in the Palm Procession we do not have a lamb being led to the slaughter, some pre-programmed robotic Jesus, a puppet figure on cruise control – No! we have a living, inviting and humble Jesus who chooses to make one final offer of grace and reconciliation to the people and powers of Jerusalem. Yes, it is an offer they reject but not because they are scripted by God to do so, but because for them the cost of becoming a compassionate and inclusive community under a servant king is far greater than perpetuating a system of scapegoating, shame and blame religion, unfortunately the marks of contemporary Christianity.
The Donkey King Comes: John 12:12-16 …he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
And so the climax of the incarnate life of Christ draws close. On this Sunday before Easter, many churches today bring together the story of the Palms and the story of Jesus’ Passion. The decision to tie these two moments together is usually made when a church doesn’t hold a Good Friday service. Going from the high of Palm Sunday to the high of Easter without going with Jesus and his disciples through the garden, the trial, the crucifixion and burial is to cheat and be cheated. And only a romantic readings of Jesus’ passion simply serves to keep us at a safe, neutral distance from the event, turning somber reality into fantasy. We are the crowd along the streets of Jerusalem shouting, “Hosanna! Hosanna!”, and we are the same mob on Good Friday screaming, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” To know this in our hearts is to engage the gospel were we play many different and clarifying roles. They are clarifying roles in that they let us we see our own duplicity and our own striving; we know ourselves being both culpable and forgiven.
As Jesus enters Jerusalem, John, our Gospel writer, wants to make sure that we link Jesus with a prophet who, according to Jesus’ own words in recorded in Matthew 23 and Luke 11, was slain “between the sanctuary and the altar”. Lamentations 2: asks “Is it right to kill priest and prophet in the Temple of the Lord, as when you killed Zechariah … in the Temple of the Lord on the Day of Atonement because he told you not to do evil before the Lord?” Our whole story is a dramatization of Zechariah 9:9. “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
The Donkey King comes
One burning question this text leaves with us is: What now frees Jesus to accept the title of king after spending his whole public ministry avoiding it? One strong possibility is that Jesus could not accept the association with Kingship and rule until he had corrected the popular experience and understanding of what kingship meant. The examples provided by the two Herods in Jesus’ lifetime, Quirinius and Pilate, plus the Caesers of Rome, were all far removed from any concept of kingship with which Jesus could commend are be associated. They were about power, control and brutal consequences for any who dared to dissent. He avoids being proclaimed king until he had given his followers a new understanding of what true kingship looked like.
His three years of ministry modelled for his followers, and us, what national leaders are supposed to do for their people: He healed the broken and restored them to full participation in community. He forgave those who missed the mark of required ethical and religious standards and included them in his new and inclusive community. He raised the dead so as to offer security to those women who by the deaths of the men in their lives who would otherwise have become destitute. (Lazarus, Widow of Nain) He raised and healed children to break the bondage of bad theology that blamed bad things on parental conditions and culture (Children of Jairus and the Canaanite woman) He was inclusive, unconditionally accepting, and restorative in his words and actions.
Jesus identifies with the concept of kingship that in Israel’s history got prophets stoned for trying to bring such an understanding to the palaces of Palestine. This is what kings and rulers are meant to be and the time finally came for Jesus to step up to the quintessence of kingship. The donkey king on the back of an humble beast of burden challenges the warrior king on a great armoured stallion. As for his disciples and for us the question is: Is this the king of your choosing, the leader you would choose to follow; simple, humble and vulnerable? There is no defensivness in this picture only a willing offering of a way to live in community and be reconciled with one’s creator that challenges the threats and fears of his world with submission not retaliation.
There is another much more difficult dimension of kingship to which Jesus points and in a church so heavily invested in a “lamb to the slaughter” image of Christ it is difficult to contemplate. So first it is helpful for us to humbly admit that the closest thing to what is divine truth that we human beings can muster is at best only a theory, an attempt to explain with our limited human language in imagery drawn from our experience the workings of God’s grace. And next to that is our need to acknowledge that our understanding of God permits God to say to any us at any time, “you are forgiven, welcome into my kingdom”.
At a conference of Peace Churches held in 2007 the concern being addressed was the realization that the theory of atonement, called substitutionary atonement, which has become dominant in contemporary Christianity, requires that God made violence divinely necessary for human salvation. God did so by orchestrating Jesus’ death as a necessary payment for divine laws broken by sinful humanity and as a means to restore God’s honor. Even when you see this picture of God as a humiliated and angry judge it in all its starkness, criticizing this well entrenched theory of atonement is thorny for the average congregation. Even so, for those of the historic peace churches, engaging in this effort to articulate alternative understandings to the violent implications of this commonly held view of the saving significance of Jesus’ death is necessary if we intend to seek to live by and communicate the saving life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and be consistent with our understanding of a loving God as presented to us by Jesus.
Rene’ Girard was reported to have said: “The Gospels speak of “sacrifices” only in order to reject them and deny them any validity. Jesus counters the ritualism of the Pharisees with an anti-sacrificial quotation from Hosea 6:6, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice’” (Matt. 9:13). The text which follows is more than ethical advice; it at once sets the cult of sacrifice at a distance and reveals its true function, which has now come full circle: So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matt. 5:23—24)”.
Girard’s interviewer responded: “Surely the crucifixion is still the sacrifice of Christ?” To which Girard replied: “There is nothing in the Gospels to suggest that the death of Jesus is a sacrifice, whatever definition (expiation, substitution, etc.) we may give for that sacrifice. At no point in the Gospels is the death of Jesus defined as a sacrifice. The passages that are invoked to justify a sacrificial conception of the Passion both can and should be interpreted with no reference to sacrifice in any of the accepted meanings. Certainly the Passion is presented to us in the Gospels as an act that brings salvation to humanity. But it is in no way presented as a sacrifice. If you have really followed my argument up to this point,” Girard said, “you will already realize that from our particular perspective the sacrificial interpretation of the Passion must be criticized and exposed as a most enormous and paradoxical misunderstanding — and at the same time as something necessary — and as the most revealing indication of mankind’s radical incapacity to understand its own violence, even when that violence is conveyed in the most explicit fashion.”
For us today, the crux of Girard’s insight is simply that in the Palm Procession we do not have a lamb being led to the slaughter, some pre-programmed robotic Jesus, a puppet figure on cruise control – No! we have a living, inviting and humble Jesus who chooses to make one final offer of grace and reconciliation to the people and powers of Jerusalem. Yes, it is an offer they reject but not because they are scripted by God to do so, but because for them the cost of becoming a compassionate and inclusive community under a servant king is far greater than perpetuating a system of scapegoating, shame and blame religion, unfortunately the marks of contemporary Christianity.
Jesus the Zecharian, the donkey king, comes with an offer of an alternative way of living; an inclusive community of compassion and companionship. A place where the servants not the swordsman weild power. And the only power is the power of love. It is a kingdom of healing and restoration where humans blossom into fruitful beings. A kingdom which all the politicians and despots of this world, even two thousand years after the Palms waved, have been unable to bring to reality. The good news, Jesus’ offer still stands, and not “for a limited time only” as our End Time Enthusiasts would have us believe. No, it is an eternal offer, always available for any who can sing Hosanna and hold back on hatred.
Look! the donkey king comes again!
I owe a great debt to Debra Dean Murphy, Peter Woods and Rene’Girard and others for what I included in this message for today.