Here we are reading a story that is usually associated with palm branches and hosannas. For many Christians, this is the story they hear each Sunday before Easter, called Palm Sunday. It’s a strange and complicated tale, because shortly after this weird parade, things go really bad for Jesus and co. Betrayals, arrests, torture, even death. I’ll never tell you what to think or how to interpret these stories—I simply share my thoughts, what I’ve studied, and what I’ve heard. Considering all that, I’ve never been one to think that Jesus of Nazareth knew that he actually would be tortured and crucified once in Jerusalem. I know that some of the Gospel writers allude to Jesus knowing and predicting it, but keep in mind how these stories were written and when they were written. These authors had the benefit of knowing what was going to happen, and they were also speaking to various groups of people who needed context. In my view, this doesn’t taint the story. I actually think it makes it better. Consider that if Jesus didn’t know what was going to happen in Jerusalem. Consider that even after Jesus’ death Jesus’ friends and family and didn’t know how to interpret all that happened. And consider that it was a LONG time after that people finally decided to write down what stories they had heard about it.
In other words, I’m saying that the story gets richer for me when we ask the identity questions again:
Who was this Jesus? Who did people say Jesus was? What did Jesus say and do?
And who are we?
Because religion created the Jesus figure. Each and every form of Christianity, whether Eastern Christianity, Roman Christianity, American Christianity, etc. came up with their own version of Jesus. And so that work shouldn’t end. The story continues. Who is this Jesus? What did Jesus say and do? Who are we?
Let’s get to the story of the day, shall we? Jesus of Nazareth was finally reaching the climatic destination that all the Gospel writers foreshadow: Jerusalem, the mecca, the epicenter of religion and culture and language and…the Roman Empire.
Yeah, there’s that.
Consider that as Jesus and the ragtag band of followers processed towards the city for Passover, there was another procession. The Roman army came to the city from the west. They were the riot police before they were called riot police. They had one job during Passover: keep the peace. Because Jerusalem’s population would explode to more than 200,000 people for the festival. Because crazy, trouble-making fools like Jesus of Nazareth would be coming.
The stage is set.
Meanwhile, our storyteller throws in some quirky twists. Before they get to the city, Jesus sends people ahead—they have one job—go find a certain donkey and a colt. It’s a weird request, right? Or is it? It’s all setup beforehand. Because of the threat of danger, things are more secretive now—kind of a like a really good spy movie.
Jesus. Jesus Bond?
Only Jesus doesn’t do the martini shaken not stirred. He’s more into red wine.
Oh right—the donkey business. Matthew‘s author is asking us to pay attention [once again] to a story written mostly for Jews. The donkey, metaphorical or not, is meant to point to Jewish prophetic literature, and in this case, Zechariah: This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “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.”
Keep in mind also that the people with Jesus, i.e. those called disciples or followers, were now at this point the loyal and close counterparts of Jesus. Those who met them outside Jerusalem, however, and put their cloaks on the ground, were not all sympathetic to their cause. And once inside the city, things got even worse. People did not celebrate Jesus and his little parade—instead there was confusion, skepticism, and in some cases, even anger. It was never really a celebratory parade. It was a messy protest.
And all this leads us back to the questions. Who is Jesus? What did Jesus say and do?
Who are we?
The way I see it—Jesus wasn’t a king, at least not the type of king or ruler we usually imagine. Jesus didn’t wield power, didn’t sit up on some throne barking orders, didn’t stand far off aloof from the common people, didn’t press buttons to launch war weapons, didn’t see violence as any kind of answer. Neither was Jesus a religious leader who wore a big and funny hat with extra jewelry and long prayers and holier than thou attitude. But neither was Jesus a political revolutionary who used weapons to make change or who held up the end far above the means.
Jesus was and is to me, someone who represented the best of what our humanity full-expressed can be: Jesus loved and accepted people as they were, and encouraged them to heal in any way they needed to.
And Jesus stood up to bullies.
Oh yes, he did. He stood up against his own people the Pharisees and called them out for their hypocrisy. He stood up to the Roman bullies who hid behind their forums and pillars to avoid seeing the horrific aftermath of their wars, the extreme poverty caused by their taxation, and the inhumanity of their occupations of other’s lands. Jesus stood up to the bullies. And yes, it was dangerous. Yes, it was difficult. But Jesus’ love for people moved him to stand up.
Friends, I don’t know where you are today or what you’re thinking now. I’m asking myself: Who are you today? What do you do and say, how are you loving and accepting people as they are, and how are you standing up to the bullies? Because there is no fear in love. If we love, we cannot let fear overwhelm us and hold us back. We love. We must stand up.
What is happening in Syria, what happened in Rwanda and South Sudan, and all other places where genocide and war and inhuman acts reign, these tragedies and unspeakable acts are and were made up of moments when a group turned into a crowd, when people turned on an imagined enemy because someone planted that evil seed. It happens here and everywhere. Mosques and Sikh Gurdwaras and Hindu temples and Jewish synagogues have been attacked and vandalized — hate graffiti is painted on walls and cemeteries are vandalized. Trans people are beat up in the street and terrorized, bullied in bathrooms, made to live in fear, made to feel lesser. Those who are homeless are robbed, beaten, and left to die. Black and Brown people are targeted, beaten, arrested, and sometimes even wrongfully killed. Anyone who “looks” Mexican is told “Go back to your country, we don’t want you here!” Look, as a humanity, we have to face something—that we can find ourselves getting swept up into a parade of emotion and fear and misunderstanding, and before we know it, we are participating either directly or indirectly in bullying. We may want to walk with Jesus and the disciples from the East, but we can easily join the Roman legions from the West.
And that’s why Jesus’ example and the story matter. We cannot stop all the suffering in the world, no. But we can be aware, we can stand in witness, we can stand in solidarity with those who are marginalized or victimized. What we cannot change, we can acknowledge. We can love by doing this, by listening to someone’s story and saying: I hear you, I love you. Your suffering is not ignored, not unseen.
And I’ll stand with you—I’ll stand with all of you who are hurt or lonely or rejected. I’ll choose not to follow the bullying crowd and instead I’ll stand close to you, on the margins, loving you. In doing this, we stand as close as we can to the Spirit, to the Divine presence, who is constantly offering love, offering healing, offering identity.