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Thoughts on Luke 19: 28-40 for Palm Sunday at The Clinton Avenue United Methodist Church:
We could reflect on this passage by looking at the event described through the eyes of someone in the crowd. Someone who waved or threw a Palm leaf, and shouted with the other bystanders, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” We might reflect on whether we really understood who it was who rode the donkey into Jerusalem, and whether on the following Friday we might not be calling for his execution, demanding that Barabbas not Jesus be released. Or we might reflect on the experience of the two disciples whom Jesus sent ahead to untie the donkey. What were they thinking as they did this? But instead, I invite you to think about this event through the eyes of the donkey that Jesus chose to ride. There are many legends about this donkey and, whether they are based on anything factual or not, they provide some insight into what happened on the first Palm Sunday. Some people speculate that the donkey that the disciples untied belonged to a follower of Jesus, who knew that Jesus had need of it. Yet if so, why would Jesus tell the disciples what to say if someone asked them why they were untying it? I like the legend that says that the donkey belonged to a poor farmer. I’m using the version from Sue Weaver’s book, “The Companion Donkey” (North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing, 2008, p.11). The farmer’s children loved the donkey – apparently donkeys are gentle and affectionate despite their reputation for being stubborn and stupid – but he was weak and small. He could hardly do anything useful so the farmer decided that, as he couldn’t afford to feed the donkey, he had no choice but to put him down. This upset the children who begged their father to sell it instead, but the farmer didn’t want to cheat anyone by selling a donkey that couldn’t earn its keep. Then the farmer’s oldest daughter suggested that he tie the donkey to a tree on the road to Jerusalem and tell anyone interested that they could have him for nothing. The farmer agreed. Next morning, two men approached and ‘asked if they could have the donkey.’ The farmer said yes but told them that it could carry very little. Even so, the two men took the donkey saying that Jesus needed it – as Jesus had instructed them. Suddenly, the donkey felt that he had a mission, a purpose. He trotted off with the two disciples with a spring in his step. Jesus petted him, which made him feel very special. The donkey hardly felt Jesus’ weight as he carried him along the highway into Jerusalem. He heard the crowd shout, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” How privileged he was to carry this gentle, loving man, this prince of peace, into the city. Jesus had chosen him for this task. We know that for a king to enter a city on a donkey instead of a stallion meant that he did so in peace. Solomon rode into the city on a donkey when he succeeded David as king. When kings went to war, they rode stallions. By riding the donkey, Jesus signaled that his mission was peaceful. Sadly, in Jerusalem, he met with suspicion and hostility because some wanted him to lead a revolt against Rome and were angry when he didn’t while others thought that his teaching about feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, ending poverty and injustice targeted their power, their privileges, and threatened their cozy relationship with imperial Rome.
So, they took Jesus and hung him on a cross. And at the foot of that cross, says the legend, stood that donkey. He had followed Jesus there which most of the disciples didn’t do in fear for their lives. As Jesus suffered and died, the donkey was so sad that he wanted to die instead of Jesus. Upset and tearful, he thought about leaving but just as he was about to do so the shadow of the cross fell over his back and its mark appeared there. Ever since, donkeys have had the sign of a cross on their backs. What a beautiful legend – even if not wholly true. In some respects, we resemble this donkey and no, I’m not trying to insult anyone! Like the donkey, we are here today – on this Palm Sunday – because Jesus has freed us from all that tied us down. Jesus frees us to serve him even as he sent the disciples to untether that donkey. Jesus takes our burdens, our sins, our arrogance – or our lack of self-esteem – our selfishness – and changes these into their opposites – he forgives our sins, he makes us humble because we know that we do not deserve his love, but he loves us anyway. He gives us new confidence not in ourselves but in him. He lifts us up by giving our lives meaning and purpose just as he freed the donkey so that he could be a king’s ride that day. What a day that was for the donkey whose owner thought him too weak to be of any use. Some people see donkeys as comical and common – some even associate donkeys with the dark side – but Jesus called a donkey to serve him. Jesus calls us to serve him too – unlikely us – to be instruments of his love in our community, instruments of the love he poured out on the Cross. Like the donkey, we do not deserve this trust, this honor, but Jesus chooses those whom the powerful and prestigious overlook. And Jesus sends us to those whose needs are the greatest, to feed them, to comfort them, to lend them a listening ear. This is our calling, today and every day until the kingdom of love, peace and justice is fully here. The English poet, novelist, book illustrator and devout Christian, G. K. Chesterton, now best known for his short stories featuring Father Brown – the priestly sleuth – wrote a poem called ‘The Donkey’ with which I end this sermon in lieu of a hymn:
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.
(Collected Poems. London: Methuen & Co, 1927, p. 325)
By the Rev. Dr. Clinton Bennett