What was it like in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday? Imagine the intensity as spiritual pilgrims flood the city for the Passover Festival. People jostle in packed markets, hoping to get a large, tender lamb. Vendors haggle to get the best-inflated price for their stock. The Temple bustles with last-minute cleaning and decorating; clinking coins are carefully counted, and a cacophony of cattle, lambs, and dove calls. Roman Guards are posted, alert for pick-pockets and trouble-makers. Scribes and rabbis are rehearsing their teachings, ready for the hot-button issues and questions from pilgrims. Everyone knows the rumors that Jesus of Nazareth is on his way. Will he come like John the Baptist with fire and fury? Or is he a quiet healer?
Many people just want a nice Seder without family arguments over theology and politics. Merchants and Temple leaders want enough peace to bring in the shekels, but others have important statements to make. Passover is not just any religious feast, with pageantry, piety, and good pastries. Passover marks God’s liberating action of enslaved people, as plagues and pain rained down on the cruel Egyptian overlords for their tyranny. This holiday is not about a holiday day off and sharing your new recipes for mint lamb or Hrosis. Part of society says Rome is good for business; they build the roads and spur technological innovation. But others feel taxed to death for Roman wars and resent Hellenization, which feels like an imperial cultural war on tradition and religious values.
Passover begins at the main gate West of Jerusalem. Pontius Pilate, the fifth Roman prefect of Judea, had been “keeping the peace” for seven years. He rides into the city with his heavy cavalry (the assault rifle of the ancient world), hoof beats pounding a message of power and authority, polished armor, and golden Eagle standards glinting in the sunlight. Order will be kept. Some in the crowds feel relief, and others feel the hair standing on the back of their neck.
On the city’s east side, away from the mighty main gates, Jesus is coming down from the Mount of Olives. This area was a vast cemetery, with 150,000 graves discovered. According to the prophet Zachariah, chapter 14, when the Messiah comes, Yahweh will come down to the Mount of Olives and shatter it in two. The Resurrection of the Dead will begin there, hence the cemetery. This area is where Jesus retreats each night to the Garden of Gethsemane.
Symbols matter. Jesus comes not on a war horse but a donkey, with no army but his ragtag followers. The donkey is a symbol of humility and peace. Pilate parades his war horses; Jesus rides on a donkey. These are the competing symbols in the cultural conflict.
I think the donkey is more critical than the palms. Only John says people waved palms. All four Gospel agree Jesus rode a donkey, and two note it was a young donkey never ridden. Luke and Mark add people throwing their cloaks on the road. I can see why liturgists, trying to create meaningful Sunday morning experiences, went with John and the palms. You can imagine the liturgical implications of throwing clothes in the street, and by now, we would have changed it to Thrift Store Sunday. Palms are what people want. That shout “Hosana,” which means “save us.” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” comes from the Psalms for Passover and alludes to the coming Messiah from the Davidic kingship. But Jesus asks for a donkey.
In Mark and Matthew, half the story is about securing a donkey for Jesus to ride. At first, glance, who cares? Why do we need six entire verses about going to get the donkey? If this were supposed to be Palm Sunday, Jesus would have said, “Go to the next village and climb the third palm tree on the left and cut its branches, and tell the owner Jesus requires them. And if he complains, go to Zachariah, the florist, and just make an order. It’s not about the palms; it’s donkey procurement that counts.
Beyond Zechariah’s prophecy of the Messiah riding a donkey, let’s see what precedes this story. In Matthew 20, James and John come to Jesus and ask if they can be at his right hand and left hand when he comes into his Kingdom. “We have been your most important advisors in the campaign, Jesus, so we should be appointed Chief of Staff and Secretary of State.” Jesus says, “You don’t know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup I will drink?” When the rest of the disciples get wind of what James and John asked, they are all angry. When Jesus needs them most, everyone is more worried about who will be the next church council moderator and Senior Deacon.
Jesus gives a quick admonishment,
“You know that among the Gentiles, those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be a servant of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.
Matthew peaks into the internal politics of Jesus and his not-so-merry band, and now it is time to enter Jerusalem. He dispatches two disciples to get a donkey. Now, this is a “short straw” job you give interns. If you were Jesus, to whom would you give that job? I know my answer! “James and John, my left- and right-hand men. Go get me a donkey.” I imagine them arguing to town, “We left our nets and families behind. ‘I’ll make you fishers of men,’ he said, ‘Be all you can be.’ And now we are donkey thieves.”
I moved a lot of animals on my farming day, and it is one of the most dangerous and inglorious jobs. You might be kicked, bitten, head-butted, knocked into the mud, or just look silly. You have to work carefully with animals. Remember, this donkey hasn’t been ridden. Have you ever been on an animal that has never been ridden?
Imagine this young donkey encountering the crowd entering Jerusalem, with people waving palms and throwing clothes before it. The horrified donkey’s ears are pinned back, nostrils flaring, and he stops and paws the ground. An overzealous celebrant frightens him, and he rears up. Jesus holds on tight and reassures the frightened animal that they will get through this together.
What is Jesus communicating with the donkey? The donkey could be a symbol for the people of Jerusalem. They are like frightened beasts of burden, anxious about the future and unpredictable in their fear. Like a donkey who bucks, they might shout Hosanna on Sunday and “Crucify him” on Friday. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, shows them he is not afraid of their anxiety or stubbornness and will guide them faithfully.
Jesus also shows he comes in peace, not with war horses. This little parade might be mocking Pilate with some great street theatre. Pilate thinks he looks powerful, but Jerusalem is a stubborn donkey. Let’s not forget Jesus’ ride ends his ride at the Temple, and he goes in and cleans house, condemning the money changers and purveyors of sacrificial animals as a den of robbers in the place of prayer. He doesn’t attack the next-door Roman garrison, but the house of worship must be set right. And then he heals people, the lame, sick, and suffering of the city.
It’s quite a tumultuous first day of Holy Week. Matthew says the whole city is in turmoil. No one knows what will happen next, and everyone’s predictions on Monday will be wrong. Those hoping for a nationalistic messiah will be disappointed. The rulers who think crucifixion will end the trouble have no idea. Even the disciples are confused and divided, one betrays Jesus, and all deny him by week’s end. This situation is how it is when God works in the world. We seldom grasp God’s bigger picture. We don’t always understand the ways of love.
How do we navigate our Jerusalem? How do we keep our sites on the ways of a donkey rider and not the war horses? I may be wrong, but I think we are headed for heightened tensions as the 2024 political campaign ramps up and more possible indictments come for Donald Trump. The first step in any crisis is to manage fear and anxiety. Slow down, stop making dire predictions, and clarify what is most important. News media only make money if we watch, and politicians only get contributions when they are in the media. Creating apocalyptic tension is their business plan. We don’t have to make this culture war our primary focus.
The reality is legal trials are long and boring, as they should be. Your opinion and my opinion about Trump’s guilt don’t matter. What matters in a constitutional democracy is the opinion of juries. The most likely outcome is that the legal system will do its job, and democracy will survive. Political leaders get indicted and go to prison all the time in America. If you live in Illinois, four of the last ten governors have been indicted. This too, will pass.
We must focus on how God calls us to act with love. Through our mission statement work, we identified the words defining us as a church-welcome, hope, love, and justice. The world needs us to be the church right now. As Jesus cleared the Temple, we need our house to be in order. The world needs our hope as people are dying deaths of despair. While the nation divides us from them, we refuse to create outcasts. We need the strength to both defend marginalized people and seek to build bridges. Unlike Jesus’ disciples, we know that Resurrection is coming. This knowledge gives us the courage to get through the Maundy Thursdays and Good Fridays. Easter will happen again, and a donkey will get us there.