Palm Sunday being the day before yesterday, I’ve been thinking again about the Triumphal Entry.
Most of us probably know the story. Jesus knows His time is coming. He tells His disciples to go and find someone else’s donkey – a donkey, we’re told, that has never been ridden – untie it and bring it to Him. In a weirdly code-and-cypher bit of sign and countersign, He tells them the password to say if someone challenges them. Then Jesus gets up on the donkey, which in addition to never having been ridden has recently foaled, and calmly rides it into Jerusalem for the biggest festival time of the year, into a din of noise and hubbub that would be guaranteed to freak out even the most placid of animals. All the while, his disciples and others in the crowd are shouting expressions of praise to God, waving palm branches and laying their coats on the road in an impromptu red carpet.
It’s indisputably Messianic – this is Jesus doing it, right? – but it’s not really what anyone was expecting. Especially not in the context of what was to come.
First, the donkey. Anyone who’s watched (or especially read) any Westerns knows how dangerous it is to get up on an animal that has never been ridden before. In the natural, it’s going to freak out as soon as someone throws a cloak or blanket over its back as a saddlecloth. Something is on its back, and it smells wrong. Equines kick when they are placed in this situation; they don’t sit there calmly while you mount them without a stirrup. Add in the fact that the donkey had recently foaled and was going to be nervous because strange people were around its colt. And add to that the hubbub and confusion of people shouting praises and waving palm branches and all the festal crowds.
The disciples knew animals the way we know cars. They knew what ought to happen. But they also know Jesus. They’d watched him still storms and raise the dead. Still, they had to have been nervous.
I don’t know how aware most people were of the Messianic prophecies concerning the Promised One coming to Jerusalem “meekly, on a donkey”. I imagine the Pharisees and religious people at least knew. It’s there for anyone with eyes to see. But as we can tell from our own day, not everyone seems to have eyes to see, in that sense. Was this a generally-known central portion of Messianic expectation, or an obscure prophecy which had mostly been forgotten?
Given the political expectations of Messiah at the time, and the contemporary norm for rulers, it could the latter. Kings didn’t ride donkeys. Donkeys were small, common and unheroic; Kings rode horses. Great big war-horses for preference, riding crowns and armour if possible. The people of Judea seem to have been expecting Messiah to be a rerun of the Maccabees, but on steroids: a military campaign to drive out the Roman oppressors and install a Divine monarchy which would sweep Israel to political prominence in the world.
But it could also have been a generally known Messianic expectation. It would explain the crowd’s enthusiastic participation easily without necessarily making everyone into mindless sheep following each other without any real understanding of what they were there for. Yes, people would have been curious. “What’s going on?” is a natural human reaction. But to participate as enthusiastically as we’re told they did, they’d probably have to have at least some inkling of what was afoot.
Then there’s the reaction of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. Upon hearing the hosannas to the Messianic Son of David, they get offended. They’d already made up their minds about Jesus. Jesus didn’t do what they expected a righteous prophet or Messiah to do. He didn’t conform to their popular religious ideas about the Sabbath, tithing, fasting and ritual purity. He touched lepers, hung out with tax men and did the “work” of healing on the sacred Sabbath. He acted like he was a sinner, or at the very least condoning sin by hanging out with the obviously unrighteous. Therefore He couldn’t be the Messiah.
It’s difficult for us to conceive of just how shocking Jesus’ actions were to established religious norms. To religious Jews of Jesus’ day, honouring the Sabbath and ritual purity were the two great tests of orthodoxy.
We look at it and tend to see that it should have been obvious that the Sabbath and the ritual purity laws weren’t the all-consuming be-all and end-all they were being made into. That justice and mercy rather than tithe and Sabbath were the priorities of God is obvious to us, and I’m sure most Pharisees would have given verbal assent to the idea. And yet their behaviour was the opposite. Tithing their garden herbs yet creating and perpetuating vast injustices.
What are our modern shibboleths? Do we believe and say all the right things about what God wants and then act as if one or two particular issues are what really define our faith? I have to look at the way many of us approach abortion and homosexuality and say maybe.
What’s interesting is Jesus’ challenge to the Pharisees about this mismatch of priorities. He doesn’t tell them they are wrong to tithe their herbs, but that they are wrong to do so while neglecting the weightier matters of justice and mercy.
Being righteous in a minor matter does not count for much if you’re sinning in a major one.
So here comes Jesus, on the back of a donkey. Not fitting our image either of a ruler or a religious man.
We were, as they say, expecting someone taller.
But what we have is what we need. Friend of sinners, because all of us fall into that category. Healer, no matter whether all the theological rules say they deserved what they got. Full of grace and truth. Humble, because arrogant truthfulness is no good to anyone. Coming into Jerusalem as Messiah-King, but to be borne up on a cross, not a throne.
Hosanna. Save us, O God.