The Palm and the Donkey
Readings: Zechariah 9:9-12, Mark 11:1-11, Secrets of Heaven 2781:8-9 (see below)
See also on Youtube at https://youtu.be/OsLSqcX_WeUyoutu.be/OsLSqcX_WeU
Welcome to Palm Sunday, the narrative beginning to Holy Week. As we just read, Jesus has entered Jerusalem for the final time. He rides on a donkey, telling the disciples exactly where to find it. His reputation has been growing, and the people welcome him with joy and anticipation for the way that they think he will save them from their current circumstances. In the gospel of Mark, after this entry, Jesus will immediately clear the temple of merchants. He will argue a little with the religious authorities and will do some public teaching. He will be anointed by a women at a friend’s house, and he will share a final supper with the disciples. And then he will be arrested, for a ministry that centered upon those who had been excluded, and that called out those who profited from that exclusion.
What has struck me this week is the emphasis on Jesus’ “kingship.” I don’t know about you, but I sometimes have a hard time resonating with what that meant to the people in Jesus context. Like most of you, I have grown up in a democracy, not a monarchy, and even though my childhood was spent in a country that is part of the British commonwealth, my primary experience of government was one that was elected.
So the idea of a “king” (or any monarch) and what that means, feels a bit remote to me, and in case it feels that way to you too, I thought I would explore it today.
Kingship throughout time, but especially in the Jewish context, has been rather inseparable from the divine right to rule. We recall from the Old Testament that Israel’s ability to have a king was granted by God, the first two kings, Saul and David, anointed by God’s prophet Samuel. Even today, monarchs are often ritually anointed at their coronations, and in Britain for example, the monarch is also the head of the church.
Likewise, the word Christ itself, which is simply the Greek translation of the Hebrew word for Messiah, means “anointed one” and we hear the people in our text today shouting “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” The Jewish people had long looked forward to the restoration of their nation, and the coming of a great and powerful ruler who would return Israel to autonomy and prominence. And of course they did. They had suffered the indignity of being an occupied people for way too long, under a brutal and unforgiving empire. We would all feel the same way.
So when they started to hear about Jesus and the amazing things he was doing, of course they got their hopes up. Of course their yearning and anticipatory joy caused them to gather in the streets. And of course, they wanted to welcome and praise this new king, one that would uphold their history and restore their people, and so they did what had always been done for kings: they spread garments and tree branches to make a pathway.
Jesus had never asked for this though. He *had* told his disciples that he was the Messiah but coupled it with a warning of his suffering to come, attempting to reframe for them what being the Messiah really meant. He was anointed, chosen, to usher in a new kingdom but it would nothing like what the people expected. He was focused on a spiritual fulfillment, not an earthly one.
So, he let the crowds signal his royal identity. But here is what he didn’t do: he didn’t lean into their admiration, he didn’t manipulate their feelings, he didn’t work them up. Instead, he intentionally subverted that worshipful energy. Instead of coming in on a warhorse, as royals in the past would do, with much fanfare, he comes in on the lowliest of animals, in an allusion to our Zechariah text. To quote one of my commentaries: “…Mark wants us to view Jesus as a king, but only by helping us re-imagine the very concept of king in accordance with Jesus’ mission.”(1)
This is really important for us to remember. As we re-enact this day, as we wave our palms, we have an opportunity to be actively conscious of what we are celebrating. When we signal our praise of the Lord’s kingship, what are we signaling? Certainly, some good and wonderful things: Godly power, omnipotence, providence and love, and our offering of loyalty, trust and joy.
But as we do this, it is also important for us to remain cognizant of the irony that Jesus was enacting. Recent history in this country, and indeed the length and breadth of human history throughout the world, has shown us that human beings are very susceptible to the worship of power and dominion. We need to be careful not to swallow imperialism, and the worship of dominion itself, whole without moving on to the deconstruction of earthly imperialism that Jesus was doing. Because, we could very easily just substitute Jesus for Caesar and leave everything else the same. We could pray for the coming of a kingdom that elevates us and those like us and forget the tenor of Jesus’ entire ministry. But Jesus would never step into hierarchical earthly power structures as they are. He has been trying to tell us all along that we can’t happily wave the palm, craving power and influence, all the while ignoring the donkey.
The truth is, Jesus was heading toward a painful and humiliating execution, which would serve to continue the subversion of what we are to consider strong, how we are to understand power. Yet, we can persist in making the Easter story about mastery over death instead of sacrifice, about the salvation of a few by grace instead of all by love, about the creation rather than the critique of religious power.
But Jesus had literally just schooled the disciples on this topic before entering Jerusalem:
10:42 … “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.
And this is why it is such a beautiful tradition in the many churches that the palms that we wave today become the ashes used in the following Ash Wednesday. Our adoration must be anchored in reflection and relinquishment. We heard in our Swedenborg reading that the spiritual meaning of the Lord riding the donkey is to demonstrate the correct order of subordination of our human nature. Our earthly desires need to serve our spiritual desires and not the other way around.
Even though we do live in a democracy, where the people elect their leaders rather than being ruled by a king, it is also true that there has always been a strong strain of people and movements trying to co-opt legitimacy and power through claiming or implying a divine right, that God is on their side, that they are doing God’s will. I can only imagine what an addictive feeling it is, to be so sure that we are serving a higher power that we can disregard kindness, empathy, ethics or the rule of law.
The people shouted, as we do today, “Hosanna,” a word that is complicated to translate but contains a sense of giving honor to one who will save us. But that saving cannot mean that only *we* are saved, and that we are saved because someone will allow us to climb to the top of the heap, only to turn around the crucify those behind us. Jesus' entire ministry was founded on the ethos that salvation (not to mention loving concern) must include everyone.
So while the structures and the trappings of kingship are not something with which I can personally resonate, all the ways that human beings interact with the power of leadership certainly *is* recognizable in myself, my fellow human beings, and in our current context. As we shout Hosanna today, let us recognize then that one of the most fundamental salvation opportunities that Jesus offers to us is that we might be lovingly saved from ourselves.
(1) Ira Brent Driggers, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/sunday-of-the-passion-palm-sunday-2/49620
9 Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 10 I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. 11 As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit. 12 Return to your fortress, you prisoners of hope; even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you.
1 As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 3 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’ ” 4 They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, 5 some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” 6 They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. 7 When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. 8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. 9 Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted, “Hosanna! ” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” 10 “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” “Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 11 Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.
Secrets of Heaven #2781:8-9
 'Riding on an ass' served to indicate that the natural was subordinate, and 'riding on a colt, the foal of a she-ass' that the rational was so; From this - the spiritual meaning of these animals - … so that He might fulfill the representatives of the Church, the Lord was pleased to ride in this way.
 From this it may now be clear that every single thing in the Church of that period was representative of the Lord, and consequently of the celestial and spiritual things that are in His kingdom; even the she-ass and the colt of the she-ass were so, which represented the natural man as regards good and truth. The reason for the representation was that the natural man ought to serve the rational, and the rational to serve the spiritual; but the spiritual ought to serve the celestial, and the celestial to serve the Lord. This is the order in which one is subordinated to another.
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