Riding on a Donkey

(A sermon for Palm Sunday delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on March 24th 2013.)

As with the “nativity” story of the birth of Jesus, each gospel that starts the New Testament describes the events of Palm Sunday in different ways.  Just as the accounts of the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth are blended together in the popular imagination to form the usual Christmas story, so are the four versions of Palm Sunday often combined into a single narrative.  Here is one way that might be done.

When they were approaching Jerusalem, they first reached Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives.  Jesus sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you and, as soon as you enter it, you will find tied there a donkey that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it to me.  If anyone questions what you are doing, just say this, ‘The Lord needs it but will return it.’”  For as it was said by the prophet Zechariah, “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion!  Rejoice greatly, for your king is coming to you!  Triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.”

The disciples did not understand at first, but they went ahead and found a donkey tied in the street, near a door.  As they were untying it, some bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying that donkey?”  The disciples told them what Jesus had said, and the bystanders allowed them to take it.  Then the disciples brought the donkey to Jesus.  They threw their cloaks on its back and he sat on it.

Now many people had gathered for the festival.  Hearing that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, they spread their cloaks on the road and others cut branches from palm trees and spread them on the road as well.  And as they took the path down from the Mount of Olives, all of the disciples began to speak loudly of the deeds of power that they had seen.  Soon the crowds that went ahead of Jesus and those who followed after him were shouting, “Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord, the King of Israel!  Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!  Hosanna in the highest heaven!”  Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”  But he answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”  And the Pharisees said to one another, “You see, we can do nothing.  Look, the world has gone after him!”

As Jesus came near and saw the city of Jerusalem, he wept for it, saying “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!  But now they are hidden from your eyes.  Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side.  They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”

Then Jesus entered Jerusalem, and the whole city was in turmoil, with people asking, “Who is this man?”  Others from the crowds answered, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”  And Jesus went into the Temple.

Christian churches around the world are today celebrating Palm Sunday, re-enacting the triumphant arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem for the observance of Passover, and looking ahead to the unfolding of Easter in a week’s time.  In those churches there’s usually some sort of procession, whether that’s just the children or the clergy and other worship leaders or even the whole congregation, everyone holding palm branches and singing solemn music appropriate to the day.  Palm branches — or, in colder climates, branches from trees such as yew or willow — are also used to decorate church sanctuaries.  Having been blessed with holy water, the branches are then carefully stored until the next year, when they are burned to make ashes for use in services on Ash Wednesday.

The story that’s told on Palm Sunday comes from the Bible, of course, specifically from those four books at the start of the New Testament that are known as the gospels.  The word “gospel” comes from Old English, meaning “good news” or “glad tidings”, and came to describe a particular form of early Christian writing that includes those first four books of the New Testament.  There were other gospels that weren’t chosen for inclusion in the Bible, such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and though there was strong opinion within the early Christian community that there ought to be four and only four gospels, it took a few centuries for the list of books in the New Testament to be officially recognized by the Church.

Now each of the four official gospels tells more or less the same story.  It’s perhaps not that surprising that the gospel accounts are different from one another, of course, since each gospel was apparently written with different purposes in mind.  Some of those differences may surprise you, but in each case, the story is rich in symbolism, including signs that perhaps Jesus was not to be the kind of king the people were expecting.

The oldest of the four gospels is named Mark.  Like the other names attached to the gospels, we have no idea who Mark actually was, or if that’s even the name of the person who wrote it, but the book itself is believed to have been written around the year seventy of the Common Era, which is thirty-some years after Jesus’ death.  Chances are, in fact, that the gospel was written in immediate response to the Fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, which would explain, in that time when it was particularly dangerous to challenge the Roman authorities, why Mark seems to aim for maximum obscurity.

Unlike the later gospels, Mark has Jesus say very little about his identity or his role as a messiah.  He heals people and drives out demons, but he always tells the people he heals and the demons he drives out to keep quiet about what he did and who he is.  Jesus uses many parables in his preaching, and though Mark notes that Jesus explains the meaning of those parables to his disciples in private, it’s clear that they still don’t understand, at least not until after his death.  It’s almost as if Mark is really written for people who already understand who Jesus is, so the gospel only needs to serve as a reminder of certain details, rather than as a book that can be read by anyone.  It’s not surprising that, though the oldest gospel, Mark is placed after Matthew in the Bible, since anybody reading Mark first would be pretty mystified.

Mark’s account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is short and to the point.  Jesus sends two disciples to fetch a donkey that’s never been ridden before, then he rides that donkey while people put their cloaks and branches on the road ahead of him, calling out “Hosanna!” and blessings on the coming kingdom.  This gospel’s account of Jesus’ arrival ends rather abruptly, though.  “Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.”  All that fuss, and he just turns around and leaves again!  As I say, pretty mystifying.  The next day Jesus comes back to the city, stopping on the way to curse a fig tree for not having any figs on it before driving the money-changers and the vendors out of the Temple.  The cursing of the fig tree — all the more bizarre because “it was not the season for figs” — is one of the few destructive miracles attributed to Jesus in the official gospels — the unofficial gospels have more — and is explained — to the extent that Mark explains anything — as foreshadowing the destruction of the Temple.

Matthew’s account is clearly based on Mark, but with a few differences.  Now this gospel was written a decade or two after Mark’s gospel, incorporating much of Mark as well as some other source material called “Q” that also shows up in Luke’s gospel.  What distinguishes Matthew is that it was apparently written for a specifically Jewish readership, perhaps one struggling for power amongst other Jewish groups following the destruction of the Temple.  As such, the gospel rarely explains Jewish customs but goes to great lengths to connect the events of Jesus’ life and death back to Hebrew scriptures, particularly the writings of the various Hebrew prophets.  Matthew really wants to prove that Jewish history had been pointing to Jesus as the Messiah all along.

It hadn’t, of course.  Being a prophet is about challenging authority and speaking truth to power, not about making predictions regarding future events.  And most Jews are naturally offended to be told that the only point of their religion was to pave the way for Christianity.  Still, Matthew was written before Christianity as such existed, with the gospel’s purpose apparently being to convince an existing Jewish community that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.

As such, it’s not enough for Matthew that Jesus has the disciples run ahead to find a donkey that’s never been ridden before, a reference to Jewish sacramental practices that require clean and unblemished animals.  No, Matthew also needs to explain that this took place to specifically fulfill the words of the prophet Zechariah.  The weird thing is that Matthew misunderstands those words.  You see, the actual lines from the book of Zechariah (9:9) are as follows:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Now there’s a structure in Hebrew poetry known as parallelism, where the same idea is expressed in a couple of slightly different ways for emphasis.  The prophet Amos, for instance, spoke of “justice roll[ing] down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” as two sides of the same coin describing a community based on fairness.  Zechariah was emphasizing the nature of the animal — a lowly donkey that had never before been ridden — an animal that in Eastern traditions represented peace, as opposed to the horse which represented war.  In the context of describing God’s inevitable victory over Israel’s warring neighbors, Zechariah really wanted to make clear that this would come about through peace and demilitarization, rather than through the escalation of violence, so the symbolism of the donkey as an animal of peace is really important.

Unfortunately, all of that is simply lost on Matthew, who only sees Zechariah’s words as a Nostradamus-like prognostication that just needs to be fulfilled in order to prove a point about Jesus.  Perhaps worse, Matthew fails to understand the poetic device of parallelism and instead takes Zechariah literally!  Matthew actually has Jesus send the disciple to find two animals, a donkey and a colt, which they do, and then he rides them both at the same time, presumably like some sort of circus stunt-rider.

Somehow Jesus makes it to Jerusalem without falling off and breaking a hip.  Matthew, unlike Mark, has people identify Jesus as the prophet from Nazareth, after which Matthew has him enter the Temple and immediately drive out the money-changers and the vendors.  Matthew has Jesus curse the poor fig tree the following day.

Luke’s gospel was written about the same time as, or perhaps up to a decade later than, Matthew’s.  Like Matthew, Luke expands on Mark, incorporating the “Q” material shared with Matthew as well as some unique to Luke.  We get a clear idea of the purpose of Luke’s gospel in its opening verses, which set up the book as an orderly account of events that the author claims to have carefully investigated, dedicating it and Luke’s sequel, the Book of Acts, to somebody called Theophilus.  That may have been the author’s patron or, since the name simply means “lover of god”, it may have been anybody looking for the sort of theologically sound, historically accurate account that Luke claimed to be.  As such, Luke is the longest and most detailed gospel, apparently written in ways intended to be appreciated as much by struggling Jewish communities as by emerging Christian groups, which would have included Roman citizens who had become followers of Jesus.

Luke’s account of Jesus’ approach to Jerusalem initially follows Mark’s very closely, and does not quote Zechariah.  As the people are calling out their blessings, though, Luke has the Pharisees ask Jesus to tell his disciples to stop.   He refuses, saying that if the people were silent, the stones would shout out instead.

Then Luke includes an extensive lament by Jesus, weeping for the city of Jerusalem and its refusal to recognize the signs of peace, namely Jesus — the heir of King David — riding a donkey — the royal animal of peace.  Luke has Jesus speak of an assault on Jerusalem as punishment for its failure to recognize him as God’s emissary.  Jerusalem had, of course, fallen and its Temple destroyed by the time Luke was written.  Like Matthew, Luke has Jesus then immediately enter the Temple and drive out the vendors, but unlike both Mark and Matthew, Luke does not include anything about the cursing of a fig tree.

Finally, we come to John.  With Mark, Matthew and Luke sharing so much material with one another, they’re known as the synoptic gospels, meaning that they can be seen together, or read in parallel.  The gospel of John, on the other hand, is substantially different, missing some of the characteristic elements of the synoptics such as the parables and the exorcisms.

John is believed to have been written last, perhaps with knowledge of the other three and yet without copying anything from them.  This gospel may have been written for a Christian community that was trying to separate itself from Jewish society, having difficulty in particular with antagonistic synagogue authorities, given John’s portrayal of hostility between Jesus and other Jews.  Still, John is sometimes described as the spiritual gospel, in part because it presents Jesus as the incarnation of the Logos or Word, the divine principle of the Greek school of philosophy known as Stoicism.

In John’s gospel, Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem is preceded by his raising of Lazarus of Bethany from the dead, a story that isn’t found at all in the other three gospels.  For John, the raising of Lazarus from the dead is one of the most important signs that convinces people to follow Jesus.  John reports that, out of fear of what the Romans might do to them and the Temple, the priests and the Pharisees plot to kill not only Jesus, but Lazarus, too.

John explicitly notes that it is a week before Passover when Jesus comes back to Bethany and then heads into Jerusalem.  John is the only gospel that specifically mentions palm branches, giving Palm Sunday its name.  Palm branches were traditionally used as a symbol of triumph and were probably meant to recall the victory of the Maccabees against the Greeks a couple of centuries before, representing the people’s hopes that Jesus would similarly defeat the Romans.  Like Mark and Matthew, John has the people calling out “Hosanna!” which rather than meaning “Hooray!” is actually from the Hebrew for “Save us, we beg you!”

Now John has Jesus finding the donkey himself, and then quotes a simplified version of Zechariah that avoids confusion such as  Matthew’s over how many animals were actually involved.  Perhaps in subtle criticism of the earlier gospel-writers, John comments that the disciples didn’t understand this at first, but only figured out what it meant later on.  Then John has people speak about how they’d seen Lazarus raised from the dead, something that grows the crowd even more.  Finally, the Pharisees complain to one another in resignation that there’s nothing they can do.

John does describe how Jesus drove the vendors and the money-changers out of the Temple, by the way, only as an event very early on in his public ministry, around the time of a previous Passover.  Scholars debate such differences between the gospels, of course, and what they might mean for the chronology of Jesus’ life.

There are lots of questions that, without some sort of time machine, will never be answered when it comes to ancient texts such as the Bible.  Like it or not, though, it’s such a part of our culture in this society that it’s important for all of us to have some level of biblical literacy, whether or not we consider ourselves Christian or even Jewish.  Most Unitarian Universalists do not, of course, and have long since rejected the Bible as unhelpful or even untrue.

In a time when “religion” is all too easily used to oppress rather than to liberate, though, it’s particularly important to understand the Bible and what it says and where it came from so that others can’t use it against us in support of their own bigotry and small-mindedness.  The four stories about Palm Sunday are, I think, a good place to start, given the similarities and the differences between the stories as well as the important symbolism.

There’s the fact that all four gospels agree that Jesus was riding on a donkey, for instance, an animal of peace rather than an animal of war like the horse.  Given cultural traditions, including the writings attributed to Zechariah, the gospels agree that Jesus’ mission was all about peace.  This was not supposed to be a triumphant celebration of the victory of armed might, but a plea for peace, whether that’s between the world’s nations or between the various factions within Judaism itself.

Three of the gospels have the people calling out “Hosanna!” which comes from the Hebrew meaning “Please save us!”  Someone arriving in great power, with swords and other weapons, and certainly riding a big horse rather than a donkey, would have seemed a much better candidate for Messiah, I’m sure.  Perhaps the people were too wrapped up in their stories of how Judas Maccabæus had defeated the Greeks, driving them out of Jerusalem and restoring the Temple as a Jewish holy site.  Perhaps they were thinking of how King David, who was said to be Jesus’ ancestor, had even as a young boy defeated much stronger soldiers like Goliath.

For me there are eerie parallels with some of the ways that, even in our modern world, we tend to pin our hopes on people we single out as special, casting them in the models of our heroes of the past and then, when they inevitably fail to deliver the miracles we demand of them, we crucify them.

By the end of that Passover week, of course, the Romans had executed Jesus, betrayed and abandoned by his own followers.  The triumph of Palm Sunday turns into the tragedy of Good Friday.  But let’s resist the urge to jump ahead to Easter.  Without that time machine, of course, we can’t know if any of the four gospel accounts of Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem are remotely accurate accounts of actual events or are, as some people claim, complete fictions.  For me, it doesn’t really matter either way.

I can still learn something and find inspiration in the stories.  What I read in them is a message about the importance of loving one another and living in peace, or at least trying to.  Unitarian Universalists believe lots of different things about Jesus, but we can at least think of him as someone who said some important things about being kind to one another, about treating one another fairly, about standing up for what we believe in without giving in to violence, and about the power of love to conquer everything, even death.

This Palm Sunday, may that be the “good news” we remember in the days and weeks ahead.

Advertisements

3 Comments »

  1. […] I first came across the word “prophesy” as a child, in a music class at school where were preparing for the Nativity Play we’d put on just before Christmas.  It was a strange sort of word and seemed to have something to do with predicting the future.  Or, at least, that was the impression I got from the Bible.  I’ve since learned that whoever wrote the book known as Matthew’s Gospel was rather concerned with making sure that people knew that Jesus was indeed the promised savior, to the extent that the writer made sure that the words of Hebrew prophets such as Isaiah applied to Jesus.  (The most extreme example of this is found in Matthew’s account of Palm Sunday, where Jesus is described as stunt-riding two animals at the same….) […]

  2. […] the book of the Hebrew Bible most cited in the Christian New Testament — even if, for instance, Matthew gets some of it wrong, such as basing a pretty major claim on the mis-translation of the Hebrew word for “young […]

  3. […] Matthew quotes the book of Zechariah in describing how the king of Jerusalem will enter the city by riding on a donkey.  Only Zechariah uses a poetic structure called parallelism, repeating the point for emphasis by […]

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: