Today’s Palm Sunday reading always distracts me. There Jesus is with his disciples, and he asks two of them to go to a particular house, and retrieve a colt for him that has never been ridden. He knows the one he wants, even saying to his disciples, “If anyone questions you, tell them the master needs it” (Matt 21:3).
Every time I hear this story the question always arises: Was it the foal of a horse? Or the colt of a donkey? Or the filly of an ass… which is a real animal, and also a distracting word. And if it was a donkey, and not a horse, then it was certainly small. Having first-hand experience riding a donkey in the Holy Land myself I can image Jesus’ feet dragging on the cobblestone, as he leans back awkwardly while descending the Mount of Olives. It’s a steep hill. And then he has to lean forward, walking his feet on the ground, as he rides up from the Kidron valley through the Golden Gate into Jerusalem; while all the people are shouting “Hosanna in the highest” and waving palms.
And there is Jesus holding on with one hand to the scruff of this tiny equine, while with the other hand waves to the crowds, even as his feet trip across the pavement. It is an absurd picture of the arrival of the King of kings and Lord of lords, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity… on the foal or an ass. You can see my problem.
And yet, my problem doesn’t seem to be God’s problem. If fact, it seems this is exactly how God planned it… and it is not without precedent, meaning to say, it is not without preparation. And I don’t mean as in the preparation of the disciples getting just the right donkey for Jesus, I mean preparation within the human imagination to grasp what God is doing.
You see what God has prepared for us to witness here is a process of humility that creates a form of equality. In other words, God has bound God’s self to the form of a human being in the person of Jesus, with all the limitations that it renders. It is perfect equality even at the risk of unavoidable humility.
Jesus employs this pattern of accepting humility to highlight his equality, and yet in doing so reveals the sinful dysfunction of his community. As crazy as it sounds, all it took to unlock this dysfunction, this sinful predilection, this self-centered, fear-based orientation, was the form of a big man riding on a small donkey. There is nothing one can do to look strong, mighty, and agile on a small ass with your feet dragging on the ground.
You can’t get around this. It is the form of the thing. People have tried. In fact, in the Middle Ages, Cardinals were well known for riding the streets of European cities on small donkeys in an effort to emulate Jesus. Where they missed the point was in their attitude. Rather than letting the humiliating “form” of a rotund cleric riding a small donkey speak for itself, they took on a supercilious attitude, which provoked even greater mockery from those they “lorded over.”
Form always prevails, and Jesus knew this. It took five days for his fans to figure it out, but they did. Five days after Jesus’ rode into Jerusalem hailed as the Son of David, the Messiah, the Prince of Peace he was mocked and rejected, with the people calling for the release of Barabbas rather than the release of Jesus. Jesus was a good guy, but he was no longer their guy, it turns out. Even as they were throwing palms at his feet, and shouting “Hosanna in the highest,” I suspect, they were growing a little bit uncomfortable with his style.
You can just imagine their side conversations as he rode by… “Couldn’t someone have actually gotten him a decent horse?” “How dumb are those disciples? They fumbled this one.” “Man, he does look goofy.” “He’s such a nice guy.” “He’s such a good guy.” “He is done amazing things, it’s just too bad he had to surround himself with such knuckleheads.” “Couldn’t they found him a full-grown horse?” It is as philosopher Marshall McLuhan wrote: “The medium is the message.” Form beats content every time, and Jesus knew it.
Palm Sunday begins Holy Week with Jesus riding, awkwardly, into Jerusalem on a donkey. It is this scene that ignites the quick burning wick of deteriorating confidence in Jesus. Even as people gather around him while he teaches in the temple, you can hear the whisper campaign in the background… “Who would follow a guy who rode a donkey that was too small for him?” “Can he be effective against Rome?” “Maybe he is smart, but he is also clueless.”
Compare him to Caiaphas! “That is a guy who understands power.” “He’s a person who can negotiate with Roman.” “He is not even the high priest, but he still runs the show.” “At the end of the day, we need a strong leader, not a good guy who rides the filly of an ass.”
It all started with the donkey, and it ended up with God dead on the cross. That is what we relive this week. And yet, here is the deeper truth – Jesus understood that his victory ride into Jerusalem was the beginning of the most absurd event to ever take place… Humanity killing God. The creature killing the creator. And yet, it happens because God wove into the very form of creation the possibility that this could happen. God did this because God is love and love requires full and unfettered freedom to act; even to the point of the creature killing the creator.
We witness this love as it plays out this week. That is what we step into during Holy Week. Jesus was the necessary, accessible, personification required, because God is love. Humanity was given in the person of Jesus free, unfettered access to God, and the very worst instincts of the most powerful men prevailed… the unjustifiable murder of Jesus on the cross.
This is the great absurdity, humanity killing God, the creature killing the creator. This is the great absurdity. But God loves us that much. God gave us the freedom to deny God, to deny that there is even a God, to reject God even unto the very death of God. There is no love, after all, if there is no freedom. God loves us that much.
Holy Week is the time to consider the great absurdity and our freedom, and God’s love. I invite you to step into Holy Week reflecting upon these things.