This week I was reading a scholarly journal that examined Jesus’ curious command to enter the village and find a colt. Just as Jesus said, the beast’s owner asked the disciples what they were doing. “The Lord needs it.” Their response seems to satisfy him. The journal presented two possible explanations. Either Jesus was able to see into the future (what is known as precognition) or he had made previous arrangements with the colt’s owner.
I think there is a third possibility.
Jesus is going to Jerusalem to observe the Passover – the festival that celebrates the Hebrew’s exodus from bondage in Egypt. The city’s population of 40,000 people swelled to nearly half a million for the event. The festival is conducted against the backdrop of Roman occupation. Pilate made quite a spectacle of marching columns of extra troops into the city to fortify the garrison at the Temple. By its very nature, the Passover fuels hatred for the occupation and heightens the hope that a messiah will rise up to lead a revolt.
Messianic fever is especially high at this particular celebration. People are aware of Jesus and what he has been doing. Stories of his teaching and his miracles have spread throughout the land. Whenever someone wanted to proclaim Jesus as the messiah, he ordered that person to be quiet. For whatever reason, he was not willing to pick up that mantle. But before entering Jerusalem, something changes for Jesus and the donkey is a clear signal of this.
Throughout the Scriptures there are many references to the Messiah. They are familiar not only to Jesus, but to everyone. Especially well known is Zechariah’s centuries old statement that the king of Israel will ride into Jerusalem on a lowly donkey (9:9). When the disciples tell the owner that the Lord has need of the donkey, he understands this to mean that Jesus is taking a dramatic, symbolic step to change the fortunes of the Jewish people.
When the crowds see what Jesus is doing they too understand the symbolism. They begin to shout out messianic verses from the psalms. They fuel what is happening by waving palm branches as he passes.
Jesus could not have sent a clearer signal that he intends to challenge the powers that be – the Roman rulers who occupy the country and the Jewish leaders who capitulate with them and benefit financially from this arrangement. That Jesus embraces this role is indisputable. What he thinks will come of it is not at all apparent.
On Monday Jesus enters the Temple, overturns tables, and pronounces God’s judgment on the whole corrupt system. On Tuesday he returns to the Temple and challenges the teaching and authority of its leaders. Did Jesus think others would rise up and follow him? He never signals for violence.
On Wednesday a woman anoints Jesus with an absurdly expensive perfume. His followers are critical for allowing such an extravagant waste. By then Jesus realizes he will not survive his actions. He says she is preparing him for his burial.
On Thursday evening Jesus gathers his followers for what he believes will be their final meal together. After supper they go to a remote location where Jesus becomes unhinged. He is breaking down in the face of what is obvious to him. He prays for God to intervene but comes to understand that no such act is going to happen. Jesus is arrested, put on trial, and crucified before nightfall on Friday.
It is a story that seems to make no sense. For all intents and purposes Jesus either wanted to die or made a serious miscalculation regarding the consequences of his actions. Many in the Christian tradition gloss over this reality by saying it was all part of God’s bigger plan and that Jesus, knowing this, lived into it. More and more I am skeptical of such thinking.
What I do believe is that God found a way to redeem this awful event, just as God works to bring about redemption and new life in our broken and hurting world. Without the Resurrection, Jesus’ death, if remembered at all, would have been little more than a tragic blunder by a naïve Middle-eastern teacher from a peasant class. For the Romans, it would have been just one of many, many torturous executions meant to intimidate an oppressed people into compliance and passivity. For Jewish leaders it would have been a necessary trade-off; better that one person die alone than 10,000 devotees rise up and die with him.
Jesus, for his part, feels forsaken as he hangs on the Cross and at the end says it is finished as he commends his spirit to God. For the disciples, this is the end of the road. They hide in fear behind locked doors and wonder if they can melt into the throngs of pilgrims who are about to make their way home after the Passover. They wonder if they will be able to return to a normal life in Galilee or if the authorities will come looking for them to punish them for their association with Jesus.
Many, if not most, in the Christian tradition associate the Cross with atonement theology – the belief that Jesus had to die on the Cross to take upon himself the punishment for human sin; the notion that we are washed clean by the blood of Jesus. Obviously, this is an enormously popular perspective reinforced by our liturgy and hymnody. And while I accept it, it also puzzles me that we as society not currently steeped in animal sacrifice for the atonement of sin turn to this ancient metaphor as our singular and strongest interpretation of Jesus’ death.
Earlier this week I read something by Anthony Bloom, from his book Beginning to Pray. It helps me to make sense of the Passion reading in our modern context:
In a world of competition, in a world of predatory animals, in a world of cruelty and heartlessness, the only hope one can have is an act of mercy, and act of compassion, a completely unexpected act which is rooted neither in duty nor in natural relationships, which will suspend the action of the cruel, violent, heartless world in which we live.
What I like about Bloom’s perspective is that it challenges us to move past a child-like understanding of religion focusing on how I am a bad boy whose father is displeased with me to a more adult question of what is required of me and what difference will my actions make.
Jesus’ self-offering inaugurates the Kingdom of God. From this moment forward there is no turning back. God’s reign in this world is established, but it is not complete. You and I build on God’s reign every time we conduct an act of mercy, an act of compassion, a completely unexpected act which is rooted in something beyond our own self-interest.
We would not be here this morning if Jesus had not offered himself in this way and we would not be here this morning if generation after generation of his followers had not offered themselves selflessly as he did.
We, in our time, are called upon to do our part to continue the reign of God’s kingdom in this world. Give yourself selflessly to life. Give and ask nothing in return and you will find two things: first, your life will matter, and second, you will be blessed beyond all measure.