traveling on an animal. Everywhere else He traveled, Jesus went on foot over land, and on boat over sea—and one time on foot over the sea when He walked on the water! But we never find Him riding on a donkey, or any animal, except when He enters Jerusalem. Why this new mode of transportation?
A key prophecy of Zechariah helps to illuminate this scene. Zechariah 9:9-10 foretells how the Messiah will enter Jerusalem riding on a donkey:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on an ass,
on a colt the foal of an ass
. . . 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.
Jesus deliberately chose to enter Jerusalem in this way in order to bring to mind Zechariah 9:9—a passage which the Jews would have known very well. This prophecy summed up their hopes for the Messiah—the one for whom they waited their whole lives, the one who would rescue them from their oppressors. By riding into the holy city on a donkey, Jesus, without saying a single word, was shouting out, “I am the Messiah-King coming to be enthroned in Jerusalem!” Zechariah 9:9 was being fulfilled right there before their eyes. In this action, Jesus boldly and unmistakably proclaimed that He was the Messiah. Certainly this was cause for great rejoicing and celebration.
We saw earlier that if Jesus were to publicly proclaim His messianic identity, He would quickly find Himself in big trouble. With Herod and the Romans ready to crush any rising revolutionaries or rival kings, a claim to messiahship would likely bring about an early end to His ministry and His very life. But after laying the foundations for His kingdom, Jesus was ready to make that bold move of announcing Himself to be Israel’s long-awaited Messiah- King. He had invested the apostles with His authority (Mt. 10), established Peter as the prime minister in the kingdom (Mt. 16), and trained His disciples on the true nature of the kingdom He was building (Mt. 16-20). Now in Jerusalem, Jesus rode on a donkey symbolically declaring Himself to be the Messiah . . . and in a few days He will pay the price.
Questions for Discussion:
- Why did Jesus want to keep His messianic identity quiet in Matthew 16? How and why did He proclaim His messiahship in Matthew 21?
- How does Jesus’ vision for authority differ from modern day views of power? Which is actually more effective? Why?
- Read Matthew 18:21-22 and 20:25-28. How are forgiveness and service true manifestations of power?
Reprinted with permission from the September 1999 issue of Lay Witness magazine. © 1999 Catholics United for the Faith / www.cuf.org/Laywitness/index.asp
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