Did they get it right?
Did those in the crowd who gathered to see this hick from out-of-the-way Nazareth give the correct answer to the urban and urbane Jerusalemites wanting to know who the center of all the attention was. The one whose entry into Jerusalem was causing the whole city to tremble like an earthquake?
Or what about those with palms in their hands – which they laid on the pathway as a kind of carpet for the young donkey bearing that Nazarene bumpkin – and “Hosanna” on their tongues. Did they get it wrong?
Their response to the question was that this Jesus from Nazareth from out-of-the-way Galilee was a prophet.
Was that answer right or wrong?
Some of us will likely say, especially during Holy Week, that these adorers of Jesus were good-hearted and well-intentioned, but in the end mistaken in identifying Jesus as a prophet and even the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.
That’s because, as the rest of the week unfolded for the Nazarene and culminated on Easter, we think Jesus proved to be so much more – so much more than a prophet.
It isn’t that we think that the “office” or “function” of the prophet is unimportant. We invest enough respect for those prophetic types in the Hebrew Scriptures to avoid that evaluation. But “prophet” is clearly insufficient and misapplied when referring to Jesus.
Yes, we can recognize that those lining up along the roadside also shouted out to him, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” They confessed, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of God!” They again cheered, “Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
In that sense, we can appreciate that they also recognized Jesus as playing out a crucial messianic role.
We can additionally entertain the idea, related to the concept of messiahship, that their use of the term “hosanna” wasn’t just a kind of sacred and enthusiastic greeting directed toward Jesus. Rather, it had to do with its deeper meaning of seeking from him divine help and salvation because they saw him as an agent or a proxy for God.
Still, I suspect we indulge the crowd’s restrictive understanding of messiahship and the nature of God’s help and salvation as limited only to restoring the nationhood of Israel. That’s understandable in their situation but far too small compared to what we confidently claim as the messianic and saving role Jesus played and plays for the whole world.
So, for our own purposes today, can we bracket the term “prophet” as applied to Jesus generally and as he entered Jerusalem for the last days of his earthly life? Can we set that term aside as a definitive role for Jesus then and, even more important, now? Can we eliminate “prophet” as a key dimension of Jesus’ identity and work?
“Prophet” in Israel’s long history doesn’t have a singular definition. At times the term applied to one who was seen as a seer, had visions or gave clear evidence of having a special relationship with God.
Sometimes the term was applied to miracle workers and other times to those who exhibited all the signs of being seized by a spirit, or even mad and insane. Only some of those behaviors might apply to what the crowds were saying about Jesus on his entry into Jerusalem.
More likely they had in mind what The Oxford Companion to the Bible describes as a common characteristic of the authentic prophet: “They represent the true prophet as the agent and defender of Yahweh in opposition both to religious apostasy and syncretism and to the authority of kings when these failed to uphold the cause of Yahweh or flouted his moral demands.”
Is this applicable to Jesus, on the road into Jerusalem and into the roads of religious and economic and political power today?
Surely not for those who have come to believe that Jesus Christ/Jesus Messiah/Jesus Anointed does God’s universally saving work only through individuals.
Their Jesus as the Christ/Messiah/Anointed is far too small – as is their God – to believe that salvation and redemption of a divine kind works as well in religious communities, economic orders and political systems.
But for those with a large understanding of Jesus and of the one he called his Parent – the awesome and mighty God of all that is – the people along the side of that Jerusalem roadway got it exactly right: from that out-of-the-way Nazareth, not just a prophet, but the prophet.
Larry Greenfield is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He also serves as editor and theologian-in-residence for The Common Good Network.
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.