Whose Parade Is It Anyway?
Often it’s best to begin at the end of the story. So today we start by looking at the question that is on everyone’s mind as Jesus enters Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday. "Who is this?" they asked, for “the whole city was in turmoil” as a man on the donkey came riding into Jerusalem.
Who is this? What an interesting question to ask? But surely they were confused. We know all the answers. Perhaps we should offer the answer: This is Jesus, Lord and Savior, God incarnate, Immanuel, Very God of Very God.
But even these Jerusalem sophisticates can come up with an answer: Jesus, a prophet from Nazareth. But is that all he is? Yet another prophet from some hillbilly town riding a donkey?
Perhaps they had all read the prophet Zechariah who wrote, “Lo, your king comes, humble riding on a donkey.” Biblical scholars are not of one mind as to whether Zechariah really reflected a practice of ancient times. Some suggest that riding a donkey was a sign of peace, a way of stating intentions. A king rides a horse, but Zechariah says that humility rides an ass. Look, I’m not here to take over, I’m a man of the people.
And if you’ve ever traveled to other parts of the world, it’s not that uncommon to see women and men riding a donkey as a very practical matter, like driving a Toyota. Reliable transportation, nothing fancy, but it will get you there.
But all I can think was that the scene was almost comic! A grown man, full size, riding a little donkey. I imagine that people were pointing and staring, their mouths hanging open at the sight of it. His legs dragging the ground and the donkey straining under the load. More than a few couldn’t even get their question out for laughing!
This was no conquering hero on a mighty steed, a great white horse, leading a Roman legion in a victory parade. “Who is this?” they ask. Whose parade is it anyway?
If this is an army led by a warrior, it's a strange one indeed. Children, women, men, tax collectors, prostitutes, and others that everyone knew were sinners. Surely they would have been there, for the man on the donkey kept company with such people. A wine bibber, whatever that is. Whispered like a child in church at a not so much a whisper volume.
Who is this? That was the question that day and it is still is today.
During Holy Week, we recount what happened to the man on the donkey. We know his name. Even if you’ve missed a few Sunday school lessons, you probably know something about him. Good Friday, that’s his day, the day when we see how this spectacle all turns out. But it all started with a parade, a man on a donkey.
When Jesus planned the day, he told his disciples to go to Bethpage, to look for donkey tied up, ready for its ultimate purpose. It was almost like a screenplay, written with him in mind: Send some disciples to Bethphage. Tell them to untie a donkey and a colt. Recite the ancient prophecy. Ride into Jerusalem...
Was it all so neatly scripted? Some have dared to raise questions, to wonder aloud about such inevitability. Catholic scholar Elizabeth Johnson speaks for others when she questions the interpretation of Jesus' death as "required by God in repayment for sin." She wonders if such a view is virtually inseparable from an underlying image of God as an angry, bloodthirsty, violent, sadistic father. Is God really that way? She understands the story in a different way:
Jesus' death was an act of violence brought about by threatened humans as a matter of our sin. This death occurred historically because of Jesus' faithfulness to the deepest truth he knew, God’s love, expressed in his words and action, which showed all twisted relationships to be incompatible with God's peace. In other words, whatever happened, it was God’s truth to God’s self that compelled Jesus to act. To ride into Jerusalem, not as a conqueror of the city, but as a conqueror of the heart.
“Who is this?” they asked.
Some of the old answers may no longer hold for us. That doesn't mean we've stopped believing; rather, it means that some of our certitudes, the things we know that we knew, our very doctrines, have pinned Jesus down too securely. We need to look again and see what we didn't see before, daring to be surprised by the man on the donkey.
When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned for his faith in a Nazi camp, he met a God he had never known: "God allows himself to be edged out of the world and onto the cross," Bonhoeffer said, "and that is the way, the only way, in which God can be with us and help us...Only a suffering God can help."
“Who is this?” they asked.
So today we ask this question as though for the first time, and in many ways, it is the first time. For we are not the same as we were a year ago on Palm Sunday. In so many ways Jesus enters a different city every year, when we again encounter this story.
Jesus came riding into the heart of suffering, and he has not gone away. Only a this humble God can help. Jesus comes riding into the brokenness of our world. Even now, his entry on this Palm Sunday is not what we expect, and we even know the story by heart. His words and actions were threatening to those first Palm Sunday people. The religious leaders would go away, grumbling, scheming, planning, to put an end to all of this. We too often go away grumbling and scheming as we hear his words of a peaceful gentle, and yet overwhelming rule take hold on us.
But Jesus words are also life-giving. His offer, issued from the back of a donkey of all places, it to experience life in a new way.
So it wasn't surprising that the whole city was in turmoil, asking, "Who is this?" Some followed him into the city because he had brought them out of despair into hope. But others were scared to death at the rumors that preceded him into the city, because they knew what he had been teaching the people who joined this odd parade.
"Blessed are the meek," he said, "for they shall inherit the earth." No, this is crazy-we know the mighty will inherit the earth.
"You have heard it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, 'Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.'" What sort of madness is this against the threats of our world?
"Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink." Who can live that way?
"For what will it profit you to gain the whole world but forfeit your life?" That is surely no way to get our economy moving again.
"Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant..." Servant, that’s not the job I applied for.
Living this peculiar, God-shaped life Jesus knew he would not escape suffering. He told them over and over about how it would all end. Not in a glorious parade, not even this comic entrance on a donkey. Instead he told his confused disciples not once but three times that he was headed for Jerusalem, where he would surely be arrested, condemned and crucified. Yet, still he rode into the city, drawn there by the very heart of God.
If Palm Sunday has one lesson for us it is that we need him in this broken place and in our broken lives. Only a suffering God can help. Jesus came riding into the heart of suffering and was crucified on a garbage heap outside Jerusalem.
And on this Palm Sunday, he comes riding, still on that donkey. Gently asking if we would be a part of his parade.
Even in the midst of our questions about who Jesus is, we grow confused about the parade. Who are we and what brings us here? Everyone gathered around him, trying to figure out their part in the story.
The disciples...sent on a mission.
Judas…on his own mission.
Peter…denying him to the very end.
What is our part in this strange parade? Perhaps we are the adoring crowd, ready to shout Hosanna one day and Crucify on the next. Wondering who he is but not willing to figure it out. Or certain of who he is and unwilling to be made vulnerable in the presence of the Almighty.
Or perhaps we are the donkey. Destined, chosen, prepared for the day. The center of attention on that day, or at least the donkey felt that way. After all, the crowds cheered as he walked along carrying this unknown man. Surely they loved him. Certainly this was his parade. I wonder if the donkey came back a few days later to find that the cheering crowds had left? And I wonder if the donkey ever knew who he had carried on that day.
Francis of Assisi was known for his humility, often calling himself “Brother Ass,” a way of reminding himself that he would try to be more than he should. Reminding himself that his part was to serve Christ. Carrying Christ to the world.
In the end, I like to think that I’m the donkey. Ready and prepared to do my part.