Jesus knew that the time had finally come—the hour when the Son of Man would be glorified. He had set his face like flint toward Yerushalayim; everything he had done and taught had led to this moment. The authorities expected him to skulk into the city for Passover. But he had other plans. Plans set in place long before, through the words of the prophets.
As he approached Yerushalayim with his disciples, they came to Bethphage, the “house of early figs,” and Bet Anya at the Mount of Olives. Jesus sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a foal tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ tell him, ‘The Master needs it and will send it back here shortly.’” When they entered the village they found the foal, just as Jesus had said.
They brought the foal to Jesus, threw their cloaks over it, and helped him climb onto its back. As Jesus mounted the animal, word began to spread that he was riding into town, and great excitement erupted everywhere. Some people started to spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread palm branches that they had cut in the fields. Many looked on with awe, others just with curiosity. What did it mean? Were the people re-enacting the victory celebration that had followed the Maccabees’ successful retaking of Yerushalayim in battle, more than a century earlier? It almost looked like the parade for a new Roman governor—although the governor always entered the city on a war charger, not a lowly donkey.
Those who went ahead and those who followed behind sang the psalms of ascents, the pilgrimage psalms, praising G-d and crying out:
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!
Hosanna in the highest!
With the songs of the crowds ringing in his ears, Jesus entered Yerushalayim and went straight to the temple. He looked around at everything, taking in all the activity going on there, including the trading and money-changing operations. What he saw infuriated him, but it was already late, and so he went out to Bet Anya with the Twelve.
The disciples were filled with both anticipation and fear. While they were proud of their association with Jesus, they were also apprehensive about what might happen next. Judas, especially, was excited, for when he saw Jesus ride into Yerushalayim on a donkey, he remembered the prophecy of Zechariah which had foretold of the coming King:
Say to the daughter of Zion,
“Behold, your King is coming to you,
gentle, and mounted on a donkey,
even on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.”
Surely, the time had come for Jesus to claim the throne of his people, and throw the Romans out of Judaea. Surely, the yoke of the oppressor was about to be broken, as Isaiah had foretold so long ago!
They arrived in Bet Anya six days before the Passover, and Lazarus gave another dinner in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with Jesus. Then Mary brought out a pint of pure nard, the most expensive perfume. She poured it on Jesus’ feet, wiping them with her hair, and the house was filled with the fragrance.
Judas Iscariot objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages!” He did not say this primarily because he cared about the poor, but because he was the keeper of the money bag. From time to time, he would help himself to what was put into it, setting money aside for the revolt against Rome that he believed was imminent.
“Leave her alone,” responded Jesus. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” Meanwhile a large crowd of Judaeans found out that Jesus was there, and they came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many more Judaeans were putting their faith in Jesus.
As they departed Bet Anya to return to Yerushalayim early the next morning, Jesus was hungry. Seeing a fig tree in the distance, he went to find out if it had any fruit. In the spring, one might have expected to find early fruit on the tree for which Bethphage was named. But when he reached it, he found only leaves, not the sweet figs that would come in the fall. Jesus said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again,” and his disciples heard him say it. He then walked down the Mount of Olives across the Kidron Valley, and over Mount Zion.
Once in Yerushalayim itself, Jesus entered the temple and caused quite a stir. He began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And he spoke a prophetic word, saying, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”
Then some of the Judaeans demanded of him, “What miraculous sign can you show us to prove you have authority to do all this?”
Jesus’ answer was enigmatic. “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
With a sneer one responded, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?”
The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard about this and redoubled their efforts to find a way to kill Jesus; they feared him because the crowds were amazed at his teaching. But Jesus had far too large a following for them to act in broad daylight, especially with throngs of pilgrims present for the Passover Festival. So they began to look for an opportune moment to do something in the dark of night.
The next morning, as Jesus and the disciples went along the same road into Yerushalayim from Bet Anya, the disciples noticed that the fig tree had withered from the roots. Cephas remembered and said to Jesus, “Master, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”
“Have faith in G-d,” Jesus answered. “Amen, I say to you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. Therefore, I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”
They arrived again in Yerushalayim at Mount Zion, and while Jesus was walking in the temple courts, the chief priests, the teachers of the Law, and the elders came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “Who gave you authority to do this?”
Jesus replied, “I will ask you one question. Answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism: Was it from heaven, or from humans? Tell me!”
They huddled and, in whispered discussion, concluded, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From humans . . .’” They feared the people, for everyone held that John was truly a prophet. So they turned back to Jesus and answered, “We don’t know.”
Jesus said, “Then neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” He continued to teach boldly in the temple courts, drawing enormous crowds. On this day, especially because there were so many Galileans present with him, Jesus chose to tell the sort of parables they enjoyed so much.
“Tell me what you think,” Jesus said to the authorities present. “There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ ‘I will not,’ the son answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
“The first,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of G-d ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.
“Listen to another parable. A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the winepress, and built a tower. Then he rented it to tenant farmers and took a trip. When it was time, he sent a servant to collect from the tenants his share of the fruit of the vineyard. But they grabbed the servant, beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. The landowner sent another servant to them, but they struck him on the head and treated him disgracefully. He sent another one; that one, they killed. The landlord sent many other servants, but the tenants beat some and killed others.
“Now the landowner had one son, whom he loved dearly. He sent him last of all, thinking, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenant farmers said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ They grabbed him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.”
Every eye was on Jesus, and he was watching the priests and the scribes.
“So what will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.”
When the elders of the people heard it, they cried out, “May it never be!”
Jesus looked at them and said, “Have you never read in the Scriptures, ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the keystone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? Therefore, I tell you that the kingdom of G-d will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.”
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. They fumed, and looked for a way to arrest him, but they continued to be afraid of the crowd because the people held that Jesus was a prophet. So once again, they did nothing.
Did you enjoy this entry? It is an excerpt from Ben Witherington’s The Gospel of Jesus: A True Story. In this imaginative harmonization of the four Gospels, Witherington opens up the world of Jesus and helps us hear his story as one seamless narrative.
With his customary eye for cultural and historical details, and engaging commentary on what are sometimes overly-familiar stories, this New Testament scholar invites us to join those first century followers of Jesus around their fires and at their dinner tables, and hear the Gospel of Jesus for the first time all over again.