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Posted on Fri 3 April 2020

Why the donkey? A Palm Sunday Reflection

Bishop Michael has recorded a video message exploring these themes of Palm Sunday. A transcipt is below and it can be viewed by clicking this link:

Why the donkey? Look at it from the donkey’s point of view: one moment you are tethered together with your mother in the squalor of a village yard, the next someone is astride you and there are crowds shouting and throwing their clothes and palm branches in front of you so you can walk on them! GK Chesterton summed it up well in his famous poem:

“The tattered outlaw of the earth, Of ancient crooked will; Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb, I keep my secret still. Fools! For I also had my hour; One far fierce hour and sweet: There was a shout about my ears, And palms before my feet”.

But why the donkey? Jesus had set his face towards Jerusalem. That is where Messiah had to be and he knew Messiahship could only only come about through suffering and death on behalf of the people. As he approaches Jerusalem, he is surrounded by fellow pilgrims, particularly those who have come with him from Galilee. They have heard him teach. They have seen him heal and feed. We mustn’t let popular hymns mislead us at this point:

“Sometimes they strew his way, And his sweet praise sing; Resounding all the day Hosannas to their King. Then ‘ Crucify!’ Is all their breath And for his death They thirst and cry”.

This is a different crowd from the bunch of hirelings and false witnesses of the religious and political establishment that was to demand his death only a few days later.This crowd wants him declared Messiah and enthroned king at this heady time of Passover when Jewish nationalist ambitions are at their peak: “let’s take on the imperialist oppressors now!”might have been their cry. These are the people who return home beating their breasts after the apparent debacle of the Cross (Lk 23:48). They may have misunderstood the message of Jesus but they shouldn’t be identified with the bloodthirsty rabble of Good Friday.

The donkey is a visual aid to show them there is another way: he is to become Messiah by winning hearts and minds not through brute force and by adopting the methods of the oppressors.His way involves being completely at one with the will of his Father, even when this leads to arrest, mock trials, torture and a frightful death.This is how he opens up a new kind of humanity; remade in his image rather than the soiled one of their ancestor gone wrong.Here are those with the ‘new heart’ that Jeremiah and Ezekiel spoke of: so changed from the inside that they can then seek to transform what is outside in the power and the spirit of Jesus. In such a view of Messiahship, Jesus is acting entirely in line with biblical prophecy:

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your King comes to you; Triumphant and victorious is he, Humble and riding on an ass, On a colt the foal of an ass” (Zech 9:9).

He knew the Messiahship had to be claimed with humility but also with vicarious suffering, rejection and martyrdom:

“Surely he has borne our sicknesses And carried our pains; Yet we esteemed him stricken, Smitten by God and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; Upon him was the chastisement that Made us whole, And by his stripes we are healed" (Isa 53:4-5).

There has never been a triumphal entry like this: a humble king who establishes his kingdom through suffering in place of his people.

The purifying of the Temple which follows immediately is of a piece in this programme of redefining the meaning of Messiahship and of God’s presence among his people. There were many at the time who shared Jesus’ outrage at the ways in which a corrupt priesthood was defiling the Temple meant to be not only the central shrine for the Jews but ‘a house of prayer for all nations’ (Isa 56:7, Mk11:17).
The cleansing is certainly about reminding everyone of the Temple’s true vocation but it is much more: here there is judgement. The Temple will be destroyed because of the iniquity of those responsible for it and will be replaced by Jesus himself as the locus of the worship of those who worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:23). What did Jesus mean by referring to his body as the true Temple (John 2: 21)? This becomes clearer as we consider the last supper that Jesus ate with his immediate band of followers.

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