•Isaiah 50:4-7 • Philippians 2:6-11 • Matthew 21:1-11•
Weekly Scripture Readings: Sixth Sunday of Lent (Palm Sunday)
I did not pay much attention to this year’s “March Madness” but my interest increased as the tournament was reduced to the Final Four with the astounding skill and maturity of so many freshmen. Competitors in the Winter Olympics were equally amazing. I think we are attracted to such skilled athletes because we know that while only one team emerges as the NCAA champion and only a few Olympians receive gold medals, whatever one human being can do, other human beings can do! Whatever one human being can do, other human beings can do!
We refer to this day as Palm Sunday. Doing so fails to communicate Matthew’s purpose in composing this story. So why does Matthew tell us Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem?
Try to imagine the environment on that day. It was Passover and pilgrimages in any faith tradition, then or now, are challenging and festive occasions. Today we glimpse what that environment may have been in Islamic pilgrims flocking to Mecca for the Haj.
Jesus and his companions were among the huge number of pilgrims who traveled to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. Groups came to the gates of the city from every direction. People set up campsites wherever there was space along the city walls, on the surrounding hills or in one of the valleys outside of the city.
As the pilgrims arrived it was like an enormous family reunion. The mood of excitement and joy was pervasive and singing was common. In the background, there was the threatening presence of the Roman Imperial army. The imperial delegates already had arrived at the city and entered the gates on war stallions brandishing their weapons of war. No one, including the companions of Jesus, knew how violent the coming week would be.
Remember, this was an oral culture. No one was recording events for Matthew to use forty years later when he composed his gospel. The evangelists were not historians but theologians. They wrote to communicate the meaning of Jesus and his message as they had come to understand it.
In those post-resurrection years Matthew’s Jewish-Christian community had become convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, the anointed of God. So Matthew portrays Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey. He adds his editorial observation. That happened “to fulfill what had been spoken by Zechariah” about the coming of the Messiah!
There is another reason Matthew tell us Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem. Riding a donkey signified Jesus was a nonviolent man coming in peace. His life passion was “the reign of God.” He lived in solidarity with the poorest and most abandoned people of his society. He was committed to creating a more just, nonviolent and human society. Arriving on a small donkey says more than many words could. He is promoting a new and different reality. This upset those who ride war stallions. They did not want a more human world. They killed him to silence him!
Christians are those since who actually follow Jesus by embracing his spirit and adopting his passion. This means bringing truth were there is deceit and lies, ending cruelty to the weakest, and being compassionate for those who suffer. This is a good week to remember all of this.
Did Jesus actually ride into the city on a donkey or intend a public act of anti-imperialism? It doesn’t matter! Matthew wants us to know Jesus is proclaiming the end of imperial violence and promoting “God’s new reality” of justice and peace. He does so regardless of the personal cost.
Matthew sets Jesus, “the human being,” before us as our model and mentor. March Madness and the Olympics remind us that whatever one human being can do, other human beings can do! Whatever one human being can do, other human beings can do. Thank you for providing a model for me of what it means to be a Christian!