Sunday 10 April 2022: Palm Sunday
What Sort of Donkey?
Luke 19:28-40 (Isaiah 50:4-7; Philippians 2:6-11; Luke 22:14-23:56)
Context: the main celebration for the beginning of Holy Week in a somewhat leafy suburban parish
Aim: to help the congregation to rethink their assumptions about what it means to call Jesus ‘Messiah
The question is: Was the donkey an official limo’ or a get-away vehicle? You see, if you read any of the first three Gospels (including Luke’s Gospel of the Entry into Jerusalem which we heard before we processed into church) you hear about the complicated instructions given by Jesus to his disciples to get hold of the animal ahead of time. (Jesus’ orders about arranging the Upper Room for Passover are even more mysterious.)
ROYAL ENTRANCE OR ATTEMPTED GET-AWAY
It all sounds deliberately choreographed. Jesus makes a deliberate decision to present himself as Messiah, coming down the Mount of Olives towards the Holy City on a colt, an eloquent choice. (In the Old Testament, Solomon rode to his coronation on his father David’s mule – 1 Kings 1:33). The results are entirely predictable, given that the city is full of Passover pilgrims. The crowd respond enthusiastically (though Luke’s crowd are a little more respectful than their counterparts in Mark’s Gospel, who break branches off the trees as well as scattering their cloaks on the road). It’s easy to imagine the buzz, with holidaymakers singing at the top of their voices: ‘Blessings on the King who comes, in the name of the Lord!’ And Luke’s Jesus rides the wave, entering wholeheartedly into the spirit of the thing. He tells the Pharisees who complain about the crowds chanting: ‘If these keep silence, the stones will cry out!’ From thereon in the die is cast. Neither Caiaphas nor Pilate is going to tolerate an upstart ‘King’ causing trouble at Passover.
But back to the donkey. Because if we turn to John’s Gospel, it’s only once the crowd have started breaking up the palm trees and singing their hosannas that Jesus grabs a donkey and sits himself on it. On this account, the animal is a way of reinterpreting all their dangerous enthusiasm. The Nazarene comes in peace, not on a war-horse. Riding a donkey says precisely what John’s Jesus will say in the presence of the Roman Governor a few days later: ‘Yes I am a king’ – but that doesn’t mean what you think. My kingdom ‘is not of this world’. John invokes the Prophet Zechariah to explain what’s happening: ‘Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion, look your king is approaching, sitting on the foal of a donkey’ – although the evangelist also acknowledges that the disciples didn’t really understand what was going on at the time.
WHICH DONKEY DO YOU PREFER?
If you have ever read Yann Martel’s Life Of Pi you may remember that it ends with two alternative explanations and an invitation to choose which you prefer. The same applies in its own little way to the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. So which sort of donkey do you prefer: the limo’ or the get-away? Everything pre-planned by Jesus, who thus embraces his destiny (and his inevitable execution by the Romans); or one final attempt on his part to convince the crowd that he is not what they think he is – a military leader to take on the Romans – and to prevent an insurrection?
We can’t prove which version is more accurate. Both come down to us in a polished form as a result of several decades of telling and retelling the story. But it might be worth recognising which storyline we find more attractive, which is more comfortable and which challenges us more. I’m guessing that most of us just assume that the Synoptic Gospels’ account of the pre-planned donkey ride – a sort of triumphal procession for the Messiah – is the ‘proper’ version (and therefore don’t even notice how the Fourth Gospel deviates from this script).
But I like John’s donkey. I like Jesus ‘thinking on his feet’, attempting to subvert all the nationalistic fervour and lazy assumptions of the crowd. The same refusal to be pigeon-holed is displayed in Luke’s Passion account when Jesus comes before his accusers. Is he the Christ, the Son of God, the King of the Jews? The High Priests and Pilate can only extract from him: ‘It is you who say it,’ while Herod can’t even get that much by way of reply.
What about us? Are we too confident that we know what it means to confess Jesus as ‘The Christ’? Are we willing to let him subvert all our assumptions about what it means to sing, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’? Behold your king. Yes, but not the sort of King you have in mind. His state was indeed divine, but he was ever humbler, even to accepting death on a cross. As we follow him through Holy Week may the Lord question our own assumptions about power, vulnerability, brokenness and what it means to follow the Messiah.
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