The Triumphal Entry
If Jesus has just walked all the way from Galilee to Bethpage (some 63 miles) why would he get on a donkey for the last five miles into Jerusalem? This is the only occasion that we hear of Jesus using any form of transport other than his feet and so we can be confident that he made this choice very deliberately. Why?
Jesus’ teaching was not limited (as it so often is with us) to words alone. So much of what he taught was taught through symbols and actions. A symbol is a physical parable. It means more that it is. It makes us think. Holy Communion for example – the symbols of bread and wine that Jesus asked us to eat and drink together to remember him; and we continue to do so 2000 years later. Also the washing of the disciples’ feet. And the miracles – the cures of the sick and the feeding of thousands were hugely important symbolically, as they were of practical use to those who were cured or fed. They were symbols of the arrival of God’s kingdom which Jesus announced everywhere he went.
So what’s with the donkey? Well I would like to suggest that a symbol can work two ways – what it is and what that signifies but also what is it not and what that signifies.
One of the problems we have looking back 2000 years is not so much what is said in the gospels but what is not said but would have been known by those who first read the gospels; by the community in which the symbol was first used. Symbols do not necessarily have the same effect on us – in a different culture and a different time. Nor would our symbols mean anything to those in the First Century.
Take a contemporary example: a poppy. What does that conjure up for you? Probably the First World War, the Flanders fields, the British Legion and Remembrance Sunday. But if we were to show a poppy to someone in first century Jerusalem it would mean nothing.
So, when Jesus takes to a donkey for the one recorded time in his life, we need to pay attention to what this symbol, this four legged walking parable, might mean to the people who actually witnessed it. So we need to look into the context of the times. So what was the context?
Over 1000 years, Jerusalem had been conquered by endless armies, since the height of the kingdom of Israel under King David by: – Babylonians, Alexander the Great, and his generals and their dynasties, the Ptolemys and Seleucids. Then there was finally a period of Jewish rule under the Hasmoneans, which finally ended with the invasion by the Roman general Pompey. Then followed a period of peace of just over 100 years (during which Jesus was born and died) up until the total destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman general Titus and the final and complete dispersal of the Jews from Palestine, only reversed in 1947 by the creation of the State of Israel.
Thus, culturally and historically, the Jews would have been quite familiar with the idea of victory parades. Victorious Roman generals typically led their triumphant marches to popular acclaim in the streets of Rome in their horse drawn chariots. They were clad in purple, crowned with laurel and preceded by their prisoners in chains, as slaves, who were later slaughtered. For the victorious general a life of wealth, comfort and respect from the Senate and the People beckoned. So the Jews were familiar with victory parades.
But there is also more cultural context than just Roman victory parades. In Zechariah 9:9 the prophet writes: “Rejoice greatly Daughter Zion, Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See your king comes to you righteous and victorious lowly and riding on a donkey on a colt the foal of a donkey”. Thus the Messiah was prophesied five hundred years before Jesus’ birth. So by this symbol Jesus was laying claim to being the Messiah prophesied in Zechariah. Also, there are echoes of King David returning (2 Samuel 16:1) on a donkey after defeating Absalom. And hundreds of years later of Simon Maccabees being welcomed by palms (1 Macc. 51) as he travels into Jerusalem to purify the temple after the occupation by the Greeks in the second century BC.
As Jesus journeys towards Jerusalem, the Jews pick up on all these allusions – “Hosannah to the Son of David” they call. They are saying ‘we get it – you are David’s successor’. The whole city is stirred and asking who is this? Is this the Messiah and, if so, what kind of messiah is he? A symbol-laden moment; as Jesus takes his final journey which ultimately leads towards his death.
Riding a horse or driving a chariot would have been symbolic of a military leader – a messiah entering Jerusalem in triumph – in a victory parade – a messiah who means war – not a messiah who means peace. Riding a donkey conjures up peace and humility not war and pride.
But why do horses and donkeys symbolise such different things?
Horses and donkeys are actually quite different. Horses are herd animals, donkeys happy with one companion. The objective of the trainer of a horse is to become (in the mind of the horse being trained), the boss horse of the herd.
Donkeys on the other hand are more independent thinking. If you attempt to dominate a donkey, he will just avoid you. Training a donkey involves showing him that he can trust you to protect him. You cannot force him to do anything in the way that you can force a horse.
Jesus is riding on an unbroken donkey, a colt, which his disciples have just picked up in Bethpage – an unknown animal. Perhaps Jesus (like St Francis) had a way with animals. Sounds like a lot of trust must have been necessary. Perhaps that’s why bringing the colt’s mother along (the two donkeys mentioned in verse 2), would have been a good idea – to steady the colt.
So a horse responds to power and strength and a donkey needs to be able to trust and be persuaded.
So we now begin to see what a powerful image the donkey is, as Jesus takes his journey towards Jerusalem, towards his crucifixion. Travelling on an animal which needs to trust, rather than responding to commands; as Jesus travels up the hill worshipped by the crowds – this humble messiah on a donkey.
Such a contrast with the crowds in Rome a short 40 years later, as they welcomed General Titus back home after destroying Jerusalem, resplendent in purple with a crown of laurel, followed by the Jewish prisoners in chains that were about to be executed.
Humility compared with pride. Two kingdoms compared.
The Lordship of Christ compared with the Lordship of Caesar.
But human beings worshipping the hero of the moment in both cases, as they travel towards their destinies.
It is said that we become what we worship.
With which crowd do we most associate?
Perhaps the word ‘worship’ is too strong – in which crowd would we be surrounded by kindred spirits?
Jerusalem on Palm Sunday or Ancient Rome celebrating a Triumph?
Do we admire pride, power and success – the cult of celebrity; or
Do we admire humility, trust and self-sacrifice – the creed of Christianity?
Do we admire the celebrity or the saint?
Do we worship the man who journeys on the donkey or the man who journeys in the chariot pulled by the horse?
Do we chose to journey to our ultimate destination on the donkey or the horse?
Are we for the Kingdom of God or the Empire of Caesar?
Because we cannot do both – as Jesus taught in Matthew 6:24, no-one can serve two masters.
During Lent we have been studying the Diocesan Strategic Priorities:
- We grow authentic disciples
- We re-imagine the church
- We are agents of social transformation
- We belong together in Christ, practising sacrificial living and good stewardship of all that God has entrusted to us
In summary: – evangelism (telling people about Jesus), encouraging discipleship (deepening our relationship with God) and social action (responding to the need for transformation in our community).
In one word: ‘mission’.
I know many of when I say the word ‘mission’ will groan inwardly and think of the third world with all of its challenges.
But mission is not just about overseas or even outside our parish – as Archbishop Justin said in one of his recent addresses – ‘see what you can do in the place where you are’. Look around – what are the issues that people in our community face here and now?
Mission is always focused on others, not on ourselves.
It is always a journey of humility, trust and self-sacrifice.
When the church is fully engaged in mission, it is at its most attractive – even for outsiders.
But what about us as individuals?
Is being focused on others, travelling on the donkey, bringing people with you as they learn to trust you, as it were, how we want to travel to our destiny? How we want to spend the rest of our lives?
Or is it driving the chariot forward to greater adulation by those within our power, who are compelled to follow or who want that success for themselves?
Are we so tied up in pursuing success, comfort or recreation for ourselves (the Empire of Caesar, if you like) that we just don’t have time for mission (the Kingdom of God)?
I like the story of the Eastern European au pair girl who found that the children who she was looking after were having a pillow fight in their bedroom – and she came in to the room intending to say “What on earth are you doing?” but actually said “what are you doing on Earth?”
It’s a good question. ‘What are you doing on Earth?”
Now, I know it is not the family service but I need five volunteers from amongst the grown-ups and apologies if you have seen this done before. Because this is a symbol you will never forget.
So please come and stand up at the front. Each of you represents 10 years of our lives. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. Another volunteer please – Saturday
In my journey I have got to the end of Saturday.
And I hope I will get a whole weekend – Sunday
And I may just get a bank holiday
And it’s even just possible that I may get a second bank holiday.
But I am not going to get more than that….my journey will be over quite quickly really.
But it could be even earlier than that – a mistake on the motorway or Jesus return before then!
You see – we don’t have much time – any of us. What are we going to do with it?
Don’t be like the lady I saw in the parish a few weeks ago who said ‘I always meant to think about these things later on – but now it’s so hard’
Where are you on this scale?
How long have you got?
How long is your journey to be?
What are you doing on Earth?