Saturday, March 27, 2010
LEARNING FROM THE DONKEY
THE MEANING OF THE PALM SUNDAY DONKEY
Underlying the accounts of Jesus’ triumphal entry onto Jerusalem on Palm Sunday is a poetic oracle from the prophet Zechariah:
“Rejoice heartily, O daughter Zion, Shout for joy, O daughter Jerusalem! See, your king shall come to you; a just savior is he Meek, and riding on an ass" (Zech. 9:9). Only Matthew makes specific reference to this oracle, but all of the gospels have the crowds welcome Jesus into Jerusalem with all the trappings of a king: the cloaks thrown on the ground, the palm branches, the acclamation of “Hosanna to the Son of David.”
The donkey Jesus was riding is a popular part of the Palm Sunday imagery. Many churches in Europe would have a four-wheeled statue of Jesus riding on a donkey, that was the central focus of the Palm Sunday procession. (The Germans call it a "Palmesel", "Palm Donkey") The little donkey was meant to send a message but most of the people evidently missed it : a king who is going into battle rides a horse, not a donkey; Jesus’ donkey is not so much a sign of his humility as it is of his mission of peace. Luke even has the crowds proclaim
“Blessed is the king Who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven And glory in the highest” (Lk 19:39).
AN UNEXPECTED KIND OF KING But peace was not the first thing on the mind of most first century Palestinian Jews. They had been smarting under foreign domination for centuries, most recently the Roman Empire, and they were ready for a revolt. The figure of the new King David that had been promised them had gotten combined with that of the messiah and became a military king-messiah who would deliver the people from the power of the Romans.
The crowds who acclaimed this rabbi on the donkey as “Son of David” and “king” had not picked up on or soon forgot the message of the donkey. We’re all like that, I guess – we’re deliberately obtuse when it comes to things we ardently wish for: We don’t see things that we don’t want to see, and we see things that aren’t there but we wish were. The crowds would soon fall away from this “Son of David” when he showed himself ineffective and unwilling to rally the people to political action. What God had in mind and what God was actually doing in the person of Jesus was far greater than anything a military liberator could ever accomplish, but the people had their minds and hearts set on a political-military deliverer and so missed the true gift that the Lord was giving them. How often do you and I miss the gift that the Lord wants to give us because we’re not looking for it but are expecting something that fits our own plans, desires or dreams? How many times have we been unable to accept some gift from God because it was contrary to what we were hoping for? May the little Palm Sunday donkey be a reminder to us that while God’s gifts are not always what we expect, they are always what we need.
............................A Palmesel in Puch, Germany