Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
10 He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war-horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them back immediately.” 4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
5 “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Things are going to get better. This is the good news. The assurance keeps coming from multiple sources. Things are going to get better if we all do that we’re instructed to do. But before they get better, they will get worse. This is the hard news. More people will get sick. More people will die, and it will become more personal. People we know and love will not pull through. It became personal for me yesterday when the news came that a wonderful colleague and good friend in ministry took his last breath on this earth.
No one can say exactly when things will get better. There are projections about when we might be able to come out of our physical isolation. And projections about how long it might be before the economy begins to recover. But no one can say for sure. So here we are again. Gathered in time, but not in space, to sing and pray and remember the long, meandering story of God’s long-suffering, steadfast love for the creation, for each of us, for all the people we know and love, and for our neighbors. Here we are to open our griefs and fears, our belief and our unbelief, to the presence and promises of God from whose breath we breathe and in whose life we live.
And on this Palm Sunday, the story that has become our life right now is echoed in the words of the prophet Zechariah and in the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey. Speaking to the ancient people of Judah, the southern kingdom of Israel, in the time of their exile, in their languishing, in their longing to return to their homes, to resume their normal lives, the prophet promises things are going to get better. He holds out to them a vision of their king coming in triumph and victory to save them. And in that split second, before the prophet says anything more, the people envision a king riding on a great white horse, with an army following his lead, prepared for battle.
The prophet pops that thought bubble and puts in its place a picture of their king riding on a donkey, not a full-grown donkey but a colt, a young-un. It’s like a cartoon, a Monty Python parody, the triumphant king literally riding low to the ground, drawing up his knees so his feet don’t drag in the dirt. Things are going to get better Zechariah promises, but nobody know when that will be, and it’s hard to imagine how a king on a little donkey is going to win any kind of war against more powerful nations.
Some people are projecting that things could get better for us in New York within the next several weeks. Some are saying that it is likely to be much longer, and I find myself asking, “How long, gracious God, how long?” It is enough already. I’m looking for someone on a white horse, or better, someone in a white lab coat to announce some kind of cure for those with the virus and a vaccine to protect those without, and I would like to have these distributed widely by the end of next week. Those of us born and raised in this nation who have not suffered long traumas, who live with social power and privilege, expect that we can find a quick fix to almost any difficulty we encounter. We have money and technology and advanced research capabilities. We have bought into the myth of our own superiority, invincibility, and our capacity to largely control our lives. We are mistaken. If COVID-19 shows us anything, it shows us this, and reveals the socio-economic fissures in our society. Now comes our wake-up call.
As Jesus nears Jerusalem, Matthew describes how Jesus sets the scene that Zechariah envisioned roughly 500 years earlier. This is the moment of fulfillment, the time for rejoicing, the arrival of the saving king. A donkey and a colt are fetched by the disciples. Cloaks are spread. Jesus gets on one, or the other, or both. Matthew’s account is a bit confusing here. Don’t sweat the details. The point is to show us a counter-sign, a contrast to the ways of Kings, Presidents, and Emperors, like Caesar Augustus, who rules the Roman Empire and rides his white war horse through the city gates of Jerusalem, the great conquering hero, to the cheers of his admiring subjects. And through another gate comes this Jesus on a borrowed donkey, with this rag tag parade of Jewish peasants who spread their cloaks and branches, crying out, “Hosanna,” which means “save us now!” Jesus on a donkey and this crowd of pilgrims who trust in him is the prophetic sign that things are going to get better.
As they enter Jerusalem, there is completely different crowd. There are Roman soldiers on high alert as Jewish pilgrims gather in the Holy City to celebrate the Passover—the ritual remembering of God’s liberation of the Jews from their oppression by the Egyptian Empire. There are Roman citizens and resident aliens going about their daily business. And Matthew tells us that the whole city is thrown into a state of turmoil, confusion, and upset, because there comes this stranger on a donkey surrounded by a crowd of Jews chanting together with passion, “Save us now. Save us now. Hosanna in the Highest! Hosanna! Hosanna!”
Jesus riding on donkey is a sign that things are going to get better. As Zechariah prophesied, this servant king comes in peace to bring peace to all nations and peoples. The whole city in an uproar is a sign that things are going to get worse, a lot worse, before they get better. Within a few days Jesus will be publicly executed by the Roman government at the behest of the religious leaders and the frenzied crowd.
From beginning to end, from his humble entry into Jerusalem to his humiliating death on the cross, the story of Jesus’ passion, the story of his whole life is a story about how humility saves us. It is a counter narrative, a contrast, an alternative to the story of human arrogance that over-reaches, exploits, consumes God’s good earth, and splinters the deep communion in which and for which human beings are created.
All week I’ve been thinking about Jesus’ humility as we move from Palm Sunday to the Good Friday cross in the time of COVID-19. Experts tell us that things are going to get better if we do what we need to do to get through this health crisis, but beyond this moment, things will get better only if we choose to live our lives in with what Christian poet, philosopher, prophet, Wendell Berry, calls proper humility.
Berry has written so much about proper humility—more than I could possibly say in the few minutes we have left. I want to focus on just one thing, this one source of our proper humility. It is the recognition of the “givenness” of our lives and of all life.* We do not create ourselves. We do not cause the sun to shine, or the trees to grow, or the earth to bring forth its bounty, or creatures to bring forth new life. All of this is given. All of these are gifts from a gracious Creator. Proper humility is grounded in this “givenness,” and remembers that we are creatures made from the earth, the dust of the ground. We are not God. We are limited. We are not invincible. We are mortal. And we are entangled for good with the life of the whole creation. Our own health and wholeness are bound up in the health and wholeness of the earth, the air, the waters, and in the health and wholeness of our neighbors. If COVID-19 tells us anything, it tells us this.
Proper humility remembers this “givenness” and remembers the connectedness of our lives. Proper humility rests in the knowledge that all life comes from God, is sustained by God, and returns to God. And this morning we remember that, for love’s sake, Jesus comes into the world to share the goodness and the limits of our creaturely lives, and he comes into Jerusalem humbly, riding on a donkey, and he willingly submits to the violence and humiliation of the cross. In this way Jesus gifts the world. In this way he opens in the world an alternative way to live that restores true communion and leads to life and health and peace. And invites us to live in his Spirit, with his mind. In this way we share in the reality that divine love has made and is making things better, for good.
*For a lovely introduction to Wendell Berry’s thought and practice, see Wendell Berry and the Given Life by Ragan Sutterfield (Franciscan Media, 2017).