Donkey and palm

This is my sermon for Palm Sunday, based on Matthew 21:1-11. I was brought up to think of Jesus’ procession with the donkey and the palm branches as one of the most colourful stories in the Bible, but without the foggiest idea why he did it.

Recently biblical scholars have examined the background and explained what it would have meant at the time. There is a readable account in Borg and Crossan’s The Last Week.

The story is recorded in all four gospels. None of them tell us why it happened. At the time, they didn’t need to. The reason was obvious. Everybody knew. But that was almost 2,000 years ago and over the centuries it has been forgotten.

There were in fact two processions. Jesus led the small one. It was a demonstration of protest against the other one. It took the form of a spoof. It would have made people laugh.

It took place in Jerusalem, one of the biggest cities in the ancient Roman Empire. The population would have been around 40,000, which was very big at the time. Once a year, it got inundated by Jews travelling hundreds of miles to celebrate the Passover. There may have been in total around a quarter of a million people there, a colossal number by the standards of those days. Any government would have been anxious to make sure there was no trouble.

The Passover was the big annual festival for Jews. What were they celebrating? They were celebrating the day Moses led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, to freedom.

But were they free? When Jesus was alive, no. They were governed by the Romans. Jews bitterly resented Roman rule.

In Jewish culture everybody was a child of God, and God cared for them. God had provided enough to meet the needs of everyone. They therefore had their ancient equivalents of a welfare state. Most people were peasant farmers. The laws in the Old Testament laid down that every family had to have enough land to grow their own food. Debts were limited because they were to be cancelled every seven years.

Roman culture was different. For the Romans, life was cheap. They had no sense of a god who cared for everybody. Taxes piled up, debts piled up, and if you couldn’t pay you would have to sell your land and never get it back. Because of debt, many people sold themselves and their children into slavery.

Jews often demonstrated, rioted and rebelled against Roman rule. Passover was a flashpoint not only because so many people piled into Jerusalem but because every Jew knew what they had come for: to celebrate a freedom which they simply didn’t have.

So what did the Romans do? They sent an army to Jerusalem to keep order. There was a Roman garrison in Jerusalem all the time, but at Passover they reinforced it. This army was based sixty miles to the west, on the Mediterranean port of Caesarea Maritima.

So we have to imagine the serious procession. Foot soldiers in armour of metal and leather. Cavalry on horses trained for war. The tramp tramp tramp of the soldiers marching sixty miles, a terrifying symbol of Roman power. It would have been an impressive sight. It spoke loud and clear: don’t mess with us. We’re in control.

This procession was a regular annual event. The people who lived in and around Jerusalem knew it would arrive in time for Passover. They expected it.

So, one year, Jesus planned his counter-procession. As the Romans marched into Jerusalem from the west, he would march from the east. He arranged in advance to borrow a donkey. When the day came he sent his disciples to fetch it. Matthew tells us that this took place to fulfil a text from the prophet Zechariah.

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.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the warhorse from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations (Zechariah 9:9-10).

Zechariah said this about 500 years before the time of Jesus. His point was absolutely clear. He was describing a king riding a donkey. Kings did not ride donkeys. Donkeys were for farmers. Donkeys were cheap to keep, and you could use them to carry things. Slowly. They were completely useless in war.

Zechariah’s point about a king riding a donkey was that he looked forward to a king who maintained peace and did not go to war.

Jesus planned his procession to coincide with the Roman procession. The Roman procession was a display of military power. Do as we tell you or we kill you. Jesus’ procession gave a different message: a vision of peace which is not maintained by threats of military power. Matthew tells us

A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 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!’

Why did the crowds do that? Because they recognised the text from Zechariah. They saw the point. They too longed for the day when they could be freed from military oppression. They were celebrating this expression of their longing for peace.

If Jesus had thought he could use military power to defeat the Romans, he would not have ridden a donkey. The crowds would not have cut down branches of palm and spread them on the road; they would have put on armour and carried swords. What they did on Palm Sunday was different. It was a non-violent protest. The crowds knew it would not get rid of the Romans, but still they loved it.

Then Matthew tells us:

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’

Jesus wasn’t brought up in Jerusalem. He came from Galilee, up north, a poor rural area. His supporters had come with him to Jerusalem. On Palm Sunday the Jesus movement arrived in the capital city.

Five days later, Jesus was hanging on a cross, dead. The Romans had no intention to tolerate the Jesus movement.

That was almost 2,000 years ago. Today, the Roman Empire is a story for the history books. The big procession, with Pontius Pilate and his soldiers marching 60 miles to make sure the Jews did as they were told, has been forgotten. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the first time you have heard of it. But the shorter counter-procession by Jesus and his supporters is known all over the world. The movement that began with Jesus has become the most popular movement the world has ever seen.

Today, the world still has its share of brutality, oppression and starvation. We can if we like believe it will always be like this. Alternatively, we can believe the world has been designed for something better. We can believe we could all live together in harmony, sharing the generous resources provided for us by a good god.

As long as we believe, we can hope. When we stop hoping, that’s when brutality and oppression take over. When we keep hoping, when we keep remembering prophets of peace like Isaiah, Zechariah and Jesus, then we find the resources to work for a better world, a world with kings who ride donkeys.