A Meditation for Palm Sunday, April 14, 2019
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. (Zechariah 9:9-10)
These words from the prophet Zechariah remind us that the ironic notion of a king riding a donkey did not begin with Jesus and the dramatic, if unconventional, events of Palm Sunday. If we believe Matthew, Jesus’s manner of entry into Jerusalem was the fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy. For a different perspective we can turn to Bishop John Shelby Spong, who in Liberating the Gospels argues that the Gospel writers used the words of Zechariah as source material, creatively embellishing what little they knew about Jesus’s arrival in Jerusalem, to make it conform to the centuries-old words of the prophet, therefore giving the Jewish Christians of the 1st century a sense of comfort and continuity — that Jesus, in even the tiniest details of his life, represents either a fulfillment or merely an ongoing embodiment of the imagery and tropes of Jewish prophecy.
For that matter, we know that King Solomon himself rode a mule on the day he was recognized as the King of Israel: see I Kings 1:33. Other references to kings, or other leaders, riding on donkeys can be found in the books of Judges and I Samuel.
So what’s the big deal with donkeys? Somewhere I read a commentator suggesting that Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem as a kind of political satire, making fun on the pomp and finery of the Roman Emperor by, well, opting for a donkey instead of a mighty steed. But that doesn’t really hold water, especially given all the other mentions of donkey-riding authorities in the Hebrew Scriptures.
A more compelling argument is this: that when a king rode off to war, he rode a stallion; but when traveling in peace, he would prefer a gentle donkey. This opens up the imagery of Palm Sunday in a beautiful way, without anyone being made fun of.
Jesus, after all, is the prince of peace. His kingdom is a kingdom of nonviolence. It is a kingdom where we turn the other cheek and we walk the extra mile. The one who taught us to love our enemies, to forgive seventy times seven, and to always prefer humility over self-aggrandizement, would naturally only be comfortable wearing a crown and sitting on a throne of peace. Violence, aggression, and war —these things are simply not Jesus’s style.
We rather associate donkeys with foolishness in our society. Blockbuster movies like Shrek make much hay — pardon the pun — out of comic relief involving the existential foolishness of Brother Ass. Nor is this just a modern conceit. Look at Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream — where the hapless weaver, Nick Bottom, gets his head transformed into that of a donkey’s by the mischievous fairy, Puck. Bottom — and yes, his name is an obvious pun — provides us, again, with much comic relief, thanks to his mulish head.
And it’s not just foolishness that is associated with the Donkey — it’s humility as well. After all, what do we call the most humble part of the body? I don’t need to say it. You already know.
But do we associate humility with our leaders, in today’s world — political or otherwise? Sadly, I’m afraid the answer is all too often “no.” And my friends: that’s a shame. For humility is not the same thing as groveling, or humiliation, or low self-esteem. I fear we have created a world where humility and power do not mix, because we profoundly misunderstand what humility is. There’s a quote that has been attributed to C. S. Lewis; I’m not sure if he actually said it, but we’ll give him the credit. Very simply: humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less. A truly humble president, or bishop, or CEO, or whomever, would simply be someone who orients their lives toward God, to such an extent, that they find it far more interesting to devote their attention to the people they serve, rather than to the limited scope of their own needs and wants.
Humility, and peace. These are the subtexts of Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We all know the story: on that day he rode the donkey, he had less than 120 hours to live. Now, depending on how you understand the relationship between Jesus’s humanity and his divinity, you may be of the opinion that when Jesus got on that donkey, he knew full well what the days to come would look like.
But I don’t think it really matters whether or not Jesus knew what he was getting himself into. Humility, after all, is comfortable with not being in control. So it really doesn’t matter in terms of what Jesus knew, and when he knew it. What does matter is that, at that particular moment in time, Jesus was present, truly present — to the words of adoration from his followers, to the sneering rejection of the authorities, to the rich symbolism of royalty and humility and radical nonviolence that his donkey friend embodied.
And all this, despite the threat of Roman violence, or the barely concealed hostility from the religious authorities. To be truly a person of peace does not mean only when everyone is getting along. A true prince of peace brings peace into the most contentious of circumstances.
So when we say Hosanna! and wave our palms to the donkey-riding king, let’s take a moment and be present. Let’s not rush off to the next thing: to Maundy Thursday or Good Friday or Easter Sunday. Let’s linger right here, acknowledging that by virtue of our baptism, Christ is our king.
But it’s not a kingdom of earthly power, prestige, and privilege. It is a kingdom of vulnerability, of humility, of peace, of forgiveness, of mercy, of loving our enemies as surely, if imperfectly, as we love our friends and neighbors and indeed our selves.
Let’s embrace this upside down kingdom. Let’s be citizens of peace and of humility — now, and for many days to come.
N.B. The above homily was delivered on Sunday, April 14, 2019 at the annual retreat for the Worker Sisters and Brothers of the Holy Spirit, an Episcopal/ecumenical religious order. Here are the lessons for this homily:
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29