photo © 2009 André | more info (via: Wylio)
Next Sunday starts the Christian holy week, the period in the church calendar that commemorates Jesus’ final week here on earth before he is executed and then resurrected. That week begins with Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, an event that has beautiful significance which is easy to overlook.
First of all, it is interesting that Jesus even chooses to enter Jerusalem in such a public way at all. His ministry has been marked by miraculous healings where he tells the recipients to not say anything to anyone. He has told his disciples several times over the past couple of years that it was “not yet his time”. He preferred doing ministry in Galilee, out of the religious spotlight of Jerusalem and Judea as much as possible.
But when we get to holy week, when we get to Palm Sunday, we find Jesus fully understanding what is about to happen. It is his time now. And so he resolutely sets off toward Jerusalem, along with the rest of Israel, for the Passover feast. Jesus is about to become the once-for-all Passover sacrifice and bring exodus from the oppression of worldly kingdoms.
When they reach the outskirts of town, Jesus stops and instructs his disciples to go into Jerusalem and bring back a donkey for him to ride into town on. This is, in part, to fulfill a Messianic prophecy from the Old Testament: “Rejoice greatly! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly, and riding on a donkey – on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
So it fulfilled prophecy. But why a donkey? Why this prophecy in the first place?
Many teachings I’ve heard and read about Palm Sunday say that riding in on a donkey (rather than, say, a horse) was quite ignoble or demeaning. It was a way of Jesus humbling himself.
It’s a nice idea, but there’s something even deeper going on here.
In that time, if a visiting king or dignitary entered a town on a horse, it was a way of them declaring violent or oppressive intentions. This was the way Emperors and generals rode into town – men who crushed dissent with their armies. Emperors who brought about the famous Pax Romana — the peace of Rome — with their violent domination.
On the flipside, if a king or dignitary rode in on a donkey, which was not uncommon, they were announcing intentions of peace.
By prophesying that the Messiah of messiahs would ride into town on a donkey, Zechariah was predicting him to be a man who would achieve a kingdom via means of peace rather than violence. And by fulfilling that prophecy, Jesus was embracing that distinction.
There was a different way to defeat the kingdoms of this world other than violence. God’s kingdom would spread through peace. Subversive, loving peace. That was the message of Palm Sunday.
And what about the palms? Laying palms before a ruler entering town was a declaration of victory. It was generally what folks did when the king or general or Emperor rode in on a horse. After a great military triumph, leaders would be honored with palm branches.
Instead, here we see palm branches being laid at the feet of a man riding in on a donkey.
Not victory through violence or war. Not victory through domination or oppression.
Victory through peace.
Victory through love.
It was a remarkable declaration that day by both Jesus and the crowds who acclaimed him. So a couple Sundays from now when you listen to the Palm Sunday stories, I encourage you to consider that deeper, richer symbolism in the narrative. Reflect on what Jesus’ kingdom is all about. Ask yourself what you can do to live out victory through peace today – because living the message of the Kingdom is what we should be about as well.