by Ellen Sims
Matthew 21: 1-11
“Who is this?” asked the people watching Jesus ride into Jerusalem on a donkey.
“Who is this?” we Jesus Followers ask with each story and scripture and sermon about the one who, even today, teaches, guides, challenges, mystifies, inspires, frustrates, heals, befriends, and saves us.
Next Sunday we’ll pivot from the pre-Easter Jesus to the post-Easter Christ.
Today we’re exploring what one brief story reveals about his identity and consider how we will answer, “Who is Jesus?”
Each year in this part of the Jesus story we hear the Jerusalemites ask, “Who is this?” They receive this partial answer from the crowd who’ve been traipsing after him: “He’s the prophet from Nazareth (Mt. 21:11).
According to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus began his prophetic ministry atop a mountain preaching a sermon we call the “Sermon on the Mount.” After that he traveled throughout the Galilee healing and teaching and announcing God’s now and coming “kingdom,” a social reality in which the poor, the sick, and the outcasts have top priority and where violence has been rejected as the means of gaining and maintaining power. He explained that the anti-empire of Love will be ushered in when we finally let God’s ways hold sway. Jesus even gave examples of how creative nonviolence just might be used to thwart the empire’s violence and advance the aims of God’s kin*dom.
We pick up the story today as Jesus approaches Jerusalem, center of religious and political power in his part of the world. Maybe suspecting his arrest is imminent and wanting to have as great an impact as possible in the little time left, he plans a nonverbal indictment against The Powers That Be. He may have been dreaming up this action all the while he’d traveled the Galilee, strategizing his entry into Jerusalem during the Passover celebration as the Holy City bursts with visitors celebrating the people’s long-ago deliverance from the tyrannical Pharaoh. So Jesus, whom the writer of Matthew often compares to Moses, deliberately sets up his staging area on the outskirts of Jerusalem, a spectacularly creative nonviolent tactic for what might be considered guerrilla theater today.
Jesus surely had no naïve assumption that a public protest will suddenly change the hearts of the religious/political elite, no hope that his act of resistance could suddenly cause Rome’s “pharaoh” to order home the troops and stop bleeding the occupied people dry with excessive taxes or convince the Jewish leaders who’d curried favor with the Roman occupiers to repent of their abuses against their own people. But near the Mount of Olives the new Moses could have been planning a dramatic critique of imperial power that was harming the ones Jesus, on another mountain, said God especially blessed. Remember how he started his ministry by giving examples of nonviolent protest actions in his “Sermon on the Mount”? “Turning the other cheek” and “going the extra mile” and “giving someone the coat off your back” were not nice aphorisms about helping others. They were ingenious tactics for a powerless people to at least register resistance and restore their dignity if not their power. (See this previous sermon for more on Walter Wink’s analysis of these phrases from the Sermon on the Mount and this one.) With that background in mind—and with Jesus’s consistent message of nonviolent rejection of Caesar’s power in favor of God’s “kingdom of heaven” for the meek, where the last are first, we can now imagine what Jesus is up to with his grand—or not-so-grand—entrance into the holy city of Jerusalem.
In preparation for this subversive act, Jesus instructs two of his disciples to enter the village of Bethphage to get a donkey and a colt as props for his entry into Jerusalem. Many have wondered why and how Jesus would have ridden a donkey AND a colt into Jerusalem. I always get images of a circus performer standing on both. One explanation is that the writer of Matthew simply misinterpreted the passage in Zechariah 9:9, which he’s quoting. It actually says a future king of Israel will ride in humbly on a donkey, and then specifies with an appositive phrase that the donkey should be a colt. Which tells us that sometimes even the biblical writers accidentally (seemingly in this case) or intentionally re-interpret other parts of the Bible written earlier.
Note also that prior to this not-so-grand entrance, Jesus warned the two disciples that if someone asked why they needed the colt and donkey, they are to say simply, “The Lord needs them,” which sounds like a password exchange from a spy thriller. The details about Jesus’s entry suggest there were already folks on the ground in and near Jerusalem to provide the props in this satirical play, this ancient flash mob. Maybe Jesus’s sympathizers had already enlisted others to line the streets of Jerusalem to assist as “extras” in this empire-insulting protest march. Which is what people without much official power do to expose injustice.
It’s risky. Especially because Jesus intends to satirize the Roman practice of the conqueror riding into the defeated city astride his steed and ahead of legions of his army. The conquered people would be expected to run to meet the conqueror outside the city gates to pledge their fealty in exchange for their lives. But Jesus doesn’t represent a threat to the populace. And riding on a donkey will not frighten the authorities into submission. No, he’s making of himself a picture of meekness and all those other “kin*dom” virtues from the Beatitudes in order to demonstrate that God’s ways are superior to the empire’s tactics of exploitation and domination. In a skit worthy of SNL, humble Jesus, a ridiculous figure on a young donkey, perhaps with his feet dragging the ground and with many in the crowd playing along, seems to have captured the hearts of the people. We can imagine the 1st Century’s version of Alec Baldwin skewering his era’s political/religious leaders in just this way.
At this point we should acknowledge that Jesus’s creative nonviolence is not merely risky. There’s another downside: it’s possible the protests of the powerless can be reinterpreted or co-opted by the prevailing domination system. Throughout Christianity’s history, especially after the 4th Century when Constantine ended state persecution of Christians and made it the state religion, many followers of humble Jesus kept putting a crown back on his head and often a sword in his hand. It is SO hard for us to imagine that love is stronger than hate. That’s why Jesus followers continue to return to the empire’s values and titles and symbols and methods. One favorite Palm Sunday song, an African American spiritual, is “Ride On, King Jesus”—which can be heard as triumphant but was intended to be ironic and subversive from the perspective of the oppressed:
Ride on, King Jesus. No man can a hinder me.
Ride on, King Jesus. No man can a hinder me.
King Jesus rides on a milk white horse.
No man can a hinder me.
The River of Jordan he did cross.
No man can a hinder me.
The title of “king” for Jesus and the image of Jesus on a white steed were originally used ironically. But through the centuries Jesus followers have often jettisoned his meekness and peacemaking in favor of Warrior Jesus. How important it is for us to recognize when we make Jesus into a warrior. Let’s realize that when we do, we then create the God we know through Jesus as the angry tyrant God. I know why this is appealing. We want a powerful God who can zap our enemies and heal our friends. But Jesus said God’s power is love. If we worship a violent and tyrannical God, we elevate and worship violence.
On the Sunday after Easter, we’ll start a new DVD series in our 9:30 class called “Violence Divine” that explores this very theme in depth. For now, let’s be aware that the way we image Jesus is the way we’ll image God, which becomes the pattern for our lives.
If you think that public demonstrations like Jesus’s “triumphal” entry into Jerusalem serve no purpose, or if you doubt that word choices and images matter, or assume that satire is fine as entertainment from people like Stephen Colbert but not as a strategy for those seeking justice—I’d understand your skepticism. The dramatic gesture often is misunderstood. Protest movements like “Black Lives Matter” can confuse or anger as many people as they galvanize and empower. Some peaceful protests are overtaken by a spirit of violence. Or co-opted by those in power who then blame the victims. And there’s nothing more unpredictable and undependable than a loosely organized, grassroots crowd. The Hebrew prophets’ prophetic “sign acts” were not heeded in their day: Jeremiah’s public smashing of pottery to signal God’s judgement or Hosea’s marriage to a prostitute as a dramatic indictment of the people’s infidelity to God. But what choice do the disempowered have to expose injustice—unless they resort to violence, which starts a never-ending cycle? The prophet Jesus was following a historic tradition.
In the current political climate, public demonstrations, marches, and movements are proliferating. From time to time, our church publicizes upcoming opportunities about public meetings or actions. Last Sunday we devoted the entire service to introduce an upcoming project—The Scarlet Letter F—that you might want to support by wearing a red letter F to encourage Forgiveness for former Felons. But l encourage you to exercise your own good judgement. At times the cause that has aroused my compassion and passion won’t be something you can champion—and vice versa. When we make a decision as a congregation, we’ll follow our guidelines for prayerful group discernment. When we as individuals choose when and how to engage publicly in the issues of the day, you may find those same discernment practices helpful as you try to hear God’s voice amidst all the shrill or quiet voices competing for your attention.
I also hope you can use this very weekly worship time to gain perspective on the controversy du jour and seek God’s perspective about if/when/how you should engage that issue.
A few weeks ago I received an invitation to a “Coffee with the Mayor” to learn about an upcoming city-wide event called “Canopy of Prayer.” After a little research, I emailed my regrets, stating my concern that the mayor’s formal proclamation in support of the event favors the prayer practices of one group of citizens—a narrow segment of Christian citizens at that–and has left out citizens of other faiths and of no particular faith. I explained that I agree with Jesus “that it is better to pray in private (MT. 6:6) so that our own hearts are changed. Then we are equipped to do the public work of supporting the weak and neglected.” In the coming days you’ll probably hear more from friends and neighbors about “The Canopy of Prayer” scheduled for April 29th.
I remain concerned that this event excludes many religious groups and may subtly reinforce racism and LGBT prejudices. When people in power, people with money, and people who are in the majority in terms of race and sexuality create a public demonstration to oppose “what’s wrong in our country”—I worry that their condemnation of what’s wrong could end up hurting people on the margins. When you’re the 800-poud gorilla in town, you don’t get to do guerilla theater.
How do we respond when the religious majority (in our setting that’s the Christian evangelicals) acts threatened by minority groups and the local government oversteps the line between church and state? Justin this morning suggested we plan an alternative event on April 29th in a public space, extend a wide-open invitation that explicitly welcomes people of all faith groups and those outside of any faith group, and simply get to know diverse people as we talk about meeting needs within our city. Let me know if you’re interested in supporting such an event.
As we move into Holy Week, keep asking the question: “Who is this Jesus?” Today’s text concludes as the people answer that Jesus was a prophet—not a fortune telling kind but the kind who spoke truth to power, who used prophetic signs and symbols to plead for the marginalized. One way to test if our critique is prophetic is by noticing where the power resides and whether or not the love of power rather than the power of love is being exalted.
Who is Jesus? He’s the one riding humbly on a donkey into the seat of power, a pantomime critiquing the culture of violence and domination.
And it’s going to get him killed.