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What’s with the Donkey?

Palm Sunday

Mark 11:1-11

©2021 Rev. Dr. Elisabeth R. Jones

Intro to Scripture

Stripped of our regular pageantry,
the story’s oddnesses
poke out like toes from a sock, don’t they?
And there are quite a few.
“What’s with the donkey?”
was one that immediately stumped
our midrashers last week.
That, and the strange reconnoitre
of the temple at the end.
Is it really a 1st century version
of a spontaneous tam-tam session
up on Mount Royal,
or is it something else altogether?

We have a bit of work to do
to get what Mark’s Jesus is up to,
because after all, we’re reading this,
two thousand plus years after the fact.

What we don’t know,
but Mark, and his earliest readers knew,
is that every year,
as the pilgrim festival of Passover
was about to begin
—with Jews from all over the eastern Mediterranean
flocking to Jerusalem to celebrate
their festival of freedom, of liberation
from an oppressive Empire of long ago—
the current Empire, Rome,
flexed its military and political might,
to remind Judea who was really in charge.
The Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate,
rode a rippling, muscled brute of a horse
at the head of a parade of cavalry and foot soldiers
all of them decked out in scarlet, gold,
plumes and heavy metal,
clattering their way from the west side of town
to the Fortress which loomed
over the Temple approaches.

Over on the east side of town,
our parade,
the other parade, the antiparade
happens… at the same time.
Where Pilate is surrounded by regimented
precision, Jesus is whacked in the face with
flinging branches and people’s coats.
Where Pilate heads to the fortress,
Jesus passes by the city dump,
through the pilgrims, to the house of prayer.

This is precision-planned political drama,
designed to be everything that Rome is not.

For example,
what’s with this donkey?
Or to be precise, this unridden colt,
the foal of a donkey?

Depending on which Gospel you read,
this detail gets comical, and seems
to be an asinine distraction, at first.
“A poor choice for a carpenter/cum
itinerant prophet to ride!”
we fret, unless Jesus has hitherto
unheralded skills as a donkey-whisperer.

Matthew gets himself into a Scriptural knot when
he double quotes his sources
and ends up with a donkey and its foal,
and has Jesus ride both!
(An image I always have the fit of giggles over).

Until we get our biblical memories jogged…
(well we might not, without help),
but to Jesus’ followers,
and to the first generations
who put these Gospels together,
they’ve got this Israelite Top Ten Song,
written by the rock prophet Zechariah,
rattling around in their heads,
that goes like this:
“Rejoice, greatly, O daughter, Zion,
behold your king cometh unto thee!
Humble and riding on a donkey,
a colt, the foal of a donkey,”
The song goes on
(beyond the lyrics of George Handel),
“On that day, his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives which lies before Jerusalem to the East.”

This was indeed a Top Ten Song at the time of Jesus.
The indigenous population
they wanted their freedom of movement back,
they wanted the food they produced for Rome’s armies
to feed their own children,
and increasingly they looked to the sacred texts
of their faith for signs that
God might want that for them too.

They pored over prophetic texts like Zechariah,
they retold the stories of branches and cloaks being laid on the ground for Israel’s kings of old.
Judeans were craving someone who would rid them of Rome.
They wrote new tunes to ancient psalms,
like the one with which we began our worship,
and sang it at the top of their lungs when
this teacher from Galilee arrived on the eastern edge of town humming,
“Open to me the gates of righteousness,
so that I may enter
and give thanks to the Holy One.”

The crowd Hosanna’d in response,
all the sacred political significance
not lost on them at all.
Is he truly the One, the Messianic One,
who comes in the name of the Holy One?

So now we’re getting worried.
Was Jesus actually a political revolutionary?
Did he believe he was going to overthrow Rome
by conducting this anti-parade,by riding into town on an ass not tall enough to lift his feet off the ground?
Have we, good law-abiding citizens
of a moderately civil society
been hoodwinked by our churches
into following a seditionist?
Was, is all this “Kingdom of God,” and
“Dream of God” teaching by Jesus
really, or merely some political agenda?

And No.
And Yes.

It is political because it is earth-centred,
and it always has been.
The whole Bible is a variegated testimony
written down by people over millennia,
all of whom have been trying
to figure out how to live with faith in a higher power
in the midst of human societies
that repeatedly act as if we humans alone
have all the power.

Jesus, son of Mary,
raised by Joseph the carpenter
in the town of Nazareth,
Jesus, the most ordinary, colonized,
disenfranchised nobody you could dream up,
who lived under the yoke of the most militarized dominating force you could imagine,
stands in a long Biblical line of poets, mystics,
and politically savvy prophets,
who align every act of their being and living
to Torah, the Way of God, or Kingdom or Dream of God!

Jesus stands at the head of a parade of people, inspired by him,
who likewise choose when necessary, (which turns out to be often),to align their living in opposition to any regime,
any system that prevents human wholeness, and creation’s redemption.
That’s unabashedly, spiritually, political.

And Jesus knows, those palms and cloaks,
those shouted Hosannas,
and that donkey all stand for something significant.

Jesus does not, and will not meet might with might,
anger with anger, spite with spite.

His Way, and the Way we follow,
the parade we’re part of,
is an undying commitment to living love,
sacrificial, humble, compassionate
Even if that donkey riding parade leads past the city dump,
to the house of prayer, to an upper room,
and a garden called Gethsemane,
and a hill called Golgotha.

I cannot speak for you who are worshipping
with us today, but I do invite you to overhear my own personal
midrashic musings:

It makes me ask questions of myself,
and of the way I live my faith as a follower of this donkey-rider.

Do I, in response to injustice, get on a high horse?
Or follow this political path of humility
and persistent witness to God’s way of Justice?

Are the things I do with my clothing, with my voice,
with my wealth, things which honour the donkey-rider’s
Dream for the fulfilment on earthof God’s Kindom?

Am I willing to be part of this parade?
Can I cry out loud, with full voice
“Hosanna!” –“Save, we beseech you!”’
for my BIPOC and my LGBTQ+ siblings?
for the endangered species of my planet?
for the forgotten and left out and behind?

And oh, God!
I wonder if there are skittish colts
I may have to ride
to live this Dream,
before my living’s done,
all in the name of your
Love and Justice for all who live on earth?
If so, “Hosanna” I beseech you. So be it.

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