The Man on the Donkey
(A sermon for Palm Sunday, posted at the request of my great Course of Study 513 students.)
“Then they brought it to Jesus;
and after throwing their cloaks on the colt,
they set Jesus on it.
As he rode along,
people kept spreading their cloaks on the road.” -Luke 19: 38-44
As we prepare for worship on this Palm Sunday, many people are less caught up in Holy Week than they are with that phenomenon called “March Madness.” The NCAA men’s basketball tournament is going on right now, and many of us enjoy following the brackets and watching the 64-team drama unfold each year. “The Big Dance,” they call it. What keeps me interested in the tournament isn’t so much just the basketball as the surprises that happen: those times when some tiny school you’ve never heard of topples some gigantic University Basketball Powerhouse. I love it when a bunch of guys who’ve never been on TV or been asked for their autograph come out and play hard and play together in such a way that they shock the world. Just this past weekend, little David Northern Iowa toppled mighty Goliath Kansas. It wasn’t the first time this had happened to Kansas: a few years ago a little bitty school called Bucknell came out and beat the Jayhawks, who had been one of the favorites to win the tournament. Bucknell had never, ever, won a tournament game before, and even their just going to the tournament was so unexpected that their student band was still on spring break and couldn’t be there: so before the game the team handed out some orange Bucknell T-shirts to the band from Northern Iowa, and quickly taught them the fight song. By the end of the game, the Bucknell University of Northern Iowa pep band were playing that fight song over and over, because against all odds, the little team that could, had won. Just this past weekend, the Northern Iowa band got to play its own fight song.
If there is within you, as within me, some natural tendency to root for the underdog, for the little guy, then you are well on your way to understanding Christian faith. Because the odds against Bucknell beating Kansas are still a far cry from the huge odds facing the man who this Sunday rides into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.
The man on the donkey had been born of a teenage mother, and there were whispers about the propriety of his conception. He was not well-bred, not a blue-blood from the aristocratic class. His father was a humble carpenter, a working man with callouses on his hands. It was unlikely he was well-educated, he had no masters’ degree or PhD. He was from the Galilee hill country, from the hick-town of Nazareth, and probably spoke with a funny accent that gave away the area of his birth. He was still young, still in his early thirties, far too young to be as wise as the amazing words that he spoke suggested he was. And apparently he wasn’t a tall, dark movie-star persona, but an average-looking Jewish man: a prophecy in the book of Isaiah said that there was nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
Then there was the company that this man on the donkey kept. His cousin was John the Baptist, that big-haired wild-eyed unrefined hippie cave-man who had been dunking people over about the Jordan River before he was arrested and executed. His confidantes were simple fishermen who may not have been able to read. He sat down to dinner with ex-prostitutes and traitorous tax collectors. He seemed to enjoy the company of the mentally ill and the seriously sick. He walked through neighborhoods other people knew to avoid. He loved foreigners: sometimes, it seemed, just as much or more than his own kin and country.
And you should have heard the rumors that were being passed around. Some said he was a glutton and a drunk, and was soft on sin. Others said he didn’t read the Bible as if it were the literal Word of God. Some said he was a bleeding heart liberal because he kept talking about the poor; others thought him a backward conservative because he kept talking about personal values. “His teaching is too harsh; it’s unrealistic and impossible to live up to,” some complained. “Give away that much? Love your enemies? Come on!” Others argued, “He casts out demons because he is a demon.” One person claimed they heard him say that he was going to raise an army to overthrow the Romans and that he was going to blow up the Jewish Temple and then rebuild it, Extreme-Home-Makeover style, in three days. And didn’t his own family once say they were afraid he was out of his mind?
There were the reports of the miracles, of course. That did give the man on the donkey some credibility. But even the way he did those miracles seemed strange, almost humble. There was no lightning from heaven, no complicated magic potions, no fancy religious amulets. His miracles were simple, basic stuff. He spit in the dirt and put mud in a blind man’s eyes to make him see. He reached out and touched lepers and their skin would be made smooth and soft. He prayed over a demon-possessed boy, and the seizures stopped. He told the dead to “get up,” and they arose. A bleeding woman touched his cloak and was healed. A crowd was hungry, but he didn’t give them filet mignon and baked Alaska, he took bread and fish, said a blessing, and simply fed them. Surely there was some logical explanation for some of these “miracles.” And even after he had done a lot of these deeds of power, he told people to not to tell anyone about them. Humble. Strange.
Now, Palm Sunday, here he is entering Jerusalem for the climactic week of his life. This was what everything else- the miracles, the healings, the teachings- would be leading up to: this week. This would be “the Big Dance.” And you would think, if he is who he says he is- that if he is the King of Kings, the Messiah, the Savior Son of God, that he would know how to really make an appearance. Throw a real ticker-tape parade. Sound the trumpets. Break out the limousine and the secret service agents in dark glasses. At least gives us a few conquering chariots laced in gold.
But Jesus doesn’t enter Jerusalem on a Clydesdale. He rides in on an unbroken colt. Humble. Strange. He’d told the disciples, “Go into town and you’ll find a tied up colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it back to me.” “But Lord, what if the owners ask why we’re taking it?” “Well,” Jesus says, “just tell them ‘The Lord needs it.’” (Can you imagine? “Hey, what are ya’ll doing getting in my truck?” They roll down the window, “The Lord needs it.” “Oh, OK. Just remember the parking brake is on the left.”) But that’s Jesus. Trusting God to provide through the trust and kindness of others.
So it is that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, doesn’t enter Jerusalem on a Clydesdale, but on an unbroken colt, in the equivalent of a beat-up Volkswagen Bug instead of a Hummer. Matthew says it was a donkey that Jesus rode. Just imagine this scene: the King comes in bouncing up and down on Eeyore, or on the donkey from the movie Shrek. And he doesn’t even have his own pep band, no pom-poms. Just poor people who wave branches they’ve cut from the fields, and who lay their tattered coats down on the road in his path, the way an old gentlemen from the 1800s would daintily place his coat over a mud-puddle for a lady to cross. (It’s almost like the poet William Butler Yeats had these people in mind when he wrote his poem about his failed desire to spread a red carpet at his love’s feet. He wrote, “Had I the heaven’s embroidered cloths,/ enwrought with gold and silver light,/ . . . I would spread the cloths under your feet:/ But I, being poor, have only my dreams:/ I have spread my dreams under your feet./ Tread softly, because you tread upon my dreams.”)
It’s not a yellow-brick road Jesus follows to Jerusalem; it is a road lined with the cloaks and the dreams of the poor. And this, the Bible says, is a welcome fit for God’s king. This is how God invades Jerusalem.
I imagine the Roman soldiers, members of the most powerful military in the world, watching this scene. There they are beside the road in their camouflage body armor, sitting on their tanks or their fighting vehicles bristling with weaponry. Something tells me they aren’t trembling with trepidation. I imagine them laughing, cracking jokes. “Get a load of this guy on the donkey. They’re acting like he’s Caesar or something. Hey, get a picture of me saluting him.”
The man on the donkey must have looked for all the world to them like some kind of Jewish Don Quixote, a harmless, comic knight chasing windmills. You remember the story of Don Quixote: he’s an old man who all of the sudden gets the idea in his head that he is actually a noble knight; so old Don Quixote saddles up his raggedy old mule Rosinante (he’s senile enough to think she’s a majestic white charger) and he sets off for adventure. He meets a woman named Alfonsa, a street urchin of questionable reputation, but Don Quixote treats her as if she is a princess and calls her “Dulcinea,” or “sweet one.” Later Don Quixote tries to attack some windmills because he thinks they are monsters. You read the story, and you don’t know whether to laugh or cry at Don Quixote’s confusion and senility.
But maybe, maybe there’s some part of you that doesn’t want to laugh or cry at Don Quixote, maybe some part of you wants to follow him, to believe him, because he sees a different, more exciting world than you do. Maybe sometimes there is a seeming craziness that is more sane than sanity. Rather than merely accept the wrong in the world, isn’t it better, as Don Quixote sings (in Man of La Mancha) “to dream the impossible dream/ to fight the unbeatable foe/ to bear with unbearable sorrow/ to run where the brave dare not go/ . . . to fight for the right/ without question or pause/ to be willing to march into hell/ for a heavenly cause”? Maybe it is more noble to see the world as you wish to make it to be, and to work to make it so, rather than passively accept the way things always have been. Maybe fighting a long defeat is more beautiful than a victory won through apathy.
Maybe if you treat a mule like a stallion, a girl like a princess, and life as an adventure, maybe you discover that’s exactly what they are. Maybe truth lies deeper than surface appearance.
As he enters Jerusalem, stacked up against all of the forces of sin and death and greed and violence and ignorance, this one humble man on a donkey appears to be nothing more than a sheep meekly and naively being led to the slaughter. His is “the impossible dream, the unbeatable foe, the unbearable sorrow, marching into hell.” He looks for all the world like Bucknell or Northern Iowa being fed to Kansas.
But didn’t the Trojan Horse look harmless when it was pulled inside the gates of Troy? Doesn’t the fly hiding the hook look harmless to the trout? Didn’t a little shepherd boy named David once take a little slingshot and topple a Goliath? And in The Lord of the Rings, wasn’t it the two little, humble hobbits, and not the great warriors, who climbed Mount Doom and saved the world by destroying the Ring of Power?
And what is power, really? Is power the ability to coerce, the exertion of force, the ability to achieve the greatest level of violence or strength? Or is power more like patience in struggle, perseverance in suffering, pardon in sin? There is a scene in the movie Schindler’s List. The concentration camp villain, Amon Goeth says that he has the power to kill his Jewish prisoners, and that is why they fear him. That is power, he says. But Oscar Schindler, the hero of the film, says, “That’s not power. Power is the ability to have every justification to injure, but to pardon instead. That is power. Power is pardon.”
Or is power more like the ability to go on loving? Is power more like compassion? Jesus told a story once, a story we call the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Remember the story, how the traveler is robbed by a “powerful” group of thieves, and beaten bloody and left to die by the road-side? And a priest and levite, the “powerful,” come by, but neither one of them stops to help? And then, his eyesight fading, the wounded man sees someone else coming. A Samaritan. A “powerless” minority he’d looked down on, ignored. A surprising savior. What was it the Samaritan was riding on? A donkey? The Samaritan had every justification to pass on by. But the man on the donkey chooses pardon. He chooses compassion. Power. And do you remember how we were lying beaten up by sin and death beside the roadside of life, and how this man on the donkey poured ointment on our wounds, and picked us up, and placed us on his donkey, and took us to this place of safety? Do you remember the man on the donkey who saved you?
This week, the man on the donkey will become the man on the cross. We didn’t recognize the time of our visitation from God: it was hidden from our eyes. So the shouts of “Hosanna” will become screams of “Crucify him.” Palm Sunday gives way to the pierced palms of Good Friday.
A Roman soldier will be there. He had looked at the foolish-looking man on the donkey as he rode into Jerusalem, and he had called the man crazy, with all his talk about God and forgiveness and the things that make for peace.
But when the Roman soldier watches the man on the donkey die on a cross with words of pardon on his lips, he is so awed by the power that the impossible dream becomes possible.
The Roman soldier can only bow down and say, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”
The man on the donkey become the man on the cross is really the King on the throne.
They called the man on the donkey crazy.
But on Easter we’ll discover
that maybe his kind of March Madness
is the kind we all most deeply need.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.