Everybody’s talking about the donkey, this year. Palm Sunday comes every spring – we remember the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem to the shouts of the crowds who’d heard about his healing and thought he’d arrive as a great, imposing, military leader draped in weaponry and followed by phalanxes of soldiers. Palm Sunday kicks off Holy Week, the days we spend living Jesus’ last week on earth along with him.
It’s a weird day, because it invites us to consider how fickle we are as humans: ecstatic and shouting HOSANNA, SAVE US as a possible savior parades through the streets one week and totally dejected and pissed off just a few days later, demanding that the same guy be crucified alongside thieves and crooks.
There’s some grace in Palm Sunday’s annual return, because there is no way to capture the fullness of this truth about complicated human nature in a single sermon or hour. This year, everybody’s talking about the donkey.
Jesus was a masterful teacher – he used weird little stories to teach hard truths, he turned every situation he participated in on its head and left everybody else scratching their heads, he wielded scripture and tradition in incredibly creative and provocative ways. And just because he’s headed to his own death seemed to be no reason to give up his pedagogy.
Jesus knows that those giant crowds have heard about his teaching and preaching and healing (oh, and raising dead people back to life – he’d just resurrected his beloved friend Lazarus the other day). He knows that they have heard these stories and started to believe that he is the One, the Savior, the Messiah, the one that all the old texts have prophesied for so long. Jesus knows that those crowds have a very particular idea about what the Messiah will be: tall, dark, strong, commanding, IN CHARGE and unafraid to use deadly force to free God’s people out from under the thumb of the exhausting, violent, profane, obscene Roman Empire.
Jesus knows what people are expecting, and he also knows that he is not that. He knows that he’s not draped in weaponry. He knows that he has zero soldiers – just a few cowardly dudes struggling to follow him into Jerusalem and a few faithful women who would refuse to fight, anyway. He knows that he is not going to march into the halls of power and assassinate an emperor or take down the Roman’s local agent. Jesus knows that his work is far more elemental and far more powerful than any act of war. He knows that his life and death are actually going to expose every empire in all of human existence, every violent act, every power grab, every unjust administration, every oppressive force for what they are: flimsy, worthless, evil attempts at stealing the divine power of life and death.
So, Jesus, who remembers the ancient scripture about a king arriving on a colt, finds the nearest donkey – the old English translations call it an ass, and that’s so much more appropriate. Asses were no more noble then than they are now: stubborn, kind of ugly, beasts of burden who definitely do not denote Most Powerful Messiah Entering Town to Overthrow the Government.
Jesus made his grand entrance into Jerusalem to expose the forking ROMAN EMPIRE on a slope-backed, braying ASS. You can laugh: that’s what Jesus intended. Monty Python understands Jesus better than most preachers.
Anyway, this year, everybody’s talking about the donkey. It was all over Preacher Twitter, it was in the art for our Lenten series, and it ended up in our service yesterday, too. Mary Oliver’s poem is really lovely:
On the outskirts of Jerusalem
the donkey waited.
Not especially brave, or filled with understanding,
he stood and waited.
How horses, turned out into the meadow,
leap with delight!
How doves, released from their cages,
clatter away, splashed with sunlight.
But the donkey, tied to a tree as usual, waited.
Then he let himself be led away.
Then he let the stranger mount.
Never had he seen such crowds!
And I wonder if he at all imagined what was to happen.
Still, he was what he had always been: small, dark, obedient.
I hope, finally, he felt brave.
I hope, finally, he loved the man who rode so lightly upon him,
as he lifted one dusty hoof and stepped, as he had to, forward.
I love the beginning of the last stanza, there: “I hope, finally, he felt brave.”
I suppose that is really the most any of us can hope for: to be like the donkey whose entire existence was on the outskirts, never quite regal enough to be taken seriously, mostly living lives that are small, dark and obedient. Jesus LOVES these creatures, the ones who quietly and faithfully live their small lives, the ones whose persistence and love exposes – by virtue of its very consistency and compassion – the lies of the world’s empires.
We love to talk about platforms and likes and numbers of views. We assume that upward mobility and professional promotions and larger audiences are the obvious choice for moving further in faith. But that is not what Jesus taught, and it is not how Jesus lived, and it is not who Jesus chose to hang out with or commend.
Jesus’ kingdom, he says, is not of this world. It does not play by the rules of this world. It is not draped in armor and weaponry, and it does not deal in warfare and violence. Instead, Jesus’ kingdom is small and sly, wise and wily, finding cracks and crevices in the grand facades of hatred and power and leveraging the smallest leeway to topple those oppressive structures onto their heads.
Jesus’ kingdom is made up of unexpectedly tiny things, and it trades in humor. Thank God for the donkeys.