A poem by Mary Oliver, called “The Poet Thinks about the Donkey:”
“On the outskirts of Jerusalem the donkey waited.
Not especially brave, or filled with understanding, he stood and waited.
How horses, turned out into the meadow, leap with delight!
How doves, released from their cages, clatter away, splashed with sunlight!
But the donkey, tied to a tree as usual, waited.
Then he let himself be led away. Then he let the stranger mount.
Never had he seen such crowds! And I wonder if he at all imagined what was to happen. Still, he was what he had always been: small, dark, obedient.
I hope, finally, he felt brave. I hope, finally, he loved the man who rode so lightly upon him, as he lifted one dusty hoof and stepped, as he had to, forward.”
When I was growing up, Palm Sunday seemed as happy as the next Sunday, Easter morning. On Palm Sunday, after all, we were given palm branches that we could wave as we heard about the happy parade for Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey, praised by people with palm branches like ours, and who also laid their cloaks down for him like a red carpet. Palm Sunday was fun. Easter was more fun, with an Easter basket, eggs, and special new clothes, and lots of good food! But Palm Sunday was also fun as a child. And maybe it should be that way.
But I really learned the meaning of Palm Sunday as a young adult, at graduate school at the Presbyterian School for Christian Education in Richmond. We were studying the New Testament in the spring semester, and we dove into the passages for Holy Week in a way that I had never done before. And I began to realize, that, though on the surface, the events that we call Palm Sunday might have appeared to be happy, the rest of the story underlying this time was not.
Near the end of his earthly life, Jesus was heading into Jerusalem, and toward the temple. Jesus was the new temple, but no one else could see that yet.
A few verses earlier in Matthew, Jesus told his disciples, again, that this is where he would be put to death, and where he would rise from death. As scholar Tom Long describes this scene: “Herod is king, Caesar is lord, Pilate is governor. Demons rule. They will all team up to take Jesus’ life. But Jesus is Lord, King, Messiah. No one will take his life, as he will freely give it.” (Long, p. 234)
As Jesus prepared to head toward the place of his death, he told two of his disciples to go get a donkey and a colt. Only in Matthew do the disciples bring two animals to Jesus for this entry, and at seminary, we had a lot of fun with the image of Jesus, rather than the usual picture of riding on a donkey, of him standing with one foot on a donkey and one on a colt, like a circus performer, as he entered the city. (Seminary humor!) Most scholars think that Matthew put two animals to fulfill OT passages from Isaiah and Zechariah” “Lo, your king comes to you, humble and riding on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey.” But as is often true of biblical texts, there can be symbolism here, behind the choice of these animals, one used for coronations, showing Jesus as a king, the other humble, representing the servant role of the Christ. He was treated more like a king, with cloaks laid before him, and palm branches waving, but he knew that his earthly end would not befit that of any earthly king.
The city was in turmoil as Jesus entered, the text tells us, and they, as a collective city, did not know who Jesus was. The reply came from the adoring crowd that he was a prophet from Nazareth. The crowd also hailed him with cries of “Hosanna,” which means, “Save us.” The city was in turmoil, and they longed to be saved. They longed for a savior.
It has been said that perhaps the greatest overall message of the Bible, as a whole, is love – the love of God for creation and humanity, the love we are called, asked, commanded to have, for God and for one another. It may be hard to grasp that this Holy Week, also called Passion Week, which begins today, with Palm Sunday, is the greatest exposition of love for us in the Bible. “No one has greater love than this,” says the Gospel of John (15:13), “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” The story shows us a love that we can hardly comprehend. Surely God could have, in Jesus, resisted, even defeated the evil forces that conspired to convict and put him to death. Yet God, in Jesus, chose not to go that route, because it would not be the route of true love. As Dr. Wirzba put it:
“Clearly, love is a vulnerable power. It does not coerce. It does not make its way by violent force. Instead, it receives and absorbs the anger and hate that swirls around it. The cross of Jesus is the definitive expression of that. Rather than fleeing the violence that came his way or countering it with yet more violent force, Jesus took it within himself and suffered unto death. The cross is a mirror that compels us to see the full depravity of our being, because it confronts us with the fact that too often we would rather murder love than receive it.” (Wirzba, p. 184)
“Hosanna,” shouted the crowd, “Save us.”
If we look, briefly, at the events to follow this Palm Sunday parade, we see that Jesus arrived at the temple to find money changers and merchants peddling their wares at the house of God. In the only display of anything like anger depicted of Jesus, he overturned the tables, and called them “a den of robbers” (21:13).
People still came to Jesus for healing, but the chief priests and scribes were alarmed by what they saw, and began to plot his demise. In this week, according to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus would be “anointed” by a woman, as if preparing him for his death. The disciples did not like this, and wanted to shoo her away. And during this Holy Week, Jesus would sit at the Passover meal with his disciples, and turn this meal into a remembrance of him. We will share this meal on Thursday night, on what we call Maundy Thursday (from a word meaning “commandment”). In this week, Jesus would pray in the garden of Gethsemanae and be arrested because one of his disciples betrayed him. Peter would deny three times even knowing him. Jesus would be questioned and beaten and crucified. And the crowd that once shouted “Hosanna,“ (“Save us”) would then cry “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
And so the happy story of Palm Sunday seems less happy as an adult who can see the whole story. And it is right for adults to see the whole story. We need not to deny the truths that are given to us here, in four gospels, just as we should not deny the truths of real life, as hard as they can be at times. We, as adults, need to be able to face the truth.
Granted, the Bible is not a history book, or a science book, so it is not precise and factual in truth-telling. Yet all four gospels tell us the story of Passion Week because it is important for our faith to know how deep the love is that God has for us – that in Christ Jesus, God would allow himself to be hurt, humiliated, and to be killed, rather than to strike back with a force he could surely have managed. That is not the way of love.
“Of all the powers, love is the most powerful and the most powerless,” says scholar Frederich Buechner (Buechner, pp.53-54). “It is the most powerful because it alone can conquer that final and most impregnable stronghold which is the human heart. It is the most powerless because it can do nothing without consent… In the Christian sense, love is not primarily an emotion but an act of will. When Jesus tells us to love our neighbors, he is not telling us to love them in the sense of responding to them with a cozy romantic feeling… On the contrary, he is telling us to love our neighbors in the sense of being willing to work for their well-being even if it means sacrificing our own well-being to that end, even if it means just leaving them alone. Thus in Jesus’ terms,” he says, “we can love our neighbors without necessarily liking them… Sometimes liking follows on the heels of loving. It is hard to work for somebody’s well-being very long without coming in the end to rather like them too.”
In the events of this Holy Week, love is revealed to us in its very deepest and truest form. According to Matthew, it was in this week that Jesus gave the greatest commandment, saying, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39)
So, read through the last chapters of Matthew this week. Walk with Jesus toward the cross, as he continues business as usual, teaching and healing, but as he also tries to prepare the disciples for a different definition of love. They did not really see it, much as we do not really get it. Or read the very hard story of Maggy in Wirzba’s book (chapter 12) to learn a different way of love. And remember that, as the author reminds us, love is not easy, but that, “When love goes to work, a new world governed by joy and peace and resulting in beauty and mutual flourishing becomes possible” (Wirzba, p. 184) This beautiful world becomes possible even in the midst of the turmoil swirling all around us – with crises in our personal and family lives, with upset and confusion and hatred ruling in our country, with such destruction and horror happening around our world. Love comes in the very midst of such events, and, we realize, does not wipe them away, but rather sits right there in the middle of them with a perfect and abiding love, taking it all in and weeping with us.
And the crowd cried, “Hosanna, save us.”