I like to think of Palm Sunday and the writing of that sermon as “Lessons taught from the back of a donkey”. It was and is not an odd thing in the Middle East to see people riding donkeys. But it is not the kind of animal that one would expect a king to come and claim possession of a city. After all, in human society, we often operate on a simple principle: “if you want it, get it; by all most any means necessary. Worry about the costs and the interest later. You want it and there for you need it. You must have it.”
What does Jesus teach us about what kind of king he is and what do we know about the nature of the kingdom of God because of this donkey ride? If Jesus had chose a great white steed and strutted in the gates of the city of Jerusalem, people would have understood that he had come to claim his earthly kingdom and there was going to be a war. He would fight to take and hold on to what was rightfully his.
What if he had come in on a camel? What would have been the reaction? Or what if he had come in, driving cattle or leading sheep? What if he had come in walking, with the 12 and other disciples in tow? In Luke’s Gospel (19.37) Jesus and his followers reach a point where once they past the road going down to the Mount of Olives and going into the City, the fork in the road becomes a point of no return. Choosing to go into the city means that Jesus is choosing to face down the leadership of the people and all that could potentially happen including his death. He made that choice before he got on the back of that donkey. He had made it time and again, including in the Garden when he ask the Father to take this cup of suffering from him but was prepared to follow things through saying, “Not my will but yours be done.”
A horse is an animal of war and of conquest. It is the kind of animal that we would expect the king to ride. It is not the type of animal this king will use. A donkey is a beast of burden and a symbol of peace. Jesus weeps over Jerusalem has he rides into the city and the Gospel tells of what he said, As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you. (Luke 19.41-44)
This is a sharp contrast to what is happening around him as they make their way into the City and to the Temple. People around him are expecting conquest and for the return of the king and the good old days when they were a nation under David. They could have national pride, being free of the slavery and tyranny of the Roman Empire. They could be their own rulers and everything would be better if only Jesus would act.
Jesus will act. Yes there will be the flipping of tables, the scattering of coins and the howls of outrage over what he does. But instead of rebellion and overthrow, he offers his surrender. Jesus will be taken, mocked, brutally scourged and whipped, forced to carry a 200 pound weigh up the steepest road in the city and then had to endure the nails and the pain of crucifixion, and exposure. Finally when he can offer nothing more to give he turns over his life and his death not to those who screamed for it, demanding their way and their power but to his Father, whom throughout his life he had honoured and obeyed.
The kingdom of God is not about who controls the money or about who has the power and the authority – it is about those who can serve, heal and die. Power and authority are given to those who serve and those who heal. Authority is given to those who proclaim the kingdom both in word and in actions. It is about those who can offer their lives as a living and ongoing act of worship, knowing the Father who sees in secret is watching, caring and waiting.
Why did Jesus come and give his life as a ransom for many? Why did he die like that? It is because a) he loves us and cannot bear the thought of having an eternity without us and b) because he has need of you and of me as servants who are ready to live and prepared for death if necessary to show this world how much God really loves them. If we allow ourselves to open up to him and to be led by him, he will teach us not only how to die, but how to live. After all, God made you and he not only desires you, he has called you to go for him and to bear lasting fruit for his kingdom and the sake of this city.
So, which way to live will you choose? Will you decide to try and build your own little kingdom and have it all your own way? Or will you come with Jesus past the point of no return and learn to walk into the kingdom and the wider life that God has to offer you? You do get to decide.