The Donkey in the Room

Rev. Scott L. Barton
April 13, 2014
Matthew 21:1-11

So, it’s been an interesting couple of months in terms of world politics; but then again, when isn’t it? We had the so-called referendum in Crimea, which to Western eyes, at least, seemed like a big sham, and the occupation and annexation by Vlad Macho-Man Putin. We had the mass sentencing to death, some in absentia, of 529 people, all supposedly Muslim Brotherhood supporters following last year’s violence in Egypt.  The Secretary of State continues to find out that there are intractable differences between the Palestinians and Israel, and of course, among the Palestinians and among Israelis, too.

Unilateral opinion is hard to come by, with the exception of the fact that the Red Sox opening has been something of a disaster.

It’s a good lesson to remember when we’re trying to describe what life was like, way back when. I think for the most part we have a very limited picture.  We ask things like, what did they think, what did they believe, who did they worship?  But, “When do you mean?”  and “Who do you mean?”  Because what was true for some may not have been anywhere near the truth for others.   It would have depended on who you asked.

Take the day we call Palm Sunday, for example.  It’s an important religious event for us.  We call it the beginning of Holy Week.  Jesus was cheered by the crowds spreading their cloaks, or branches from the trees, on the ground when he came to Jerusalem. Or at least, that’s what Matthew says. It was “many people,” some spreading their cloaks, and others, leafy branches that they had cut in the fields, on the road, according to Mark. Luke says that “people” kept spreading their cloaks. And John says that the “great crowd” who had come to the Passover festival took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him. They all have some form of it with different details, but the chronology is always related to the end of Jesus’ life. And the discovery of the empty tomb. Given the current celebration we make of Easter, Palm Sunday is sort of a pre-game show.  It gets us ready for the big event.  It gives us words such as “Hosanna in the highest; Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” We imagine ourselves cheering Jesus along the way if we had been there, and maybe we would today, if we had the chance, if he were, say, to march down the middle of Rte. 9 outside our doors. And we would take the children, of course. We make it a big day for the children. In every congregation I have been in, the children get the palms to pass out to the church crowd. It reminds me of what a rabbi friend once told me, that Purim isn’t a big holiday as far as Jewish theology goes. But Esther makes for a good story, and children spinning dreidels is the real focus.  

But it wasn’t originally a children’s day, what we call Palm Sunday.  In fact, there aren’t any children in any of the four accounts.  I’m sorry to have to tell you that, but it’s because it was actually a political event, and not a harmless one, at that.

The problem we have looking at this text is that, for us, politics and religion don’t mix. Did you ever know a minister who got in trouble for missing that lesson? The first time I got myself in hot water in a previous congregation was over the buildup to the war in Iraq. It was hard for people to hear my criticism, even though I did what you’re supposed to do, which is to love the people, anyway. We Protestants have the time-honored tradition of both the freedom of the pulpit and the freedom of the pew, where the pulpit’s duty is freely to proclaim what the preacher believes God is saying, and the pew’s duty is either to accept such a position or freely to say, yes, but, I believe it another way. And both are supposed to recognize that God is Lord of the whole process, Lord of the conscience. But things are not usually so pure when we begin to mix politics and faith.  And so it is with Palm Sunday.

You know the phrase, “the elephant in the room?”  It means something that’s very big, some major problem that everybody can see but that no one dares to talk about because to do so would be just too scary; you’d have to do something about it, then.  Politics is the elephant in the room on Palm Sunday.  It’s hard to avoid the fact that Palm Sunday was a highly charged political occasion, but if we talked about it, we might have to think of our own political lives, and what we think a society exists for 2,000 years after Jesus’ procession.

How did Jesus think about it?  Well, first of all, he picked that donkey.  Strange, wasn’t it?  But he didn’t invent the idea.  He found it in the Bible.  He found it in the prophet Zechariah, the 9th chapter, verse 9:  “Rejoice, greatly, O daughter Zion/ Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem/ 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.”  Matthew, who loves his scripture, seems to put it quite literally and has Jesus riding on both of them, donkey and colt, apparently at the same time! “They brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them,” says Matthew, alone, among the four evangelists.  I think it’s best not to try to resolve such gymnastics!  Zechariah’s message was that when a king came to establish peace, he wouldn’t come riding a big white horse, or driving a chariot like Charlton Heston in the old Ben Hur movie; but he’d come on – a donkey?  See, Zechariah’s poetry was meant to surprise, and to make people think.  And so Jesus took that verse and acted it out.  He wanted to demonstrate to that frantic, politics-charged city that their future lay not in military force and power, but in the bravely vulnerable humility that characterized Jesus’ whole life.  That’s what he thought they ought to be looking for.  Can you picture it from his days even as an infant?  It’s not in Luke’s text but I’ll bet many of us have pictured Joseph leading a donkey on which sits a pregnant Mary on the way to Bethlehem when everybody had to go back home to be registered.  And maybe we’ve also pictured the same Joseph leading that same donkey, but this time carrying Mary and the infant Jesus, in Matthew’s story of their needing to go down into Egypt to escape the madman Herod, whose paranoia resulted in the killing of all those newborns.  From the very beginning of his life to the last week, then, think of the humble donkey that represents a different power than the power of the political empire.

We think we understand that.  And we know that the crowd back then and there missed it.  Their greetings were all traditional greetings for a military leader.  That’s the way they greeted Judas Maccabeus when he returned triumphant to the city of Jerusalem about 200 years before.  Judas Maccabeus was a great military leader who drove out the Syrians from Jerusalem after they had desecrated the Temple. Syria and Israel have not been great friends for a long time! 100 years after that, when the Romans had taken over from the Syrians as the occupying country, Judas Maccabeus’ descendants led several unsuccessful revolts against them.  So, when Jesus came into the city that day, Jesus whose reputation as a great wonder-worker had preceded him, and they saw him on that donkey – well, it could only mean one thing.  They were looking at victory, finally.  But they missed it, because, when they called out, “Hosanna!” literally, “Save now!” they were looking for the wrong person.

The Biblical theologian Walter Wink thinks that Jesus was actually lampooning the Davidic kingship on that day.  That’s what they were looking for, the reestablishment of the monarchy. Walter Wink says, “Jesus’ actions embody his words…. Consistent with all he has said and done, Jesus enters Jerusalem farcically, on a donkey.  …[He is] lampooning the Davidic kingship by paradoxical reversal.  The one who has no place to lay his head is the same “king” who owns nothing and must borrow – not even a horse, but a donkey!  It’s conceivable that Zechariah 9 is already farcical, and that Jesus took his inspiration from it.  [Dare I say, ‘Jesus as Monty Python?’]  If he entered Jerusalem by [one of the city gates which was called] the Horse Gate – which was on the east side, the direction from which Jesus was coming – the irony would be all the greater.” 

The man on the donkey, coming through the Horse Gate, lampooned the powers – and the aspirations to power.  He was making fun of them.  This can get you into trouble.

Here’s something else that helps define this day. There were actually two processions. You may have heard this from Sarah, but I’ll tell it again. The one “procession” was Jesus riding that donkey from the east of Jerusalem down from the Mount of Olives, cheered by the crowd.  Jesus had been heading for Jerusalem for some time, and this was the culmination of his journey.

On the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of the region, was coming into Jerusalem also. He was the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers.  In those days, this procession was well-known.  It was standard practice for the Roman governors to come to Jerusalem for the major Jewish festivals.  They came from Caesarea, about 60 miles to the west, which was a new and splendid city on the Mediterranean coast.  Their coming inland, to the insular, provincial and partisan capital for the Jewish people wasn’t for pleasure. They came in case there was trouble.  And to head off any trouble at the pass.  They had read the literature. The Passover was all about God’s liberating the Hebrews from an oppressive government. It inspired imaginations. If you were the Roman governor, why would you be shy that time of year?

Pilate’s procession, then, was all about a visual display of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun shining on metal -- tanks, fire trucks, and marching bands. Get the picture?  And then the sounds: marching feet, creaking leather, clinking bridles, beating drums.  Everybody loves a parade, but this one more than anything was meant to inspire awe.  And not just military.  It was about Roman theology.  The emperor wasn’t just the ruler of Rome, but claimed to be the son of God.  That idea had started with Augustus, who ruled from 31 B.C. to 14 A.D, and whose father was supposedly the god Apollo.  Tiberius, his successor, and the emperor during Jesus’ ministry, took the same divine title.

So when Jesus tells his disciples to go to the next village and grab a donkey, and bring it back to him in order to fulfill Zechariah’s prophesy, it’s as if he’s planning both a political and a religious demonstration.  It’s Monty Python against both Roman and Israeli pretensions.  He counters the desire for the power and glory that’s only maintained by control and violence.  He calls people to aspire to something else.  And then he has the nerve to demonstrate how important self-sacrifice is if you have any interest in the one, true God.  [Some of the above 3 paragraphs from Borg and Crossan, The Last Week]

The donkey in the room is that it doesn’t matter how successful we are, even as the people of God.  The only thing that matters is how faithful God is to us, and whether we can believe that. After the donkey came the cross. And after the cross?  Well, I know that Congregationalists tend to avoid creedal statements, but in the Apostles’ Creed, there’s that line, "He descended into hell" after, "He was crucified, dead and buried."  He descended into hell.  In other words, there is no human experience - no height, no depth, no loss, no pain, no apparently God-forsaken place, which is what “hell” means, after all - that the love of God hasn’t entered into.  He descended into hell is immediately followed by the glad affirmation that he rose again from the dead, and ascended into heaven. [NB: previous 3-4 sentences from Joanna Adams, “Day 1” (formerly The Protestant Hour) sermon for Palm Sunday, 2011.]  And that is something we celebrate even today, because it’s Sunday, after all, and that’s the news behind every Sunday, the news of resurrection – that comes the hard way, the donkey-way, the way we don’t much like to talk about, the way of the cross, the way that says even through the greatest of pain, God’s intention is new life for everyone.

It’s interesting that, [J. Adams again to end of paragraph:] before the suffering and the crucifying and the dying, Matthew tells us that when Jesus entered Jerusalem, “the whole city was in turmoil.”  English words are entirely too mild for the original meaning of this word “turmoil.” In Greek the word usually referred to violent changes in the weather or earthquakes. In other words, Jesus comes into town and the whole world shakes. A fundamental shift takes place at the heart of things, and nothing is ever the same again.

He dares to ask us that nothing be the same again for us, either.  In looking for and finding him, he invites us to enter into the good company of those who will enter into the pain of their neighbor and the world, and work for the welfare of all, all for the sake of his peace.

Hosanna in the highest!  Blessed is this one who comes in the name of the Lord!

Prayer:  In your mercy you come so close to us.  No wonder they waved their branches with joy.  Now help us follow in your way, as you still enter our troubled world, and our anxious lives, and our broken hopes and dreams, and our longing hearts, so even we might bear witness to the love that raises us from the dead.  Amen.