Humble Peace Bearers of Christ
A sermon based on Matthew 21:1-11
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on April 9 , 2017
by Rev. Scott Elliott
It’s not true that Jesus borrowed the donkeys in our lesson today because he thought his followers would get a kick out of them. Nor is it true folks threw down tree limbs so his following could branch out . . . or face palm– at puns like these.
Now before anyone shakes their head too long at me for having odd humor at the start of a Palm Sunday sermon I want to point out the humor begins in our text with Matthew’s very strange assertion that there was a prophesy in Ezekiel that a king (the Messiah) would arrive riding two donkeys at once–and not even the same size at that, one a mother, the other her colt.
That’s a funny image, and made odder still because there is no such prophesy in Ezekiel of two donkeys just one. But Matthew tells us that Jesus actually rode into Jerusalem like that sitting on both a donkey and her colt– a male foal. Donkeys in Matthew’s day were symbols of peace and humility. Kings who came to do violence entered on a war horse. Kings who came to bring peace entered humbly on a donkey. So I usually point out that on that first Palm Sunday when the huge Passover festival with large crowds began, Pilate would have entered town on one end astride a war horse, representing earthly power’s way of doing things through human showing might and power. 1
And Jesus came in not only from the opposite direction, but intentionally with a very opposite meaning on a symbol of peace and humility donkeys representing heavenly power’s way of doing things through bearing peace and humble-ness. It is an earthly power and heavenly power face off. To understand Holy Week it’s essential to understand that these two powers are on a collision course. Holy Week is about that struggle, and it begins and ends with these two very different approaches.
And if we are asked to think about both perspectives, all Holy week long we are swung between the reality of the awful terror of Rome’s brutal unforgiving violent way and the awe-filled love of God’s forgiving non-violent Way. Back and forth we go in the story. From our ordinary human perspective there is no doubt Rome is going to hands down win the epic struggle. Because brutal might beats everything all the time in ordinary reality. And what makes the story so compelling is that we are given a perspective that brutal might doesn’t win, it doesn’t beat peace and non-violence.
There is discordance in that. The non-ordinary happens. The extraordinary reality of the Gospel story is that love actually wins. And, it wins all the time. No matter what Rome does it is no match for love– God. God wins and not with brutal might but with, peaceful love.
There is all the hope in world in that. And the crowds embrace that hope on that first Palm Sunday cheering Jesus on in his humble peaceful parade into town. They embrace and cheer when it is easy to do so, but lose their mettle when Rome slams its crushing iron fist to palm and arrests Jesus . . . His followers deny him then. And when Jesus is tried and tortured they hide.
And then at best they watched as he was crucified and died. It’s all expected to be over from the ordinary view when the legions step in, arrest, try, torture and kill Jesus.
But it’s not over in the least from the vantage of the non-ordinary view. In the extraordinary reality of the Gospels somehow God gets more and more traction with each evil Roman action. And the traction really starts taking hold at the palm parade that first Palm Sunday.
The very curious Matthean version of the story comes up in the Lectionary every three years and it adds that one really odd twist to the Palm Sunday story. In all the other Gospels (Mark, Luke and John) Jesus rides in on one animal a colt. Yet, Matthew tells us there’s an extra donkey in the picture. Matthew has the colt, but adds the jenny, the mother, the older she donkey, and has Jesus ride them both into town simultaneously.
I suggested in my first Palm Sunday sermon here on this text that Matthew did this to add to the street drama Jesus is acting out in a 1st Century theatre of the absurd, if you will. Jesus and his followers are satirically mocking Pilate’s war horses and armed legions parade with a donkeys and palm leaves humble people’s parade. A relatively recent New Testament commentary sums it up like this:
The entry scene is full of irony, imitating celebratory imperial entry prossessions yet with an “antitriumphal” parody. . . [I]t creates street theatre to critique imperial practice and mind set. Entry processions defined greatness in terms of military violence, defeat of enemies, power, plunder and public gratitude. Jesus, though, rides not on a war horse, but a donkey, a poor person’s working animal, yet also one that evokes the scene in Zech[ariah] 9:9 of God’s eschatological king , establishing God’s reign triumphantly over all enemies in Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives. Continuing ironically to mimic imperial ways even while reinscribing them . . . 2
I think that is right with respect to all the Palm Sunday Gospel narratives. But when I started meditating on the story a number of weeks ago the two donkey part kept coming to mind . . . speaking metaphorically, like Balaam’s donkey, to me in prayer.
I spent some time researching its meaning and basically what I found were claims Matthew misinterpreted Zechariah or that Jesus rode side saddle and just supported his legs on the colt as rode the adult donkey. Nothing too profound.
Probably the most logical – albeit dry academic– answer I found was that the original poetic style in Zechariah included a custom of stating and then restating the same thought in two different ways. 3 The New American Standard Bible probably catches best the gist of that with this translation of Zechariah 9:9 – the text Matthew misquotes. It reads
He is just and endowed with salvation, Humble, and mounted on a donkey. Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
What we don’t hear in the English is that the Hebrew references the mount as a young male donkey and the obvious, that the mom of that colt is female.
While that seems obvious, the academic argument is that Matthew wanted to make sure the Jesus he portrayed crossed every “t” and doted every “i” of prophesy so he had Jesus ride on both the male and female donkey at the same time tossing aside . . . um you know, logic of the difficulty and strange absurdity solemnly riding two donkeys evokes.
Since Matthew seems to be bright and educated– especially for his day– I am skeptical about this explanation. I can see an argument for Matthew adding the extra donkey for an absurd comical image in the street theatre sense, but it makes no sense to me that Matthew would add an extra donkey just to fit a poem he read. Which like all the explanations on this are necessarily at the end of the day speculative.
It is not, however, speculative to conclude that Jesus taught in parables. Nor to conclude that his followers also taught in parables. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan point out that
Jesus told parables about God and the advent of God, the coming of God’s kingdom. His followers told parables about Jesus and his advent, the coming of the bearer of God’s kingdom. 4
And it is not a stretch to conclude Jesus’ Followers told parabolic stories about Jesus’ death and resurrection narratives as well. The Gospels can be heard as parables that is, narratives about the meaning – the Truth with a capital “T” – about Jesus. As Borg and Crossan put it “The meaning of parable– its parabolic truth– does not depend on its factuality.” All Christians agree the Gospels are about the meaning and
[t]o see these stories as parabolic or metaphoric narratives does not require denying their factuality, It simply sets that question aside. A parabolic approach means “Believe whatever you want about whether the stories are factual– now, let’s talk about what these stories mean.” Meaning not factuality, is emphasized. (p 35).
Bible scholars think it is likely that Jesus may have led a theatrical form of arrival in Jerusalem with some of the gathering Passover crowds welcoming him in protest of Rome and in support of God on that first Palm Sunday. That alone has meaning, historically such a protest would have put the authorities on notice that Jesus was a rebel leader and that some in the Passover crowds were roused to rejoice at the rebellion.
That appears to likely be factual stuff. But what about the little details? Particularly the two donkeys in Matthew? Donkeys, I mentioned, meant peace and humbleness. But what about the two donkeys? What metaphoric meaning could there be in Matthew’s two donkeys? That’s what kept coming to me in prayer. We heard one academic notion that Matthew just wanted to make sure a Messianic prophesy as he understood it was depicted as 100% fulfilled. Okay. I guess. That’s one possible meaning. The beauty of metaphor and parables is that we are allowed to contemplate possible meanings beyond what scholars or even an author like Matthew might have intended– this seems especially true if Jesus really did ride in on two donkeys at once.
With all the prayer and thought and research I put into to this “two donkey conundrum” a symbolic meaning, a metaphoric lesson appeared to me simple and apt for our Palm Sunday.
There are two donkeys in our lesson. One old. One young. One male. One female. The donkeys in our lesson are symbols of peace. The donkeys in our lesson are symbols of humility. The donkeys in our lesson carry Jesus, the Prince of Peace, into the crowd. We can hear and see all of this as representing . . . Jesus’ followers, every possible kind, old, young male and female. Jesus does not own them but they do serve him, carry him into the waiting crowd.They can be understood as representing Jesus’ followers doing what needs to be done to carry Christ into the world, as it were . . . into Holy Week.
Jesus’ followers are to be humble peace bearers of Christ. That’s what we’re doing today and every Palm Sunday . . . and actually ought to try to do every day. God and Jesus needs us to be humble peace bearers of Christ.
I get that the “we are donkeys” thing may not sound dignified to the modern ear, but I’ll take being a hardworking humble symbol of peace carrying Christ any day of the week – every day of the week – even if it means some might consider me a donkey in the modern American sense. Whatever it takes to start the parade for Christ to march in representing the Empire of God which always wins in the extraordinary reality of the Gospels.
May we all find our way to live and love in that reality, which is the point of Jesus’ Way . . . and Holy Week. Let us strive to be ready and waiting humble peace bearers of Christ.
1. I first ran across the details of this idea in a remarkable book on Holy Week by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan called The Last Week. I highly recommend this book for an in depth understanding of Holy Week. The Palm Sunday chapter can be found at p. 1-30.
2. The New Testament, Fortress Commentary on the Bible, (2014) p 160.
3. The Acts of Jesus by Funk, Hoover and the Jesus Seminar, p. 230.
4. The First Christmas, by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan at page 35.
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