Jesus is now on the Mount of Olives, a hill across the Kidron Valley to the east of Jerusalem. He has been walking in Galilee, through Samaria, and now in Judea, for 3 years. We don’t see him riding any animal until now, at the last leg of his journey.
Here near the end of his ministry, Jesus enlists a colt, probably a donkey: the same species of animal that tradition says carried his pregnant mother to Bethlehem, witnessed his birth in the stable, and bore him as an infant to Egypt. Riding a donkey represents humility, especially when compared with the war-horse that would have carried triumphant military leaders. I am old enough to remember the funeral procession of Martin Luther King in 1968, his casket on a wooden cart drawn through the streets of Atlanta by 2 donkeys.
He sends 2 of his disciples ahead to borrow a colt, one “that has never been ridden,” for this purpose. If anyone asks them why they are taking the colt, the disciples are to say, “The Lord needs it.”
The fact that it had not yet been ridden also tells us that it was not yet completely broken, tamed, domesticated. Maybe we are to understand that the one who bears the Word of God best is the one who is not yet jaded, corrupted, or otherwise preconditioned by previous experience. Maybe that’s a kind of purity of heart that is able to respond to Jesus directly and immediately, not assuming we know how this is supposed to go, not setting out with our own expectations an agenda, but just going where the Lord steers us.
Maybe that’s who the Lord needs: because Jesus is doing something unprecedented, he wanted his mount to be a beginner as well. The prophet Isaiah talks about how God is “doing a new thing.” I wonder if the whole Christian adventure has to be a new thing for us all the time. Our faith can’t ever “get old,” as we say. We always have to aspire to the innocent mind of one for whom bearing the Word is an exciting, new adventure.
Maybe there are important times when the Lord doesn’t need highly-trained, experienced, expert professionals, who think they know exactly where and how to bear the Word into the world. Maybe those folks will imagine they know better where Jesus or the church should be going, and will try and take the safer route, not the risky highway into a city full of powerful enemies.
Maybe it’s the people who haven’t a clue, and find themselves thrown into a new and unfamiliar service, whom the Lord needs. I know people who were thrown almost accidentally into service at a food bank or a homeless shelter or a jail, to whom it occurred that, far from their previous expectations, this work is the way the Lord was calling them to bear the Word of grace and love into the world.
I suspect Jesus is acting in conscious fulfillment of a prophecy in Zechariah 9:9, where the king enters the holy city riding on a young donkey. So Jesus, who is acutely conscious of his identity as the Messiah, also sits on a donkey. His disciples lay their cloaks on its back, and help Jesus get on as well. And they start the descent down the road, into the valley, towards the holy city.
Now, remember that this is only a few days before Passover. There would have been a lot of people making their way along the road to Jerusalem. Jesus’ disciples would have been part of a much larger throng of pilgrims.
As he rides along, some people start spreading their cloaks on the road ahead of him, which was a way of showing honor, kind of like our “red carpet treatment” today. And his disciples begin to sing words from Psalm 118, which were probably sung for any pilgrims coming to Jerusalem for Passover. We sing them ourselves, at most Communion services: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” But the disciples, picking up Jesus’ cue, add a loaded reference to “the king.” “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” the exclaim.
This apparently slight amendment actually changes the character of what is happening here. Calling Jesus a “king” turns this whole procession from a religious event to a political one. Once that happens, everything changes. The stakes get much higher.
There are some Pharisees among the throng of pilgrims going to Jerusalem; maybe some of them had been tailing Jesus since Galilee. This “king” reference makes them nervous. They know that proclaiming a new king is a good way to start a riot and bring in Roman soldiers. It is, in fact, treason, and punishable by death, to assert any king other than the ones in power.
They complain to Jesus. Maybe they are even, as fellow Jews, warning him, about this. He should get his supporters to stop with the “king” language, which could get them all killed.
But Jesus doesn’t stop them. In fact, he says that if his disciples were silent, the very stones would cry out. He might mean that the rocks would burst into song… or he could be saying that it is better for them to sing, because if they don’t sing, some might make the rocks “sing” by throwing them.
This is the last we hear of the Pharisees in this gospel. For all their arguments and frustration with Jesus, they are apparently not part of the Temple establishment that engineers Jesus death.
Jesus knows what he is about at this point, and getting on the bad side of the authorities is part of his plan. When his disciples call him a king, Jesus intends that this provoke a reaction from the authorities.
So, while everyone else is singing, chanting, or yelling, mostly in celebration of the coming Passover and of Jesus, Jesus himself starts to… cry! He cries in bitter grief because he has a vision of the city’s future, and it isn’t pleasant. In fact, he perceives that history will repeat itself. Remembering passages from the prophets depicting the siege and destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians almost 600 years earlier, Jesus sees that this is about to happen again.
“The days will come upon you,” he mourns, talking to the walls of the city looming before him, “when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another.” This is what happened when the Babylonians conquered the city, and it happens again about 40 years after Jesus says this, when the Romans lay siege to Jerusalem and completely demolish it.
When this happens, Jesus’ disciples remember that Jesus predicted it. The Romans will destroy all but 2 of Judaism’s many sects, and those are the two represented in this story: the Pharisees, who were the forebears of the Judaism we know today, and the followers of Jesus the Messiah, who were eventually called Christians.
Jesus says that this destruction happens because the city does not recognize “on this day” the things that make for peace. In other words, it does not recognize him.
“Peace” is mentioned 12 times in Luke, at very significant places. It is clear that establishing God’s shalom is an important aspect of Jesus’ ministry. More than the absence of warfare or violence, peace is a comprehensive regime of justice, righteousness, wholeness, inclusion, and well-being, extending through society and creation.
Jesus comes in humility and gentleness, preceded by his reputation as a healer, exorcist, teacher, preacher, and community organizer. He comes to fulfill the Torah and the prophets. He comes to demonstrate God’s true nature as love, which he will do when he gives his life as a sacrifice, reconciling creation to the Creator, and creatures to each other.
Because we do not recognize this visitation, because we don’t comprehend that God is love, we remain mired in our blindness and sin, and draw down the destructive consequences of our disobedience upon ourselves.
When he passes through the archway and into the crowded city, Jesus proceeds straight to the Temple. There he consciously acts out the prophecy of Malachi about purifying Temple worship. He, in the only real display of anger and violence in his whole career, physically drives out the commercial elements, the merchants, the bankers, from the Temple.
The Lord famously has no patience with an economic regime that is stacked against the poor. And “the poor” was almost everybody except a tiny very wealthy minority. What patience he does have is exhausted when he sees ordinary Israelites being exploited when they come to worship God.
The Torah is intended by God to foster economic equality; but here, it is twisted into yet another way for the rich to soak everyone else. On top of low wages, high taxes, high prices and rents, and high interest rates, all of which basically mean that working people are all but slaves of the elite, Jesus is enraged to find that this extractive system infects even the place where God is worshiped.
In chapter 16 Jesus pronounces that people cannot serve both God and wealth, that these two are so diametrically opposed that we may only serve one or the other. To serve either one is to categorically reject the other. Earlier in chapter 19 we see Jesus defining “salvation” as when Zacchaeus gets out of an exploitative, market-based business, and makes amends and restitution for what he had done.
For Jesus, having this market in the Temple itself, is a contradiction and an abomination. To serve God is to obey God, not the rules of the market or commerce, which are always stacked against the poor and always exacerbate inequality.
The Temple was the center of the Jerusalem economy. It was a magnificent structure that attracted tourists from all over the Empire. And all Jews were supposed to worship there three times a year. The trade in sacrificial animals and in exchanging currency was huge. Worship had become a big, and gory, business.
Merchants were making a profit off of people’s sacrifices. And Jesus wants no part of it. Serving God apparently means rejecting the market, or at least the market’s invasion into the people’s spiritual life. So he commits the one overt act that may have been the thing that finally got him arrested and executed.
About 20 years earlier, Jesus was also in the Temple at Passover. He was 12 years old. His parents found him listening to the teachers and asking them questions. Now, he is the teacher. And the people who hear him, most of them, listen intently and breathlessly to what they are hearing.
It is “the chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people” whom Jesus has now offended, having threatened their cash cow, and done so during the dangerous time of Passover. They start seeking a way to kill him. In less than a week, Jesus will be dead.
That is the week we now commemorate. During these days, try to cultivate a beginner’s mind; try to set aside everything we think we know and let the Word come to us afresh. Like that young donkey, listen and be ready to be led to do something new. Be ready to carry that Word into the city, in the face of hostile powers, for the sake of love.
And let us examine our self, our body, which is a Temple; and not just our physical body but also the body of disciples of which we are a part, this somewhat larger Temple, where God dwells… and drive out the mercenary, selfish, profit-seeking, corrupting spirit that may have invaded and set up shop. Remembering Psalm 119:36, “Turn my heart to your decrees and not to selfish gain.” Remembering that it is not what we get, and keep for ourselves that is important in this life, but what we allow to flow through us from God into the world that makes all the difference.
This week we remember and celebrate how God’s life and love flowed into our world in the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. May God bless all of us as we journey through these days.