Toorak Uniting Church

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Into Jerusalem: Absurd or Regal

Combined Stonnington Uniting Churches
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
Palm Sunday
29 March 2015


It all depends on how you look at something as to whether you see it as regal or absurd. When visiting contemporary art galleries in the world it is often more interesting to listen to the comments of the viewers than look at the pictures on the wall or sculptures on the floor. "I can’t see what anyone could get out of that. It is ugly and absurd." The person standing next to the person may say, "Well I think it’s rather beautiful." Or the famous comment often heard in modern art galleries, "This is something my four-year-old could do!"

While beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it is not only in the eye through sight that a person appreciates or dislikes something. It can be the person’s experience or the way they look at the world. If for one person something doesn’t make sense then to another it can be revelatory.

Jesus and the Prophetic Past
These two views have been expressed in relation to Jesus riding a donkey into the city of Jerusalem, the heart and centre of religious power in Israel. Was it an absurd thing to do or was it a sign of his regal nature, albeit very different from the pomp and ceremony of the entrance of religious and political leaders?

Regardless of that question (which we will return to later), in the ancient world religious leaders did not commonly ride in procession into a city. They did process, but it was on foot surrounded by their religious conclave. To ride on horseback was reserved for the mighty leader – the conqueror. Regardless of the historicity of this story, it is a prophetic construct from several Hebrew Scriptures and concepts, beginning with

The Book of Zechariah 9:9 which states:

All this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, "Tell ye the daughter of Sion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass."

And the location of the Mount of Olives is significant in the Hebrew Testament. Both in Zechariah 9:9 and later in Zechariah 14:1-5 it states that the Messiah would come to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives.

Then shall the Lord go forth and fight against those nations, as when he fought in the day of battle. And his feet shall stand in that day upon the Mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east.

The triumphal entry and the palm branches resemble the celebration of Jewish liberation in the book of 1 Maccabees 13:51:

And entered into it ... with thanksgiving, and branches of palm trees, and with harps, and cymbals, and with viols, and hymns, and songs.

I was often retained in my previous church by a delightful man who would tell me that kings did ride into cities from time to time on a donkey. Wikipedia reminds us that the symbolism of the donkey may also refer to the Eastern tradition of an animal of peace, versus the horse, which is the animal of war. Therefore, a king could come riding upon a horse when he was bent on war and ride upon a donkey when he wanted to point out that he was coming in peace. Therefore Jesus' entry to Jerusalem as symbolised from the prophetic past was an entry as a Prince of Peace, not as a war-waging king. 1

I think it should be noted that Jesus was a country boy. Although a fair amount of the gospels is given over to the brief time in Jerusalem, he spent most of his life in Nazareth and Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee.

More on the Donkey
The image of Jesus riding on a donkey has stimulated the poetic mind. For example the quote by Chesterton on the front page of the order of service:

The Donkey
G.K. Chesterton (1874–1936)

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born;

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil's walking parody
On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

One of the members of our Ecumenical prayers for world peace this week recalled some responses after telling this story to 7-year-olds:

Miss, I don’t think Jesus should sit on a donkey, it might hurt his back… Miss, you shouldn’t steal things, I hope he asked the man for his donkey… I don’t think it was a good idea to go to Jerusalem if Jesus thought they might kill him… Who is going to wash the coats!!

And so, children’s immediate ruminations about hearing a rather bizarre story help them pick up the essence of the narrative. It is absurd and bizarre and it took the Christian church a few hundred years to get over the embarrassment of it and to sanitise and regalise it.

The Paradox of Faith
Nikos Kazantzakis in his novel The Last Temptation of Christ puts a different slant on this scene: he sees the crowd not so much worshipping Jesus as mocking him. As he bounces through the narrow walkways of the old city with his few faithful disciples, they see him neither as a zealot who will remove Roman oppression, nor as the one who will bring love and compassion to all humanity. That realisation will take time.

I know that preachers make a lot of the notion that those who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem were the same people who cried out ‘Crucify him’!! That may or may not be so. But we do know that during the lifetime of Jesus the movement was restricted to a small group of people who were accused of religious impurity, social immorality and political treason.

As Christian faith grew there was an attempt to hold together the ‘humble servant figure of the donkey King and the regal Lord conquering the hearts of men’. Sad to say, the conquering Lord won, but more often by the sword rather than through humility and compassion.

Perhaps this is the time we are in, to the day. The church can’t just sing:

Ride on, ride on in majesty!
Hear all the tribes hosanna cry;
O Saviour meek, your road pursue,
with palms and scattered garments strewn.

Ride on, ride on in majesty!
In lowly pomp ride on to die;
bow your meek head to mortal pain;
then take, O Christ, your power and reign.

Instead, it needs a new hymn, a new song that faces the absurd and contradictory view of life. Here is my creed - eleven impossible things to believe before breakfast:

Love is stronger than death
Hope can defeat despair
Joy is available to all
Humility in leadership trumps aggression and power
The soft word turns away anger
Forgiveness and reconciliation is strength not weakness
Faith and hope give life and abundance
There is no difference between me and the refugee who arrives by boat
We are all in this together, Christian, Jew, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, secularist
You can only have true life when you die to ego and self
Donkeys can have a more valuable place than horses.

That’s the great paradox of life and I really don’t think the crowd of palm throwers saw that. Because none of us do!! It is a lifetime journey of success and failure; of learning and unlearning, of beginning to live into life’s great paradoxes.

I love the way this passage ends:

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple, and when he looked around at everything, it was already late, so he went out with the twelve.

Mobs, crowds and processions; but at the end of the day it is your friends who count, and those who love you.

1 Wikipedia: Triumphal entry into Jerusalem

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2015

Comments or suggestions on this page appreciated by email, Thanks.