Read Matthew 21:1-11 and try to imagine the noise of the crowd as Jesus rode into Jerusalem. The exact location of Bethphage is unknown, but it is traditionally thought to be located on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, less than a mile to the east of Jerusalem. It doesn’t sound very far away, but to have around a mile’s worth of people shouting, cheering, singing, waving their branches and putting their cloaks on the floor must have been riotous. Crowds in front of Jesus, crowds behind Jesus, crowds lining the road…
What might have been going through the people’s minds as they saw Jesus make his way from Bethpage to Jerusalem? Some explanation of the symbolism might help your reflections here. As Matthew quotes in verses 4 and 5, Jesus fulfils the prophesy in Zechariah 9:9: the prophecy of a king riding on a donkey. Jerusalem is the royal city, the city of King David (see Psalm 48:1-2). By laying down their cloaks, the crowd are signifying their submission to Jesus as king (as the crowds did for Jehu in 2 Kings 9:13). Palm branches were symbols of victory and were often used as prominent decorations on walls and coins. ‘Hosanna’ is a Hebrew expression meaning ‘save’, and by calling Jesus the Son of David, the crowd was acknowledging Jesus as the descendent of Israel’s greatest king.
You can understand why the whole city was stirred. But what about you? If you were in this crowd, where would you be? Would you be joining in with the cloaks and the branches and the singing? Would your voice be joining in the “Hosannas”? And if you were asked “Who is this?” (as in verse 10), what would your response be?
TRIP TWO: The Royal Palace, Stockholm
Think about any stately homes or palaces you have visited. If you have the chance, visit a grand house or building near you. If not, you can find images or videos of Stockholm’s Royal Palace online. What impression do buildings like these make on you? What do you think of the wealth and opulence? What message does it communicate to you? Wealth is used in different ways to make different impressions, for example to glorify God, to exert power, to demonstrate influence or to serve others.
Read Matthew 26:6-13. In Backpackers, the children visit the Royal Palace in Stockholm but also a traditional Swedish holiday cottage like the ones that dot the islands around the capital. Simon’s house was more like a cabin, but the woman gave something more valuable than anything a king or queen might have in their palace.
Think about the people in the house that evening. What must they have thought? Simon might well have been upset that his special night with Jesus had been interrupted. As someone who had leprosy he would have spent a long time separated from the rest of his community. Or could his own suffering have made him sympathetic to the woman? The disciples were certainly angry. They saw the woman’s wealth being wasted when it could have been put to use to help others.
However, Jesus knew her true motivation and the purpose her wealth had been used for. What do you make of his comments to the disciples? Sometimes as children’s, youth and family workers we can spend all our time on ‘the poor’ – our outward-facing ministry – and not enough time on our own relationship with Jesus, worshiping and honouring him.
As you consider the woman’s actions, reflect on your own worship. Do you need to devote more of your time and energy to glorifying him?
TRIP THREE: The restaurants of Rome
If you can, go out to an Italian restaurant. If not, order (or make) yourself a pizza and find someone to share it with. Think about any significant meals you have eaten. What made them important? The company? The conversations? What you were celebrating?
Read Matthew 26:17-30 and try to imagine yourself at that special meal. With all the drama that happens in the upper room it’s easy to forget how important the meal itself was to the Jewish people. The Passover feast commemorated one of the most foundational events in the history of the people of God: when he rescued them from slavery in Egypt. If you have time, go back to Exodus and read about that first Passover in chapter 12. It is with this background that Jesus ‘repurposes’ these most powerful symbols to represent his own sacrifice.
In his account, Matthew states that after this they sang a hymn and went out to the Mount of Olives. But what must the disciples have been thinking after the meal? Jesus has talked of his death before but they still don’t really get what’s going on.
Today we have the benefit of hindsight, together with centuries of thought and discussion about the events of this Maundy Thursday undertaken by those who have gone before us. How do you understand what Jesus does in this passage and the significance of his impending death and resurrection? What about the person you’re sharing pizza with?
Spend some time in prayer, reflecting on Jesus’ actions and the significance of the symbolism. Ask for a fresh understanding this Easter time
TRIP FOUR: The Matterhorn, Zermatt
In Backpackers, the children venture up the Matterhorn, an almost pyramidal mountain near the Swiss town of Zermatt. Climbing it can be beautiful, scary, dangerous and exhilarating. Search online for pictures or video clips of people making the ascent. Alternatively, go for a walk up a hill near your home. What emotions do you feel when you look out at the views?
As Jesus and his friends climb the Mount of Olives there were probably many emotions in play. Jesus knows what is going to happen but his friends still don’t understand. Their heads must have been reeling as they tried to process the idea that one of them would betray Jesus and work out what he meant with all that body and blood business at the Passover feast.
How are you feeling as you approach the Easter weekend? Are you so wrapped up in your ministry that you haven’t had time to slow down and reflect on the story for yourself? Are you filled with the same confusion that appears to have been affecting the disciples? Or are you in tune with what Jesus is about to undergo?
Again, we know that even though Jesus was heading toward the cross he wouldn’t stay dead. However, at this moment in time he is experiencing the betrayal of one friend and a lack of support from others before going on to face a trial, beatings, humiliation and death. Read Matthew 26:36-46 and try to keep that in mind.
Go on to read Matthew 26:47-56. The children and young people we work with will probably identify with being betrayed by someone they thought was a friend. However, as adults we may be less familiar with this concept. When someone we love acts against us (either by accident or on purpose) it can be devastating. Are you in this position today? Are you the one being hurt or perhaps the one doing the hurting? How can you mend this broken relationship?
TRIP FIVE: Hyde Park, London
The children in Backpackers find themselves in Hyde Park. If you’re not near London, go out into your garden and take a look around. If you don’t have a garden, find a park or piece of open land. What can you see? What can you hear? How does it feel?
Make sure you take your Bible with you, and while you’re outside read Matthew 27:45-66. As you sit, stand or wander around your open space, consider the events described in these verses. There is so much to reflect on here. In the style of Lectio Divina (“divine reading”), go back to the verses that speak to you most. Is there anything here you haven’t really noticed before?
Jesus was buried at the end of Friday, before the start of the Sabbath, and then everything paused for a day. Matthew doesn’t tell us what that Sabbath was like for Jesus’ friends; he skips over it and tells us of the glorious events of Sunday morning. Pause for a moment and imagine yourself into that day of rest. What must it have been like?
Go on to read Matthew 28:1-10. The disciples have long since fled (26:56), but the women are still with him. They are there at the crucifixion (27:56) and at the burial (27:61), and now here they are at the tomb (28:1). Try to imagine the conversation between the two Marys as they make their way to the garden. What do you think they were talking about?
Matthew doesn’t tell us about the impact of Jesus’ resurrection or any deeper theological meaning in this passage. That is left for Paul and the other letter writers of the New Testament. Yet, as you’ve journeyed with Jesus through this week of events in Jerusalem, what has God been saying to you about this momentous story? What fresh revelation have you encountered?