April 9, 2017

Series: April 2017

Category: Palm Sunday

Passage: Matthew 21:1-11

Speaker: Rob McClellan

One of our convictions here is that faith should feel relevant, applicable to everyday life. With that said, today I’d like to talk about donkeys.  Is that out of touch?  There’s a lot to be learned from a jack a…a donkey.  It’s Palm Sunday, when we remember Jesus riding into Jerusalem to face his destiny, people lining side of the road, laying down palm branches.  It’s a royal procession, mocking and subverting the procession happening across town of Pontius Pilate, representative of the empire and conspirator with leaders of Jesus’ own religion.

 Like good satire, the scene is ridiculous.  Here’s Jesus, the messiah, riding a donkey.  If that weren’t enough, in Matthew’s description he appears to be riding two donkeys at once.  Listen again.  Matthew tries to quote Zechariah saying, “Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Mt. 21:5).  As Matthew explains, “The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them” (v. 6-7). 

How do we explain this?  There are a few options.  First, we have to entertain the notion that perhaps Matthew was right and this is exactly how it happened.  Maybe he was riding side saddle, with the second donkey as a sort of mobile ottoman.  I’ve heard that proposed.[1]  The other gospels, however, don’t seem to adhere to the multiple donkey theory, so perhaps Matthew got it wrong.  Some scholars posit that Matthew is crafting his story to fit an old prophecy to further emphasize his convictions about who Jesus was.  That might make modern Christians uncomfortable, but writing history or biography to fit a particular form or trope was common in antiquity.  Truth was about more than literal historical accuracy.

Keeping with this train of thought, some say Matthew simply misread the prophecy because he didn’t understand Hebrew poetry.  A standard convention of Hebrew poetry is something called parallelism where the author states something—your king will come on a donkey—and then restates it in the next line with slightly different language—on a colt, the foal of a donkey.  Zechariah’s actual quote is, “Behold (or 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” (Zech. 9:9).  Notice, missing from Zechariah’s quote is the crucial word, “and,” which he inserts because he assumes it is implied.  Thus, in order to fulfill the prophecy Jesus had to be riding on a donkey and a colt, even though we know you only need one donkey to do the job.  

Whatever the answer, all this donkey talk actually points us to something relevant to, not just for Jesus and his palm waving followers on that day, but to we who have the branches today.  In Jesus’ instructions on acquiring a donkey a spiritual truth is made known to us.  “Go into the village ahead of you,” Jesus says to his disciples, “and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ ” (v. 2-3). 

To pronounce that God needs something is enough to release it and enable it for service.  Do we know this?  Do we believe it applies to what we have?  To ourselves?  God needs you, you plural and you singular.  “But, I’m just a stay at home parent?”  God needs you.  “I work all the time, I don’t have…” God needs you.  “I don’t know about this religious stuff.”  How much of the Bible did the donkey know?  God needs you.  The truth of the gospel is that you are necessary.  You are necessary.  You are necessary.  I don’t care what you’ve been taught or told all your life, from when you were a child up until now, about how you weren’t good enough or smart enough or pretty enough or kind enough or put together enough.  God needs you to go with Christ into the power places and be a part of another, a more compassionate, a more just, way.

You are and you have enough.  That is the refrain of this season, after all.  A number of us went to the vigil at the detention center in Richmond last Sunday.  It was an interfaith gathering, and a rabbi led us through a Passover Seder of sorts.  We sang one of the traditional Passover songs, Dayenu, which means, “Enough.  Sufficient.”  “It would have been enough,” the song goes, for God to have brought us out of slavery in Egypt.”  That would have been enough, but God has done so much more.  “It would have been sufficient to simply execute justice upon our oppressors.”  Yet God did more.  “It would have been enough to part the sea for us.”  “It would have been enough to lead us through the wilderness for 40 years.”  “It would have been enough to give us Sabbath, God-sponsored leave once a week.”  “It would have been enough or God to give us the gift of Torah, community-building and preserving law.”  “It would have been enough for God to give us manna, food rained down from heaven.”  On and on 15 stanzas worth, any one of them would have been enough, but God gives so much more.

God’s story is always, always one of abundance. Never of scarcity.  That’s Pharaoh’s tool, Caesar’s trick, trying to scare us into serving systems that waste and over consume.  They conquer and exploit, and use fear to conscript the people into cooperation.  That’s the devil’s temptation.  As we near the end of Lent, we remember what Jesus accomplished at the beginning.  He stared that temptation down and said “No” to all its offers.  No, I don’t want what you have to offer.  You can’t have me; God needs me…to do wonderful things in this world.  God needs you too.  The world needs you.  Your community needs you.  Your family needs you.  This is not the need of depletion, not the service of Pharaoh.  This is the need of life-giving service of the realm of God. 

We can become convinced that we neither have nor are what God needs.  I’ve fallen prey to that myself, that the odds are too great, opposing forces too strong, but as the Apostle Paul reminds us, wherever we are weak we are strong.  Where we perceive we are weak, we are more likely to reach out for help and join in collaboration.  Where we perceive we are weak or do not have the upper hand, we are less likely to be complacent, and know we have to take initiative.  Where we perceive we are weak, we are forced by necessity to bring our best creativity and innovation to the problems which are before us.  When we are backed up against a wall, well we have something to push off of. 

Today we celebrate (at the 10:00 service) a cohort of members who decided the Lord needed them in an important way.  These now successful graduates of the “resilient neighborhoods” program, who worked to be faithful in light of an issue that has all of us with our backs against the wall, our broken relationship with the earth.  Sixteen of the seventeen hottest years on record have occurred since 2001.[2]  As the World Meteorological Organization reported 2016 was not surprisingly no exception, setting yet another record.[3]  Global sea ice hit unprecedented low levels, climate disruption is displacing hundreds of thousands of people, not to mention the economic damage that is only beginning.  The Pentagon treats the issue with utter seriousness, outwardly refusing to bury their heads in the sand,[4] and yet do you know how much combined time was given the issue on the four major networks on the evening and Sunday news last year?  Fifty minutes.  Total.  Not one question in any of the debates. 

These members of the resilient neighborhoods program didn’t accept the narrative that there was nothing they could do, nor did they accept defeatism at the lack of more powerful attention to the issue.      Fine, said this cohort, we’ll get to work where we can.  We’ll transform our own lives, make waves where we are.  Though many were already environmental conscious, through education, intention, and change, they reduced their collective annual carbon footprint by 164,300 pounds, the equivalent of taking 16 cars off the road.  And people can laugh and say, “Look at your cute little movement; it’s no match for the powers that be,” but you know who else they said that of?  Jesus of Nazareth, that Podunk town, literally the butt of biblical jokes.  They laughed at him, spat at him, hung costumes on him.  Pilate, who processed in on the other side of town, was the name that mattered to them.  What they didn’t account for was that Jesus came in the name of the Lord, and the one who does that is blessed, whether they ride a chariot or a donkey.  

About that...Another possibility is that Matthew understood the circumstances all too well.  He knew the conventions of Hebrew poetry.  Matthew’s inclusion of second donkey reveals to us sacred invitation—that donkey is for us.  It is an invitation to join in with Christ, on the way of Christ, to stare down what needs to be stared down, face what needs to be faced, and to move forward unafraid because the promise of resurrection is firmly in our sites. 

Which is stronger, our fear of what will put us in the tomb, or our trust in God to brings us out? Are you afraid.  Will not God give us what we need?  Some believe the donkey Jesus was to ride had to be one never ridden before, pure, which means likely young.  Do you know what one commentator surmises?  The other donkey is its mother.[5]  There to suckle and accompany her child through what might have been scary road for it too, a first ride, to a strange place, people waving palms and shouting.  God does not abandon the most vulnerable, even the donkey.  There by the child is the mother, never leaving the side.  We might have thought one donkey would have been enough, but God knew better and so God provided two.  Dayenu.  Let’s go.  Amen.


[1] Douglas R. Hare Matthew, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, p. 239.




[5] Douglas R. Hare Matthew, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, p. 239.