“Palms, Protest & Passion”
Rev. Caroline Lawson Dean
April 9, 2017
A reading from Matthew Chapter 21:1-11
“When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethpage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go to the village ahead of you, immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say, “The Lord needs them. And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, ‘Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, they put their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat upon them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed Jesus were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’
When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil asking, ‘Who is this?’ The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’
Let us pray: God of radical love, give us open hearts this day – may we have the courage to follow you in radical love – to find healing, hope & salvation – that we might work for justice and peace we pray – Amen.
Can you imagine the two disciples that Jesus recruits to “borrow” a donkey. They sneak into the night, dodging in & out of shadows. Avoiding Roman guards, using the crowds gathered for Passover for cover. When they reach their destination the “momma donkey” is stubborn & protective of her colt (which is perhaps why they couldn’t leave it behind). Despite their best efforts to get the animals back unnoticed – they create a scene, the donkeys “hee-hawing” bucking & braying the whole way up the road.
I also like to imagine, early the next morning, Jesus gathering at dawn with his closest followers. The donkey & her colt have settled considerably by then. Jesus gathers by the “Beautiful Gate” to enter Jerusalem. The disciples elbow each other with knowing smiles & whisper “the prophecies, they say that the Jewish Messiah will enter Jerusalem through the ‘Beautiful Gate.’” Word spreads and the crowd multiplies. Some have heard Jesus’ teachings or know of someone who has crossed paths with Jesus. Some are curious & others are “Jesus fanatics.” One of the latter jumps in the procession with Jesus & begins shouting “Hosanna, Save us! Son of David, Save us!” The crowd joins in.
One problem is that the road through the Beautiful Gate is unpaved, so the Donkey stumbles under Jesus’ weight. It occurs to someone to cut down a branch and use the leaves to ease the footing of the pilgrims. Others take make a more sacrificial move and they spread their cloaks on the path. The Jewish crowds are gathering for Passover, so the word spreads quickly and so soon the whole city is shaking with the news of Jesus’ arrival on a donkey through the “Beautiful Gate.”
This news is shocking because on this same day, suggest scholars suggest (Borg & Crossan’s book “The Last Week”) there was another procession on the opposite side of the city. The Roman Governor arrived every Passover through the “Damascus Gate” on a war horse, with an impressive army, decked out with weapons at the ready. In fact citizens were required to attend this processional, honoring the Governor with branches and flowers (sound familiar?). The road was paved & the Damascus Gate was wide enough to accommodate a legion, 5,000 marching in an orderly display of imperial power.
Both parades are demonstrations of a sort. You see, each year the Roman Governor of Judea rides into Jerusalem, from his residence in another part of the region, in order to quell potential riots during the Jewish Festival of Passover. This is the most “politically volatile” of the Jewish festivals. There is a “tinder box” atmosphere as the Jewish people celebrate their “freedom from Egyptian oppression, during a time of severe Roman Oppression” (Borg & Crossan “The Last Week”). Despite a Roman policies of zero toleration there were two recorded riots during Passover in the first century. When you consider that Jerusalem, a town of 40,000, welcomed 200,000 pilgrims on festivals such as these, it makes sense that the Romans needed to call in the troops.
On the other side of town Jesus’ demonstration is a satire of sorts, certainly a political counterpoint to the Roman Imperial march. Jesus embodies humility as he rides into the city on a donkey – a female nursing donkey at that! He evokes imagery of the Jewish Messiah from their sacred texts. And in contrast to the governor’s majestic war horse, leading thousands of soldiers, Jesus marches amidst peasants, tax collectors, religious leaders, fishermen, prostitutes, whoever happens to show up that day. The Governor’s procession is ordered, easy on the feet, predictable, those gathered are compliant, albeit a bit resentful. Jesus’ procession is more organic & at times a bit out of control with excitement & expectation.
You see during Jesus’ time, the Jewish people were highly taxed & faced great oppression under the Romans. They were eager to welcome a Jewish Messiah. One who would save them from their suffering, grant the Jewish people freedom, and rightful claim over their sacred city. They were ready for Jesus to step into these shoes. They could close their eyes and imagine Jesus on his own war horse surrounding by legions, guarding and guiding the city in prosperous, righteous rule. The peasants in the parade were inspired by Jesus’ humble beginnings, but eventually Jesus would need to lead them up a higher road, to power & privilege, wealth & prosperity.
The only problem with this plan, is that it didn’t quite pan out this way. In fact, the Jewish people were quite shocked by a portrait of a Messiah who was the complete opposite of their expectations. Spoiler alert: the humble trajectory of Jesus would only tailspin into humiliation, torture and death.
So what? What do these dueling demonstrations have to do with humility & power in our own day? What powers & principalities do we seek to bring us salvation? Do we think that we are protecting ourselves against suffering with money, success, and power? Do we think that we can climb the ladder high enough to save ourselves from the suffering and death that Jesus lowered himself into?
And if we are called to follow Jesus through Holy Week does that mean that we have to sign up for radical sacrifice, torture or death? Can’t we cling to Jesus’ coattails and glide into salvation on the merits of his courage, faith & sacrifice? Do we have to embody this path of “downward mobility” (a phrase coined by Henri Nouwen) in order to be faithful Christians?
Beverly Wildung Harrison, who is known as “The Mother of Christian Feminist Ethics” writes (in her book ‘Making Connections,’ pages 18-19) “those who love justice and have their passion shaped toward right relation, act not because they are enamored of sacrifice. Rather they are moved by a love strong enough, to sustain their action for right relation even unto death… Jesus’ paradigmatic role in the story of our salvation rests not in his willingness to sacrifice himself, but in his passionate love (of right relations) & in his refusal to cease to embody (radical love) in the face of that which would thwart it.”
Jesus’ life & death is a radical display of love, right relationship, & justice. Jesus’ life is also a critique, a counterpoint to empire. He speaks truth to “the powers that be” critiquing their abuse of power and the everyday ways that injustice & broken relationship are perpetuated by human institution & limitation. This is the path that Jesus asks us to follow – a radical commitment to love, justice & right relationship even in the face of great trial.
You see, on our protest march we hit the ground running, with perhaps more in common with those who gathered at the gate awaiting the Governor. We like order, power & safety, even if it comes at a cost for ourselves or for the vulnerable in our society. We like our Messiahs to be strong. We like them to embody the wealth, privilege & success that we seek. If I am honest I prefer the majestic war horse to the humble donkey.
In the life of Jesus we hear a strong call to those of us who carry any kind of privilege or power to leverage these resources for the good. We are called to bend our “ladders of success” back against themselves to care for the vulnerable & receive our own spiritual healing along the way. Jesus says, “To whom much is given much is required.”
And Jesus’ call to us this day is also gentle & gracious. Jesus would sit with us, all of us with different kinds of privilege & access to wealth, power and success. Jesus would say, “Beloved, follow me, march with me. Bring me your gifts, resources, passions & possessions, your full self – and together let us create a more just, beautiful & loving world.
Jesus would say, “Yes, this may entail giving some things away or putting ourselves in uncomfortable places. It may entail speaking truth to power & yes at times great sacrifice. But, beloved, truly I tell you, this path is the beautiful path – it is the true, life-giving, healing path, for your soul, for the soul of your community and for our world – it is the way, the truth and the life. The true path of salvation.”
Jesus says, “Come, march with me. Come, follow me.” Amen.