Text: Luke 19:21-40.
Over the years, I have shared with you some of the things I like: collectable books, especially theology books, old watches and antique furniture. I have also shared with you my love of gospel music, Dolly Parton and Coca-Cola. What I haven’t told you about is my fascination with cars, particularly old cars. It is a secret longing of mine to own a 1963 Mercedes-Benz 190 SL – that 190 SL part is important. 1963 is significant because that is the year I was born. For me, these old things are not about status or image. I simply like the style and feel of old things. I like thinking about who possessed them before me. Whose bookshelf did that old book sit on for years? Who held it in their hands and read it? I like thinking about who wore the old watches that I have now collected. Were they gifts or a special purchase that someone saved up for? I guess in some sense liking old things gives me a sense of connection to history and to the people who shaped our world and made progress a reality.
But back to cars. It seems that most people choose their car based on certain criteria. Some people, when choosing their ride, go for comfort and style. Others care more about efficiency, safety, durability and cost. There are those who make their choice based on status symbol or image in an attempt to make a statement about who they are and what matters to them. And last, there is a select group of people whose only criteria is the color of the car – which I’m not saying is insignificant. Color does matter. One could make an argument that the “ride” we choose does say something about us – something about our priorities, our likes and dislikes and what we want others to know about us.
I imagine you are wondering about now what all this talk about cars – what we choose to ride in – has to do with Palm Sunday. It’s a good question. Every time I read this story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem I am fascinated with the vehicle or “ride” he chooses for himself – that of a donkey. But to really appreciate Jesus’ ride, you have to know about the parade happening on the opposite side of town; otherwise, the donkey may seem insignificant. Let me explain.
Two processions entered Jerusalem on that spring day in the year 30. It was the beginning of the week of Passover, the most sacred week of the Jewish year. One was a peasant procession or parade, the other an imperial procession. From the east, Jesus rode a donkey down the Mount of Olives, cheered by his followers. Jesus was from the peasant village of Nazareth, his message was about the kingdom of God, and his followers came from the peasant class. They had journeyed to Jerusalem from Galilee, about a hundred miles to the north. Throughout the gospels, the story of Jesus and the kingdom of God has been aiming for Jerusalem, pointing toward Jerusalem. It has now arrived.
On the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea and Samaria, entered Jerusalem led by an imperial cavalry and soldiers. Jesus’ procession/parade proclaimed the kingdom of God; Pilate’s proclaimed the power of empire. Pilate’s military procession was a demonstration of both Roman imperial power and Roman imperial theology. Though unfamiliar to most people today, the imperial procession was well known in the Jewish homeland in the first century. The gospel writer’s and the communities for which they wrote would have known about it, for it was the standard practice of the Roman governors of Judea to be in Jerusalem for the major Jewish festivals. They did so not out of reverence for the religious devotion of their Jewish subjects, but to be in the city in case there was trouble. Which there often was, especially at Passover, a festival that celebrated the Jewish people’s liberation from an earlier empire. The mission of the troops with Pilate was to be visible in force, and to reinforce the Roman imperial power.
Imagine Pilate’s arrival in the city, a 3-D reminder of the power of the empire: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.
Return now to the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem. Jesus approaches the city from the east at the end of the journey from Galilee, and he tells two of his disciples to go to the next village and get him a colt or donkey that they will find there, one that has never been ridden – a young one. They do so, and Jesus rides the donkey down the Mount of Olives to the city surrounded by a crowd of enthusiastic followers and sympathizers, who spread their cloaks and leafy branches on the road, and shout, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” It may very well be that Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem was his first planned political demonstration – his first HKonJ.
The meaning of the demonstration is clear, for it uses symbolism from the prophet Zechariah in the Jewish Bible. According to Zechariah, a king would be coming to Jerusalem “humble, and riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The rest of the Zechariah passage details what kind of king he will be:
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations.
Jesus’ procession, his parade, deliberately countered what was happening on the other side of the city. Pilate’s procession embodied the power, glory and violence of the empire that ruled the world. Jesus’ procession embodied, in many ways, the opposite. He deliberately shuns the bling of the imperial parade. He chooses a humble beast, and his only embellishments come from the hands of his followers. Jesus’ display represents an alternative vision – the kingdom of God.
Jesus offered an alternative vision for the world as he rode in from the east into Jerusalem on a donkey. Which begs the question for us this Palm Sunday, “What is the alternative vision for God’s people in 2013?” What will our procession embody? What will we be riding? Well, for starters, I don’t imagine that there will be a rush of people leaving here today to go trade in their Ford or Buick or Honda or Toyota for a donkey. It just doesn’t seem likely.
As I thought about this question, “What is the alternative vision for God’s people today?” I thought first about all the imperial processions that are still coming from the West. There is that procession coming out of the General Assembly building here in Raleigh parading down Jones Street with all its imperial power – powerful legislators, flexing their political muscles, controlling their subjects by ignoring voter rights as they push through Voter ID legislation. I thought about how, last year, they voted to place a constitutional amendment on a ballot during a national election that denied North Carolina citizens the right to marry whom they choose. And I thought about those same powerful political figures riding in on their cavalry ready to do harm to our environment as they work to pass legislation that would allow fracking in our neighborhoods. The imperial processions are still coming from the West.
But then I thought about all the processions coming from the East. I remembered: there was a procession coming through the East gate last week in Winston-Salem as the Green Street United Methodist Church voted to not allow their church building to be used for legal marriage ceremonies until there is marriage equality in our state. I remembered that I heard about another Eastern procession last week as a group of people gathered to stage a political demonstration against fracking in our state. Then I remembered: there is an Eastern procession today. At 3:00 today people will gather at Martin Street Baptist Church, our sister church, and they will march to the Martin Luther King memorial as a political demonstration to protest Voter ID legislation.
For every imperial procession from the West, the church of today must counter with a procession of the people of God from the East. We are the keepers of the alternative vision. We are donkey riders. If Voter ID legislation passes, which it is expected to, then we must organize with our sister church, saddle our donkeys and ride into our communities to help our neighbors secure photo IDs. That’s the alternative vision. We are the keepers of the alternative vision – donkey riders. It is up to us to offer love in the face of hate, peace where there is war, a welcome when others exclude. We are the keepers of the alternative vision – donkey riders. It is up to us to feed the hungry, to stand in solidarity with the poor, to take care of the immigrants and the children, to visit those who are sick and in prison, to turn the other cheek, to love our neighbor as ourselves. We are the keepers of the alternative vision – donkey riders.
And what does that donkey say about us? It says we won’t join the imperial procession because we stand with those who are excluded or disadvantaged by the culture of power. And it also says that we won’t spend our energies building an opposing imperial parade, that the focus of our alternative vision isn’t winning a war of ideas but is always finding the places on the edge of town where justice feels distant and God’s people are in need. Our donkey parade says to the world that we are the keepers of the alternative vision, and that our vision is of love not luxury, of inclusion not exclusion, and of peace not power.
This Palm Sunday reminds us that we are the keepers of an alternative vision – donkey riders. May we ride into this Holy Week and all the weeks to follow on our donkeys.