Salvation on God’s Terms
When events happen that don’t fall in line with our expectations, it’s easy to become disappointed. Most times, the stakes are low, so that disappointment is short-lived and ultimately inconsequential. But what happens when your faith and all of your hopes are riding on it? Over the past several weeks, Faith in Real Life has explored stories that show Jesus defying our common expectations about many things–sight, social convention, and death. This week, heading into Palm Sunday, the group reviewed the story of the triumphant entry into Jerusalem and the hope-filled crowds that greeted him along the way.
1 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
5 “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed 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!”
10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Before I comment on the content of this scripture, I want to share an odd bit of history. Matthew is renowned for connecting the Old Testament prophecies to Jesus. He often uses the phrase, ‘that the scriptures might be fulfilled.’ One of Matthew’s arguments for the divinity of Jesus is that his life was foretold. Jesus is the extension and fulfillment of the messianic expectation. By referencing the prophets, Matthew uses the expectations of the tradition to validate Jesus’ life and ministry. Verse 5,“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” is a direct quote from the prophet Zechariah 9:9. The reference makes it sound like Jesus is riding two animals at once. And so it appears in Matthew’s narrative. In verse 7, they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.” (The other gospel narratives do not have this detail).
I read pages and pages of commentators trying to explain this scriptural detail. Was there one animal or two? If there were two, did Jesus straddle two animals? Just as for Matthew, his presentation of Jesus as the messiah is stronger if things happened as foretold, for many commentators, scripture retains credibility if there are no inconsistencies. I do not share that view of the authority of scripture but it is often fiercely held. In fact, the last man to be imprisoned in England for the crime of blasphemy resulted from poking fun at this passage. John Gott was a rationalist and a provocateur. In 1921, he publicly challenged Christianity and though he was taking scripture literally, the judge decided, “It does not require a person of strong religious feelings to be outraged by a description of Jesus Christ entering Jerusalem ‘like a circus clown on the back of two donkeys’.” He was sentenced to nine months of hard labor and died a few months later. When humans try to determine what is right and wrong, it is very likely that someone will be diminished or excluded.
(FYI, as it turns out, a poetic device in Hebrew is to repeat a second line to emphasize the first. So “mounted on a donkey” is repeated by the phrase “And on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” What is a rhetorical device in Hebrew became a literal image in Matthew. In all fairness, this explanation is also challenged but it works for me.)
That diversion aside, what is important about this passage for our lives?
Notice how ordinary words often mean something different for Jesus. Born again, living water, blindness and sight, life and death—now kingship and Messiah are all radically redefined. Over and over, the ordinary response to Jesus is to hear his words literally. But in so doing, listeners (and we) miss a larger truth that Jesus was introducing to humankind. God offers something new. But we cannot hear him if we are only listening to our own voices.
The ordinary understanding of messiah was rooted in the tradition. In the mid eastern cultures of the day, a king who came in peace, entered the city on a donkey. A king who came for war, came on a horse. Within the scriptures, First Kings 1:33 mentions Solomon riding a donkey on the day he was recognized as the new king of Israel. Other leaders riding donkeys include Judges 5:10; 10:4; 12:14; and 2 Samuel 16:2. So in arranging to enter the city in such a manner, Jesus was publically claiming his royalty and his messiahship. (Up until now, Jesus was far more likely to admonish people NOT to tell who he was).
But as soon as Jesus got on that donkey, he could be sure he would be misunderstood. Most of us are very familiar with the contrast between the expectations of the Messiah and the Messiah who Jesus was. The people wanted relief from oppression. The people wanted their nation restored. And when, in a few short days, it was clear that Jesus offered neither, the Hosannas became ‘crucify him’.
All too often disappointment kills. When events do not unfold as we expect, or when our certainties are challenged, a common response is to dismiss the contrary person or information. The blind man’s sight was an inconvenient truth so he was expelled from the synagogue. More dramatically, the Pharisees planned to re-kill Lazarus because his very existence offended. It was said of Jesus, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Over and over, we hold on to what we ‘know’. We do not want to recognize the fact that someone can honestly and in good faith see the world very differently than we do.
Think of the ways you respond to political opposition. More often than not, we diagnosis, categorize and dismiss rather than engage. And sometimes, even if we engage, we are still dismissed. The trick is not to become what we oppose. Just because we are dismissed and rejected does not give us the right to respond in kind. It is frustrating, but people have every right to disagree and to think badly of us. The human way is fight or flight. But Jesus sought to see even those who would kill him as children of God. Finding a third way is the challenge of Lent. That is a hard lesson to learn but it is the one Jesus taught—even as he was crucified. Most of will fail in this attempt but it is still the direction to which we are called.
So that brings us to ‘How is Jesus the Messiah?’ How does Jesus save. In her sermon this week Alex asked, ‘What in our lives do we fear is too much for God to handle? In our Lenten journey so far, we have three examples. The Samaritan woman was beyond proper conversation, the blind man was a congenital sinner and beyond redemption and Lazarus, a dead man was beyond life. But Jesus redeemed all three. If we move the focus to our intrapersonal lives, all of us have a secret, a ‘yes, but if you really knew…’ which in our mind disqualifies us from God’s care. But those limits do not stop Jesus. He reaches beyond what humans define as ‘good’ and ‘evil’ beyond the categories of acceptable and unacceptable and declares his love for us. That is how Jesus saves.
Jesus saves and Jesus is the messiah—but not in any way we could have predicted. We want relief from travail. But God did not promise that. But, if we can handle our disappointment, we can find something new. We can discover salvation on God’s terms instead of our own. Jesus saves by showing us the way to to love. Jesus saves by showing that human valuing is not the basis of God’s valuing And Jesus saves by reaching past the ways we disqualify ourselves and others from God’s love to say I love you. There is no place in our hearts or in the world that Jesus can not find us and love us. That is the Good News. And it will save us.
May you find God’s presence and love in the darkest and most unacceptable places in your life. Let it be so.