The Great Misunderstanding
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 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.” 4 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?” 11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
We have spent the last month of Lent looking at passages in which Jesus was misunderstood. Jesus frequently intentionally invited misunderstanding. Conventional understanding was inverted— grown men needed to be born again, Jesus offered living water while he sat at a well that was too deep for him to use, a blind man sees and sighted men cannot; and finally life continued even when all was lost. Learning from Jesus requires a willingness to be confused. Each time his listeners thought they understood, it turns out Jesus meant something else. Today’s scripture is a dramatic case in point.
Jesus’ entry in Jerusalem was carefully planned and staged. Jesus directs his disciples to bring him a donkey and a colt. And should anyone object to their walking out of the village with them, the disciples were to say: “The Lord needs them”. How likely is it that any of us would accept such an explanation if someone came to our driveway and drove off with the family cars? “Explanations’ for this detail of scripture ranged from Jesus’ reputation preceding him to Jesus must have had a prearranged agreement with the animals’ owner. I always enjoy the speculations about scripture that we, as readers, employ to make it make sense to us. But the mechanism of retrieval is less important than the fact that Jesus is directing and planning for his entrance.
Jesus is entering during passover week. It was a time in which pilgrims would have crowded the city much as Islamic pilgrims crowd Mecca or Christians pilgrims crowd the Vatican on high holy days. If you want to make a statement, it helps to have an audience at hand. Matthew points to Jesus’ intention “to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet”. Matthew frequently pointed to specific links between Jesus’ actions and scriptural references in the prophetic tradition. In this case, two images are important. First, Mamimsoa, our intern from Madagascar, pointed out that the king comes to his people rather than the other way around. It is a new way to think about God and kingship. God with us instead of God in the Temple. Second, is the choice of animals. In the first century, kings who entered a city on a foal came in peace, kings who entered on a horse came to declare power. Riding a foal into the city was a claim to kingship and would have been recognized as such. Jesus was claiming kingship in his choreographed entry.
Jesus was also redefining kingship. A king on a foal was a royal image. A king on a donkey, not so much. A donkey was a beast of burden. There was nothing royal about riding a beast of burden. Verse 7 says: “they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.” My first image was of Jesus straddling both animals like a circus performer. But, even if more logically, he rode them sequentially, his actions introduced the visual image of a humble king—a servant king. But the words servant and king were just as incongruous as Jesus riding both a foal and a donkey. I am not at all sure, the people in the streets yelling Hosanna had the first inkling of who they were welcoming.
We have the unfortunate predilection to see what we know. Very often blatant contradictions are missed entirely. I first realized this years ago when I carried my two year old son through a friend’s mud room. The room was filled with a varied collection of objects, garden tools, a laundry basket, winter coats, shoes, etc. My son suddenly got very excited and started pointing and saying “Dog! Dog!”. There was no dog. But then I saw the bag of dog food in the corner that had a small picture of a dog on it. Of all the things to be seen, he saw what he knew. For me, what he saw was nearly missed in the volume of things to be seen.
Jesus is teaching as he rides into Jerusalem. He presents an image of ‘king’ which would have been familiar juxtaposed against an image that was nearly incomprehensible—royalty on a beast of burden. And as the rest of the week would reveal, the servant part of Jeus’ kingship was angrily rejected as the people yelled ‘Crucify Him.’ Jesus knew his claim to kingship would threaten the authorities and he knew the kingship he offered would disappoint the people. In doing so, he chose to risk his life to show us that servant leadership need not be a contradiction.
In Faith and Real Life we discussed a number of real life applications. Carolyn Brooks wondered aloud what the children saw. I am pretty sure the children would have seen the spectacle. They would have imagined they were looking at the latest superhero. It would have taken special effort to teach them that this man was a superhero because he was willing to risk his life for the community—not because he was invulnerable. That isn’t nearly as exotic as a nearly invincible Superman, Iron Man, Wonder Woman, The Hulk and their ilk. We, too, need that lesson on our Lenten journey.
It also brought to mind the phrase ‘essential services’. What are the services that are so important that it is worth risking a life for? First responders, doctors, nurses, grocery clerks, sanitation workers are all risking their lives for you and me. Even though we can not seem to escape political polarization and self interest in our public discourse, the willingness to inconvenience ourselves for the greater good is more and more evident. It is not a common way to live. But now such values are expressed in the outpouring of appreciation for the medical personnel as well as our collective effort to shelter at home. We are less likely to think primarily of our self interest. We now are expecting each other to think of the collective good. It is not ok to open a university, to have choir practice or even to worship together if it puts others at risk. Such behaviors in the name of essential service and/or denial of the risks to us all is no longer acceptable. We can’t keep what we know—even it means giving up our gyms or beauty salons. We cannot claim we have the ‘right’ to do what we want. We must struggle with what is the right thing to do. It is no longer just about me. Now we must regularly be mindful of us.
Jesus had the right to refuse to go to Jerusalem, he had the right to slip into Jerusalem quietly, he had the right to escape when he knew he would be arrested. But he accepted what God said was the right thing to do—even at personal risk and ultimate death. He was called to teach us about eternal life. Each step of our Lenten journey has been a new lesson about who Jesus is and how he saves.
Ultimately, Jesus died to show us that God’s way leads to life, but on Palm Sunday, his entrance into Jerusalem teaches us about a servant king who came to the people—even people who profoundly misunderstood him. It is a hard lesson in life that we must give up our expectations of someone to actually meet the real person. The same is true of God. In the last six weeks, contrary to human thinking, Jesus has been teaching us who God is. Over and over, God is not who we expect. We must get beyond our great misunderstanding.
So, when we wave our Palm branches and sing our Hosannas, remember, it is a servant king we are welcoming. See beyond the spectacle. It is a king who joins us and is willing to risk his life for the welfare of us all.
Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Let it be so.