Sunday, April 13, 2014

Donkey Rides (Matthew 21:1-11)

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When they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus gave two disciples a task.He said to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter, you will find a donkey tied up and a colt with it. Untie them and bring them to me.  If anybody says anything to you, say that the Lord needs it.” He sent them off right away. Now this happened to fulfill what the prophet said, Say to Daughter Zion, “Look, your king is coming to you, humble and riding on a donkey, and on a colt the donkey’s offspring.” The disciples went and did just as Jesus had ordered them. They brought the donkey and the colt and laid their clothes on them. Then he sat on them.
Now a large crowd spread their clothes on the road. Others cut palm branches off the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds in front of him and behind him shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” 10 And when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up. “Who is this?” they asked. 11 The crowds answered, “It’s the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Every year on Palm Sunday, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, the road lined with cloaks and branches and palm fronds.  Many Christians view Palm Sunday as little more than the prelude to Easter Sunday, which is now only a week away.  In many churches, the anthem on Palm Sunday may as well be “Hippity hoppity, Easter’s on its way.”

Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week, the most important week in the history of the world, yet many of the faithful will skip Holy Week services, going from the excitement of Palm Sunday directly to the exuberance of Easter, and they will miss some of the most important parts of the story.  Lest we begin to celebrate too quickly, keep some of that somber reflection in your back pocket; we’re still going to need it.

Indeed, Jesus’ triumphal entry in Jerusalem sets the stage for the tragic events that will take place later in the week.  Lay aside any sentimental images you may have of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem as the equivalent of a leisurely Sunday drive.  No, on Palm Sunday, Jesus clearly demonstrated truth in the face of power.  What Jesus did on Palm Sunday and what it represented – friends, that’s what got him killed.   May we pray.  

Last weekend, I was in Kansas City with members of our Community Care Team for training.  I had four days with Betty West, Ann Duncan, Lib Joyner, and Sylvia LeClair. Someone asked me what that was like – think Driving Miss Daisy, times four.  At the Kansas City airport, we went to pick up our rental car, and I had reserved a full-size car.  But, before they process the reservation, I always ask if they’ve got anything a little nicer on the lot – sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.  Well, this time it did, as they handed me the keys to a brand new Lincoln MKZ.  Not a car I’d necessarily buy for myself, at least not until I get my AARP card, but a very nice ride, none-the-less.

In our society, sometimes a car is more than just a car.  They can be statements, symbols, identity markers.  In seminary, I drove a 1992 brownish-gold Saturn SC2.  Because of the previous owner, it was covered in Meredith College stickers, which I removed only a few hours after I got the car, but that didn’t stop my friends from naming the car, “Meredith” on my behalf.  Do you have any idea what it’s like to drive around in a car named “Meredith?”

Sometimes, transportation is just transportation; other times, it’s a statement, as it was in the 11 verses we’ve read today, the familiar story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday. 

It was the beginning of the week leading into the Passover celebration, and crowds of hundreds of thousands of Jews from around the known world would be coming to Jerusalem for the festival.  Remember that Jerusalem was occupied territory at this point.  They were subject to foreign rule by the Romans.  There was constant tension between the Jews and the Romans, and Passover was the annual celebration of the Jews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt.  It wasn’t hard to draw the parallels between slavery in Egypt and occupation by Rome, combined with the crowds and excitement, and it made Passover week a particularly ripe time for any tensions to boil over.

Though a garrison of Roman soldiers was permanently stationed in Jerusalem – right next to the temple, in fact – Pilate, the governor, maintained Roman government headquarters on the coast, in Caesarea Maritima.  Jerusalem was sacred to the Jews, but dreaded by the Romans.  It was cold and wet in the winter, hot and dry in the summer.  Caesarea Maritima had a state-of-the art port for the easy transfer of people and goods, and was temperate year-round with pleasant breezes off the Mediterranean.

On that first Palm Sunday, Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem was not the only one taking place that day.  A few times a year, to coincide with the major festivals, the Roman government would temporarily relocate to Jerusalem.  It was a grand military procession with the imposing power of the empire on full display.  Imagine the scene – trumpets blasting and drums beating, as chariots, war horses, and legions of soldiers and archers marched into town.  An approaching cloud of dust and a pulse you could feel in the trembling ground from miles away – the steady beat of soldiers marching, armor clanking, flags flying.

It was a message: Rome is in charge.  Caesar, the emperor, is your king.  Look at the power of his kingdom; resistance is futile.

To be sure, the local officials would have arranged for great, cheering crowds to greet this proud display of Roman military muscle.  Under threat of beating, imprisonment, and death, soldiers would have ordered men away from their businesses, women away from their households, boys and girls away from their lessons and chores, to line the streets and greet the forces of the occupying government with cheers, which made the people hate the Romans all the more.

This parade, this demonstration of Roman power, was taking place on the West side of town.  Jesus would stage a counter-demonstration from the East.  From the village of Bethany, and down the Mount of Olives, his “triumphal entry” echoes the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9: “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The crowds who lined the road greeted Jesus as a king.  The little parade that developed around Jesus may have started in fun or as a joke, but it struck a chord with the people and became something they could all rally around.  They greeted Jesus as a king, a direct affront to the Roman government.  They spread their cloaks on the road so that even the feet of the donkey wouldn’t touch the ground.

Even the palm branches were intended to be inflammatory.  For the Jews, the palm branch was a national symbol, equivalent to waving the flag, a classic “in-your-face” to Rome and its government.

As Jesus rode on by, the people waved their palm branches and shouted “Hosanna!” – literally, “Save us!”  But they weren’t thinking of salvation from their sins or anything that spiritual.  They were thinking of salvation from the Roman government.  They were greeting someone they believed would be a strong military leader who would lead their nation to victory.  They cheered because he was one of their own, and he would lift their nation to prominence and superiority over all others.

They were familiar with kings and rulers of the world.  In short, they expected Jesus to be the same kind of king, just with politics more to their liking, but there’s a clue in the whole thing to let us know that expectation is unfounded: the donkey.

In Matthew’s Gospel, 11 verses describe the events of that first Palm Sunday, and fully 5 of those have to do with the procurement of the famous, borrowed, donkey.  The disciples are to simply go and find someone else’s donkey, not ask to use it, and untie it and bring it to Jesus.  Jesus says, “If anyone asks you what you’re doing, just say ‘The Lord needs it.’” A piece of personal advice here: if you get caught trying to steal someone else’s car, let me know how saying, “The Lord needs it” goes over in court!

I know that people have gotten hung up on the language used to describe the actual animal Jesus rode in on.  The gospels of Mark and Luke call it a colt, Matthew says he rode in on a donkey and a colt (Matthew 21:5) - it says that Jesus rode “them,” which I always thought would be an interesting feat to watch Jesus ride two animals at the same time, straddling them like some sort of circus act.  So which was it?  Did Jesus ride a donkey, or did Jesus ride a colt, the foal of a donkey?

John Dominic Crossan offers that the mention of both the donkey and the colt are intentional.  The Gospel writer wants us to see “two animals, a donkey with her little colt beside her, and that Jesus rides ‘them’ in the sense of having them both as part of his demonstration’s highly visible symbolism.”

In other words, Jesus does not ride a stallion or a mare, a gelding warhorse, a mule, a male donkey or even just any old female donkey.  He rides the most unmilitary mount imaginable: an untrained, un-ridden, female nursing donkey with her little colt trotting along beside her.

Contrast this display with the Roman parade on the other side of town.  The warhorses and chariots of the army are instruments of oppression and death.  Jesus’ donkey symbolizes the humble splendor of his kingdom.  In the government’s parade, Rome displayed its oppressive power.  In Jesus’ parade, he displayed his subversive humility.  Rome brings control.  Jesus brings peace.  Rome brings occupation.  Jesus brings liberation.  Rome will reign from a royal palace.  Jesus will reign from a cross.  Rome comes armed and ready to kill.  Jesus is willing to die so that we might live.

You probably didn’t realize the donkey symbolized all that, did you?  Neither did the people in the crowd that day.  They expected a royal savior – a political personality who would fulfill their nationalist desires.  But the thing about Jesus, is that he’s not here to fulfill the agenda of any particular nation, he’s here to do the will of God.  God’s kingdom is bigger than any one nation.  His kingdom is about peace, not might.  Those who greeted Jesus as a king on that first Palm Sunday clearly didn’t know who they were cheering for; they even had to ask one another who he was.

Imagine their surprise when they learned that their king had been teaching things like “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” or the value of forgiveness, or that in his kingdom, all swords would be turned into plowshares.  They greeted Jesus as a king, and they got it right when they did; it’s just that he is a very different king representing a very different kingdom than what they wanted.

Crowds are fickle.  It’s not hard to see how those who shouted “Hosanna!” on Sunday would turn on Jesus and cry “Crucify Him!” by Friday.  So it is with public opinion.

If we’re honest with ourselves, we would have done the same thing.  We don’t want the kind of king or kingdom Jesus represents.  We often want God to act more like the mighty Roman army than the humble carpenter from Nazareth. A savior who will be at his most glorious when he gives himself in love to die upon a cross, who calls us to give ourselves in self-sacrificial love in the same way?  No, no thanks – that’s not the king we were hoping for.

If you go to Jerusalem today, partway down the Mount of Olives is the Chapel of Dominus Flevit, Latin for “The Lord wept.”  This chapel commemorates Jesus stopping on his way into Jerusalem, where he wept and prayed over the city, where he said, “If only you knew the things that make for peace, but now they are hidden from your eyes.”

View from Dominus Flevit. Photo by Paul Brown, 2013

We, too, prefer shock and awe to forgiveness and grace and love.  When will we learn that as long as we try to do it our way, the world’s way, the peace that passes all understanding remains elusive?
Rather than the beginning of the countdown clock to Easter, Palm Sunday invites us to recognize what kind of king Jesus is.  The Messiah, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, yes, but a humble king, riding on a donkey, a peaceful and grace-filled king, a king who calls us to follow him in ways of forgiveness and humility and self-sacrificing love – even if doing so leads to our own suffering – because this is the way of our king. 

It’s all about the donkey.  Behold, your king comes to you, humble and riding on a donkey.  Not on a war horse or behind a chariot.  Not in wealth in splendor.  Not promoting a life of comfort and ease, not promising the complete annihilation of our enemies. 

Before the week is over, our king will be lifted high, his arms outstretched against the cruel wood of a Roman cross.  In that moment, when the world laughs and calls him a failure, Jesus will name his life’s work as “finished.”

Is Jesus the king we wanted?  Maybe not.  But he’s definitely the king we need. 

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