The Jesus Painting I'd Like to See: A Reflection on the Lectionary Readings for 17 April 2011

Revised Common Lectionary Page for 17 April 2011

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29Matthew 21:1-11

Since my birthday falls in mid-April, I’ve had birthdays that have fallen all over Holy Week.  I can remember Easter birthdays, Good Friday birthdays, Maundy Thursday birthdays, and even tax-deadline birthdays.  And this year, as I outlive Jesus by a year, my birthday falls on Palm Sunday.  (If anyone is so inclined, there is an amazon wish list just waiting for someone to click on it.)  And this year, what I’d like to see is a newly commissioned painting of the Triumphal Entry that takes the Matthew version of the event seriously.

There is, of course, no shortage of Jesus-art, and people have been painting Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem for centuries.  But nobody that I know of, from iconographers to Dali, has painted Jesus on “them,” the plural pronoun at the end of Matthew 21:7.

Now some of our readers, particularly those given to comparing translations, will no doubt object that the “them” refers not to “the ass and the colt” at the beginning of the verse but to “the coats” in the middle.  Fair enough.  But I would contend that such readers make such a move not because the grammar of the passage–after all, the “them” at the end of the passage echoes the “them” upon which folks were putting their coats.

I know that there’s one Jesus movie (and I didn’t take the time to go back and watch parallel Triumphal entry scenes, I’m afraid) that simply has Jesus ride the adult animal first, then dismount and ride the young donkey, and I have to tip my hat to the elegance of the solution.  But I still would like to see something with the simultaneity that Matthew seems to envision, perhaps an iconic image that allegorizes Jesus as riding the old ways of Moses (the donkey) and the new Israel that will rise from his own resurrection (the colt) or perhaps even presenting an allegory of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.  There could simply be identical images of Jesus riding each, or half of Jesus riding on the old and half on the new, or even Jesus standing with a foot on each, reins in hand, performing the sort of circus stunt that, I’ll admit, the passage makes me imagine.

Those readers who were comparing translations earlier have no doubt written me off entirely at this point: I must be that jerky sort of soul who would make mockery of Biblical stories for my own amusement, ignoring the gravity of Holy Scripture.  Perhaps in some moments I fall to those temptations, but in this case, I do have a serious theological point in mind: by limiting realistic and even iconic representations of the Triumphal Entry to Mark’s and Luke’s versions, by keeping Jesus’s animal singular, I genuinely believe that the Church misses a chance for the allegorical character of the event to take an interesting turn.  There’s nothing wrong with noting that Zechariah was using synonymous parallelism to inflect rather than to double the animal upon which the new king would ride; there’s also nothing wrong with following Matthew’s lead and supposing that, if a normal king might ride one animal into town, Jesus is entirely capable of riding two.  (At this point the very serious among our readership has written me off as turning Jesus into a first-century Chuck Norris meme.  What can I say?  I tend to offend the very serious.)  And I’d like to see an artist, a good one preferably, take on that doubleness, to engage Palm Sunday as fulfilling and subverting the hopes of Israel, of judging and saving the Empire, of fulfilling divine prophecy and relying on the wickedness of humanity as its motivating force.  I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

So if you don’t have the money to get me some gifts from my amazon list, why not paint me an allegory?

May the Savior borne on the old and the new enliven our imaginations this Holy Week.



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