Many years ago I spent three years as a student at AMBS. I remember how my teachers taught us to read the Bible. As you read through a passage, they said, look for the puzzles, the questions, the contradictions that don’t make sense to you. Often it is the problems in the passage that unlock its meaning for you. So this morning I want to look through the text that was read for us and ask, “What puzzles or problems do you see?” We won’t go into great depth, but just begin with two or three that caught my attention.
We have read this story, and we re-enact it with our children every year, so that our brains go to sleep when we hear it again. Look a little more closely with me and see what emerges. Nothing new perhaps; but we can see the old truths again more clearly.
Matthew 21: 1-17My first question has to do with the overall event. Verse 8 says: “A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.” But then we read of the same event in Luke’s gospel (19:37): “When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen.” What’s going on? A really big event, or just the disciples celebrating? The answer may be a bit of both. When you stand inside a celebration, it looks bigger than when you stand outside looking at everything else going on all around. A newspaper reported watching the celebration might have put it down to a small group of enthusiasts, but in fact this was the biggest thing that Jerusalem had ever seen.
Think of it this way: The Pharisees thought of Jesus as a small town rabbi who needed to be put in his place. Even the crowds who cheer for him call him only, “Jesus the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee” (21:11). But in truth Jesus was the Son of God, the Messiah of Israel, now entering the city to proclaim God’s reign on earth. The entry is both a relatively small affair, and the most important thing that had ever happened in Jerusalem.
A second question occurs to me. Why does Jesus go through this elaborate set of signals to get a donkey? He sends two disciples to a pre-arranged place, where they a find a donkey. He plans to ride the donkey into the city, and this interaction sounds like a pre-arranged code. Perhaps Jesus (or someone acting for Jesus) had gone to the owner of the donkey and arranged for Jesus to use them. They may have said something like, “Some disciples will come when we’re ready and take the donkey.” The owner may have asked, “How will I know who the right person is?” So they make this arrangement: “They will come and take the donkey. You ask, ‘What are you doing with my donkey?’ They will say, ‘The Lord needs them.’ So you know they are the ones.”
It all sounds almost like spies on a secret mission! In fact, Dorothy Sayers uses exactly that idea in a series of 12 plays she wrote about the life of Jesus, called “The Man Born to be King.” In the eighth play, “Royal progress,” Sayers pictures Jesus as being courted by Baruch, a Zealot who wants to throw the Romans out in a violent revolution. This exchange, then, becomes the signal to Baruch that Jesus has refused his invitation. Jesus comes in peace and will not fight a revolution. Of course, all of this is speculation, but it reflects the fact that we don’t know what’s going on here. We do know that Jesus chose to use a donkey quite intentionally. And this leads us to my third question.
So question three: Why did Jesus use two donkeys? Mark, Luke, and John each report just one donkey; but Matthew makes a point of reporting two donkeys. He adds:
This took place to fulfil what was spoken through the prophet: “Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”
Was there one donkey or two? Of course Jesus rode only on one donkey. I know that verse 7 sounds like both donkeys are used, but we don’t need to think of Jesus standing with one foot on the mother donkey and the other foot on her foal. He rode on one, and the other came along beside them. But why two?
I checked the commentaries. The first thing most of them did was point out that Zechariah 9:9 uses a typical Hebrew parallelism, repeating the donkey rather than adding a second donkey. They suggest that in his eagerness to cite the prophecy Matthew misreads Zechariah to refer to two donkeys instead of one. But I must admit that this explanation does not work for me. Matthew was a Jew, and he was writing to Jews. He knew how Hebrew poetry works better than we do. I can’t quite believe that he simply misread the parallel construction to mean two. Besides, Matthew was probably there. He saw the event himself.
More likely, Matthew took advantage of the two donkeys to highlight the prophecy. Mark, Luke, and John don’t bother to mention the second donkey because they don’t see it as important. But Matthew wants us to get the point that this entry into Jerusalem is fulfills prophecy. This is the entry of God’s Messiah, bringing in God’s reign. When we see this point, we begin to hear what Matthew is saying.
The Triumph of Weakness
Stop and think. Why a donkey at all? A conquering king enters the city on his warhorse. He comes in at the head of an army with trumpets blaring, so that everyone knows where the real power lies. What kind of king enters the city on a donkey?
We had donkeys where I grew up at Matopo Mission. I remember their annoying bray early in the morning, making sure you can’t sleep in. I remember driving down the road and finding a donkey lying in the middle of the road. We stopped and waited for him to move. Nothing. We edged forward, trying to spook him so he would move. Nothing. We honked the horn, loud and long. The donkey rolled over on his back and kicked his feet in the air. Donkeys are stubborn creatures, good for working, and good for carrying poor people. They are no steed for a conquering hero!
So Matthew says, look back to the prophecy: “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle-bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.”
This is not the triumph of strength, defeating every enemy. This is the triumph of weakness. Jesus comes to bring peace, which looks like weakness to us. The gospels don’t tell us that Mary rode a donkey to Bethlehem, but we have guessed that was so, in our Christmas celebrations, because the donkey is a symbol of poor people. God comes in weakness to defeat the power of evil in the world.
We see this emphasis in the text as the story continues. In verse 14 the blind and the lame come to him, and in verse 15 the children sing his praises. What do the people of power do? They plot his death.
Why does Jesus come in weakness?
I think of at least one basic reason for this pattern. When you come in power, the people around know they have to agree with you. If a king rides in with his army, the onlookers know that they had better be on his side. When a CEO says that the company is going to do this or that, the yes-men/yes-women start to say, “Yes, Sir!”
But when God comes to us, he comes as invitation. If all the power of God entered our sanctuary now, there would be no choice. We would fall down, overwhelmed by the greatness and glory and power of God’s glory. How then can God invite us to choose freely to worship and follow? By coming in the weakness and fragility of the cross. Weakness is the strength of invitation and choice, making it possible for us to become “children of God”, exchanging our flawed human nature for God’s glorious nature.
Andrew Walls observes that Islam has spread across the world through the use of strength, taking territory and not giving it up. Few places have become Muslim and then left Islam for something else. Christianity on the other hand spreads consecutively—that is, the church has been strongest in one place, and then left it for another. In the 1800s England was a thoroughly Christian nation, leading the world in applying Christian values to all that they did. Today only 3 to 5 % of English people attend church, and the Baptist church in which William Carey (sometimes called “the father of modern missions” grew up) is now a Hindu Centre.
Christianity moves like this because of the fragility of the cross. Every generation has to choose again to follow the Prince of Peace. The fact that your parents or grandparents were Christian does not make you Christian. Jesus comes to you and to me afresh in every generation and invites us to follow him.
I think of how this willingness to be weak works in our own lives. I remember the Brethren in Christ General Conference in 1978, when we were debating how to respond as the US government considered reinstituting the draft. The government had started registering all youth at age 18. One group in the church wanted to counsel our young men to refuse to register. Others said that we could not counsel them to break the law and should encourage them to register. At one point it almost sounded as though some wanted them to join the military and abandon our peace position.
Tempers flared. Debate went late—1:15 am the first night, and 11:30 the second. Someone tried to break the tension by ordering pizza to be delivered to the front so that the moderator and secretary could get something to eat! I remember how my Uncle stood up and spoke strongly against the motion not to register, followed by Larry Yoder who stood to speak for the motion not to register. John Stoner had moved the motion, and he and my Uncle were in fierce opposition on the conference floor. At the next meal they sat together trying to find how they might agree with each other. They found little agreement, except that they were still brothers in Christ. At such times it is tempting to use parliamentary procedure to force the decision you want. The brothers and sisters refused to do that, but kept working to hear each other and honour God in what they decided. They came up with a compromise motion to encourage and support our young men as they decided how to respond to this registration.
I remember another time when those in charge knew there would be a fight on the conference floor, and managed the process so that we all agreed to their position without a fight. They used their knowledge of church politics to get their way—an exercise of strength, like riding into the building on a war horse! The result was 20 years of struggle as the people realised what had happened and fought back. We may think that long discussions and the inability to decide show that we are weak, but in fact they serve as an invitation to join in and become part of the process.
I’m not really talking about church politics; I’m talking about life. God comes in Jesus riding on a donkey on the way to the cross, the ultimate show of weakness, so that we have the dignity of choosing to join the crowd following him. One day Jesus will come in power and great glory, riding on a war horse as the conquering king. Then there will be no more choice. For now he invites us to follow him to the foot of the cross and lay down our burdens and receive his life.
Last week Jim Scobie, former pastor at Emmanuel, spoke in our chapel at Providence. He was talking about the cross, and I was listening with half my mind present as we often do. Then, as he tried to describe what the cross means to him, his voice broke, and I realised he was on the edge of tears. Not because of anyone in the audience seated before him, but because the thought of the cross moved him so deeply. In Jim’s moment of weakness, on the edge of tears with a catch in his voice, I saw again the glory of the cross. Weakness and vulnerability are God’s path into our hearts, so that he can invite us to walk the path of the cross again in the week ahead and lay our hearts at his feet.