Our Donkey-Riding King

Matthew 21:1-11

1As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”

4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:

5 “Say to Daughter Zion,

‘See, your king comes to you,

gentle and riding on a donkey,

and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”

6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!”

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”

11 The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”

I am amazed by technology these days. I remember growing up watching Saved by the Bell on television and seeing what has come to be known as “The Zack Morris phone.” The Zack Morris phone is that really big, boxy, brick-lick cellular telephone with the permanently extended rubber antennae. We call it the Zack Morris phone because one of the star characters, Zack Morris, always seemed to have this phone at his disposal. I’m not sure now as I look back on those old telephones just where Zack kept his phone, but when need arose, he pulled it out and was able to call for pizza, a ride, or an extension to his curfew.

I wanted a Zack Morris phone. I still want a Zack Morris phone.

About this time last year I got my current cellular device and I entered the world of the smart phone. I got an iPhone. Now if you know me and know how frugal I am, it may surprise you that I have a smart phone. But note that I did not say that I purchased an iPhone, I said I got an iPhone. I have the iPhone 4, which is a few generations old and therefore I could get it for free (with a contract renewal, of course). The salesperson really thought I needed a newer model with more memory and a better camera, but I stopped him and said, “You had me at free.”

Actually, with all of this talk about phones, I just realized I need to do something. Will you excuse me for just a minute as I take care of something? First of all, let’s turn off the ringer – we are in church. Okay, now… “Siri, do my taxes.”

Something isn’t working here. Nothing is happening. Maybe I need to try it again, try it with an accent, or maybe just say please?

We have come a long way from the days of the Zack Morris phone, that is for sure, but does anyone really expect that you can simply tell an iPhone to do your taxes and they will be done when April 15th comes along? Of course not. This phone is an amazing piece of technology, but asking it to do your taxes for you is silly because to do so would be to ask it to do something that it was not intended for. The iPhone 4 doesn’t even have Siri!

Today is Palm Sunday, the day we celebrate Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. This passage can be confusing for a couple of reasons: one, it is very familiar to us and if you are like me you probably read through things more quickly when you already know them; and two, it is full of Old Testament references that may not be overly familiar to us. So let’s slow down and look at what Jesus is trying to communicate by entering Jerusalem in such a way.

Our text mentions that Jesus’ mode of transportation fulfills a prophesy, which is found in Zechariah 9. “Look, your king is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey…” Donkeys were often used for transportation in the 1st century, and we can think of Mary, Jesus’ mother, riding a donkey into Bethlehem as a part of Jesus’ birth narrative. The guy came into the world on a donkey, and he is going to go out on a donkey as well. The donkey was a common form of transportation because it was cheaper than a horse and more reliable than a Hyundai. So a lot of people rode donkeys into Jerusalem, a lot of common people, that is.

John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg do an excellent job of considering the significance of some of the details of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem in their book The Last Week (which I just bought on Amazon for $3.79). In this book the authors compare and contrast the rulers of this world and the kingdom of God. We know that Jesus was coming into Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, the Jewish festival commemorating the signs of God during the Exodus from Egypt. But it wasn’t just Jesus that was coming into town to celebrate this event. Thousands of Jewish men and women were in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. The population swelled, with some estimates saying that the number of Jews in Jerusalem for the Passover would have been three times the usual size. And anytime you get a population-swell, especially when it is a population-swell of oppressed people who believe that they are the rightful owners of a land that is occupied by an enemy, there is a risk of rioting and rebellion.

According to Crossan and Borg, the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate, did not spend a lot of time in Jerusalem. Let’s be honest, Jerusalem was a little town and of little value to the Roman Empire. Pilate probably spent most of his time in a booming costal town where there was much business, trade, and need for such an important man. Pilate probably only came to Jerusalem when there was cause for him there, like when thousands of Jews from the surrounding territories were assembling to celebrate God freeing their people from the oppression of a major empire. You wouldn’t want those Jews to start thinking, “God freed us once before, God will do it again,” now would you?

So every year around the Passover, Pilate would march into Jerusalem on the top of the most powerful war horse he could find, leading troops into the town to beef up the security so as to say, “Just try to rebel. See what happens. If we think you are starting something, we’ll put you on a cross as a sign for all other would-be rebels.”

This is how the Roman Empire operates. Fear and intimidation; killing and torture. And they had the audacity to call it the “Pax Romana,” the Peace of Rome. Caesar brought peace through domination.

It is no wonder that the Jews were looking for someone to lead them into battle to defeat the Romans. They were looking for the Messiah, the one like Moses, who would lead them to freedom, lead them to victory.

When Jesus comes into Jerusalem, it is clear that not everyone knows him and his teachings. Just look at verse 10, “When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, ‘Who is this?’” The people don’t know him, they are just excited and join in with high expectations because somebody is going to do something. This is clearly a mob mentality. But we shouldn’t be surprised that so many of the Jews don’t seem to understand who Jesus is because this was before the internet and even before newspapers. News spread slowly by word of mouth or pen and paper.

Even though they didn’t know much about him, the word on the street was that he was a prophet. And the people were ready for a change. So they start waving palm branches in the air, and some throw their cloaks on the ground, preparing the way for their new king to enter Jerusalem to bring about the change they so desperately wanted.

This may seem strange to us in our 21st century culture, but the practice of putting one’s cloak on the path of the new king was kind of like our rolling out the red carpet. In 2 Kings 9 we find the anointing of Jehu as the king of Israel. Verse 13 shows how the people welcomed their new king: “They quickly took their cloaks and spread them under him on the bare steps. Then they blew the trumpet and shouted, ‘Jehu is king!’”

When they call Jesus “son of David,” they are referring to his ancestor, King David, to whom God promised that his descendants would be on the throne of Israel forever. They expect Jesus to be a king, to come in and kick some Roman booty. Jesus is going to make somebody pay for what the Romans have done.

I wonder when they realized the symbolism behind the donkey that Jesus rode into town that day. The prophesy from Zechariah that is mentioned must not have clicked for them right away, because Zechariah talks of a very specific kind of king. Zechariah calls him a “Shepherd King.” This king is not a violent, vicious, blood-thirsty ruler, but one who cares for his people like a shepherd cares for his flock.

On this side of the story it feels like the Jews are just as mistaken as a person yelling at an iPhone to do his taxes. That isn’t the purpose of an iPhone, and kicking Roman butt wasn’t Jesus’ purpose. Oh yes, he was and is king. But a king who chooses not to rule by intimidation, fear, and threats. He is a king who rules by laying down his life for his servants. And in doing so, he was able to achieve infinitely more than the people shouting “Hosanna” on that day could have expected.

I am still finding out new things about my phone. I can look up restaurants on the internet, view their menus, call them, and order take out all on the same device. I listen to internet radio like Pandora on my phone all of the time while working. I am finding new ways to use my smartphone all of the time. Last week I bought a new clock radio. It is a simple little box designed to sit on a bed-side dresser. It also has a Bluetooth connection. I found out the other day that if someone calls me, I can answer my phone with my clock radio and talk to them through this clock radio’s internal microphone.

Who would have imagined when I was growing up, watching Zach Morris use his brick of a phone that one day I could talk to my mother while I got ready in the morning by wirelessly connecting my smartphone to by clock radio? That sentence wouldn’t even have made sense in the 1990’s. But it is a reality today. No, I can’t yell at a phone and get it to do my taxes, and we can’t yell “Hosanna to the son of David” and expect Jesus to lead our people to victory over our enemies in a physical battle. That’s not its purpose; that’s not his role or his plan. But much like this phone is able to do so much more than my little brain can even begin to wrap its mind around so too is Jesus more than the earthly kings who lead through intimidation and fear.

Let us not limit our king but instead may we expect that God will move through the King of kings to do infinitely more than we could ever hope for or imagine.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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