Palm Sunday (April 14, 2019)
After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,
“Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!”
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
A person’s choice in transportation can be very telling.
Where I grew up, by the time one started driving, in some ways one’s vehicle became tethered to one’s identity. “Who’s Jonathan?” somebody would ask. “He’s the red-headed kid who drives the Z71. I love that truck,” somebody might say with envy. Many of the cousins on my mom’s side of the family lived in fear that when the day finally came for us to get our own wheels, we would inherit Granddaddy’s baby blue Ford (I think it was a Courier). It barely ran and some of the door handles had been replaced with wood blocks. How embarrassing would that have been?
Granted, this is a very middle class American example, but the point is, we can attach significance to one’s choice (or forced choice) in transportation.
One of the earliest things that stood out about Pope Francis was his choice in cars. His predecessor, Pope Benedict, the one who famously wore the Prada shoes (let’s not go down the rabbit hole of that detail) preferred the Mercedes. No surprise for a German, I suppose. Francis chose of all things a Ford Focus. In some ways that set the tone for his papacy. And when he visited the United States in 2017, many Philadelphians were expected the customary “Popemobile” that marked John Paul II’s papacy, but instead were met with a Fiat 500L. That little hatchback, by the way, was auctioned off for Catholic Charities for close to $75,000.
Jesus, for his procession into the capital city in the midst of a high-expectation crowd, chooses, of all things, a colt. How strange…
He’s both vague and specific about the choice. “Go into that village ahead of you and right after you get there you’ll see one. It’s never been ridden (that can’t be good). Just untie it and bring it to me. If anybody asks (like the owners of the animal, perhaps?) just tell them ‘The Lord needs it.” And that’s exactly what happens.
The choice, while somewhat startling, didn’t come from “out of the blue,” of course. Something like this was deep within Israel’s sacred memory for the Messiah, God’s anointed, to return in similar style to rule. In the writings of the prophet Zechariah, which were written after Judah’s exile to Babylon and are saturated with messianic themes, it says:
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.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war-horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
In Zechariah’s imagining, God’s anointed ruler would govern without the excess and hubris of all the prior kings who had utterly failed God’s people up to this point in their history. This one would live by and lead with justice. This one’s messiah-ship would usher in peace. All of this wouldn’t be just for Israel, either, but for all nations. A colt versus a war horse: for this leader who was to come, the choice in transportation was very telling.
Israel’s history was riddled with failed monarchies. That’s one of the most consistent narrative threads in the Bible, righteous and unrighteous rule—from when Israel had no central leader in the time of the Judges, on through when authority was concentrated in a king, like the more famous ones (Saul, Solomon, David) to the less famous ones (from Ahaziah to Zedekiah). God had warned them that it wouldn’t work out, and it didn’t… over hundreds and hundreds of years.
What all of this points to is something that people across history and cultures can relate to: we want wise, just, and peaceful leaders.
It was no less true for the crowd in Luke’s story. The people hurling their cloaks on the road. By the way, did you notice there are no palms in Luke’s version of the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem? Someone on Wednesday morning joked that it should be “Cloak Sunday” instead. But in all seriousness, people were casting down their cloaks to pave Jesus’ way into the capital. A cloak was a precious possession for many, especially if one was poor, likely one of the only garments they owned. Can you imagine tossing down something that valuable in the street for a stranger riding a colt, a colt trampling your outer garment and maybe ruining it?
In some sense this dramatic gesture signified the crowd’s hopes. In the other gospels’ versions of the story, the crowd cries “Hosanna!” which means “Save us!” They were longing for liberation from yet another oppressive empire, the Romans this time, and their lackeys in Herod’s courts. “Maybe this man from Nazareth has a shot at this,” they might have been thinking. Luke tells us that “the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen.” All the healings. And feeding the crowds. Even the spirits heeded his command.
But we know how the rest of the story goes. The one who rides a colt doesn’t ascend a to throne, but to a cross. His crown is thorns.
Centuries later, we are stilled locked into these hopes for just the right kind of ruler. We say “leader” in our own time and culture, but it’s the same. And our hopes are always misplaced because, on some level, we expect the war horse. We expect conventional modes of power.
And sometimes we get the war horse. One of the most appalling things I’ve seen in the last couple of years is when a megachurch choir in another state performed an anthem on the Sunday closest to July 4, with American flags lining the stage, an anthem titled “Make America Great Again.” It was the worst of nationalism bleeding into religious life. It was war horse language in a space that supposedly worships the one who rode a colt in peace.
But lest we who are on the more progressive end of the spectrum become self-satisfied, we too pin our hopes on conventional modes of power. “We just need someone to beat him.” Twenty and counting so far.
What’s that old saying, “Might makes right?” Jesus takes a different path.
This righteous rule of justice and peace for which we hope does not and will not come in traditional packaging. Jesus taught us this much…
- “If you cling to your life, you will lose it, and if you let your life go, you will save it.”
- “The least among you will be the greatest.”
- “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you.”
- “Guard yourself against all kinds of greed. After all, one’s life isn’t determined by one’s possessions.”
- “If the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”
- “Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”
How do we, in our common life and personal lives, embody that sort of power, the power of love? Or, conversely, how often do we fall back on conventional modes of “getting things done”: coercion, manipulation, or “us against them” mentalities rooted in self-serving violence?
The one who rides into town on a colt teaches and embodies the upside-downness of God’s rule. And that rule is marked by a different kind of strength and a different kind of power. We’ll see this in just a few days as the leader of this movement demonstrates his leadership by bending down, taking a towel and a bowl, and washing the feet of his followers.
A person’s choice in transportation can be very telling.
What ride will we choose?