When I was growing up, a trip to the seaside meant (if we were lucky and good) a ride on the beach donkeys.
These little donkeys plied their trade on every tourist beach in England. Usually, there would be about half a dozen of them, wearing colourful straw hats and blankets. They usually looked a bit grumpy. Their attendant traditionally was equally taciturn. For the equivalent of about a quarter, a child would be hoisted across a grumpy grey donkey and bounce across the sand and back for about five or ten minutes while their mother looked on in terror (our mother did not approve of the donkeys, but we loved them.)
This is the image that I have in my mind’s eye whenever I read this prophecy of Zechariah, whether on a summer’s weekend, or in the snow of early spring, on Palm Sunday: the slow, silent, long-suffering beach donkeys and their childish burdens. Not the noble, elegant humility of the silhouetted donkey on the Christmas cards; but a truly humble, humbled and humbling, scraggly, shabby, scruffy little donkey, beast of burden and the patient plaything of children.
According to Jesus scholars Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan, on the day that we commemorate as Palm Sunday, two processions entered the city of Jerusalem.* Pilate’s people would converge on the city from their Roman garrison on the sea, a show of strength before the festival of the people, the Passover that represented to the people of Israel deliverance from the evil empire of Egypt; a dangerous proposition for the Roman occupiers. Pilate’s procession was a show of strength, of military might, and of the complete dominion of the Caesar, the son of the Roman gods.
On the other side of the city came the royal procession predicted by Zechariah, one in which the Son of the true God arrived at the seat and centre of his kingdom, humble and riding on a donkey. The use of the Zechariah prophecy makes the counterpoint even more clear: this king is not the one in pomp and splendour, nor is he seated on a war horse, because his purpose is not war but peace, and his strength comes from his humility, his closeness to the people, and, seated on a small donkey, his closeness to the ground. He has broken the bows of war, and retired the chariots of the empire. Instead of a Roman fortress on the sea, he sees peace extending from shore to shore; not the Pax Romana enforced by the sword, but the peace of God that passes all understanding.
It is not enough for the people of the Passover. They want a new set of plagues to destroy the Roman destroyers. They want a new Red Sea miracle to divide them from their oppressors. Instead, Jesus comes preaching peace, loving them, laying down his life for them. They don’t get how that is supposed to help them. But his procession is not a challenge to Pilate’s; that, in the circumstances, would be laughable and rather sad. It is, instead, an inversion of it; it makes a mockery of the Caesar’s claims to dominion.
Jesus said, “To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplace, saying, ‘We played weddings, and you wouldn’t dance; we played funerals, and you wouldn’t wail.’” This generation wants Jesus to dance to its tune, and he will not.
This generation, too; we would like to pull the strings, play the tune, and see Jesus dance to it. We saw it in the courts this week; whatever else you think of the so-called Hobby Lobby decision, the appeal to religious freedom to decide what is or is not contraception, let alone what is or is not healthcare, is surely symptomatic of that tug-of-war, that push and pull over whose god rules, and which tune God dances to.
We saw this week the limits of our recognition of the Passover of others; the Red Sea miracle that delivered a child to its Promised Land looks to another like an unmitigated crime. I can’t imagine bellowing at a busload of children, “No one wants you here,” as we saw on the news from Murrietta; but we are all guilty of blinkered vision, and selective hearing; hearing only the tune that we play, that we think all must dance to.
We still struggle with the idea that loving God, loving Jesus, means loving all of our neighbours, unconditionally. Even after all those Palm Sundays followed by Good Fridays, we struggle with the idea that humility is stronger than oppression. It doesn’t sit comfortably with us. Perhaps we just aren’t ready for it yet.
On this past Friday evening, like many others, like many of you, I went out to watch the fireworks. In the explosions that reverberated in my ribs, that knocked holes in my stomach,
I heard the shells that I had heard falling over Galilee, quarter of a century ago, night after night, from my bed in a kibbutz just south of the Lebanese border. The same gunpowder blast that propelled missiles into the night sky, to explode just far enough from our camp to lull us to sleep. It’s amazing what you can become used to; after a couple of weeks, there was one silent night in which no shells fell, and no one could sleep without them. We had become conditioned to expect the sounds of war; peace undermined our equilibrium and disturbed our sense of normality.
On Friday night, I wondered, watching the red, white and blue afterimages sparkle over the Great Lake, what it would signify if we had invented gunpowder only for this, to create beauty, and not death; to inspire, instead of to exterminate. What if in centuries to come this were to be the only use left for it, to invite the celebration of our liberty together, instead of an unequal freedom; our joy in one another and the lands in which we live; a mutual joy instead of an instinctive mistrust?
What if the only parades left in town were attended by children on bedraggled beach donkeys, laughing and waving palm branches, dancing to merry tune, instead of war horses and worse, and the funereal sound of the gun salute was no longer needed, the bows of war having been long since broken? We can’t even imagine it, can we?
The future into which the prophet invites us is not a brighter, more triumphant version of the way that we live now. It is not a romance, but a real revolution. It is not a future in which we win. It is a future in which we do not even have to fight.
Oh, but it is so hard to give in to humility! It is the wisdom of fools and of children, and we are so wise. Lay down your burdens, receive my rest, says Jesus, but it is so hard to give up the fight to be right.
But when we come to the table, we receive the body and blood of a king who gave his life for his people. And we receive the humble offering of a humble peasant who died a criminal, oppressed by foreign powers, betrayed by his own, beloved only of a few, most of whom thought that he must have got it wrong, somehow, somewhere along the line.
Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.
So rejoice greatly, and shout aloud. Your king comes to you; so triumphant and victorious is he, that he rides humbly on a donkey, and on a colt, on the children’s donkey.
*Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem (HarperOne, 2006), chapter 1, “Palm Sunday”