For the 2018 Lenten Journey, I am excited to once again be creatively collaborating with Little Britain United Church. Each worship service and blog will be informed by a resource created by Matthew L. Kelly, who is currently in ministry at Christ United Methodist Church in Franklin, Tennessee, USA. I pray that this “Giving It Up” Lenten Journey proves of interest and nurtures the gift of this ongoing conversation with you seekers and readers, who continue to graciously extend trust by engaging with A Deacon’s Musing blog.
The Royal Welcome
21 1-3 When they neared Jerusalem, having arrived at Bethphage on Mount Olives, Jesus sent two disciples with these instructions: “Go over to the village across from you. You’ll find a donkey tethered there, her colt with her. Untie her and bring them to me. If anyone asks what you’re doing, say, ‘The Master needs them!’ He will send them with you.”
4-5 This is the full story of what was sketched earlier by the prophet:
Tell Zion’s daughter,
“Look, your king’s on his way,
poised and ready, mounted
On a donkey, on a colt,
foal of a pack animal.”
6-9 The disciples went and did exactly what Jesus told them to do. They led the donkey and colt out, laid some of their clothes on them, and Jesus mounted. Nearly all the people in the crowd threw their garments down on the road, giving him a royal welcome. Others cut branches from the trees and threw them down as a welcome mat. Crowds went ahead and crowds followed, all of them calling out, “Hosanna to David’s son!” “Blessed is he who comes in God’s name!” “Hosanna in highest heaven!”
10 As he made his entrance into Jerusalem, the whole city was shaken. Unnerved, people were asking, “What’s going on here? Who is this?”
11 The parade crowd answered, “This is the prophet Jesus, the one from Nazareth in Galilee.”
I do not think I am alone in this, and a quick Google search seems to lend some credence to my assumption that the word “popularity” conjures images of high school. For all the learning and challenges that we might have experienced during that formative time or are experiencing now, apparently, our memory of that time is never far away! Connecting this week’s musing, therefore, has been … interesting.
The Matthew passage, on its surface, is about pageantry and celebration. Popularity and success. It has, unfortunately, sometimes been presented this way within some Christian traditions. It has especially been used in the context of prosperity theology to provide a particular lens that I find uncomfortable. It has been used in a way that, when I dig deeper into this passage, does not bear well to analysis.
In fact, whether one looks at the passage from a colonial-settler or prosperity theology perspective, this specific passage reflects significant challenge. In fact, and I do not use this simply to be provocative, this scene demonstrates the foolishness of Jesus’ ministry, perhaps even Jesus himself. If this passage is supposed to reflect some highpoint of Christian popularity, it quickly falls apart when we consider that:
- Jesus’ arrival on a colt and donkey is an inaccurate translation of the prophecy that is being used to highlight his ministry as he enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday;
- Regardless of the confusion with the Jewish poetic form that the Matthew text misunderstands, the image is of Jesus riding (at the same time) on both a colt and a donkey;
- If the intention was to reflect the popularity of Jesus as a messiah, often framed as being contextually understood as a warrior, the donkey/colt reference is (almost) comical. The donkey (as a symbol of peace) stands in juxtaposition to the Roman idea of a warrior king arriving, at the very least, on a war horse and with a retinue of soldiers;
- There are also some interpretations that highlight that Jesus sends two disciples to find two pack animals, and if they were caught taking the animals, the disciples are to say the animals will be returned: in other words they are, at the least “borrowing” and more pointedly stealing them!
- The crowd’s response–shaken and unnerved–stands in contrast to the historic framing of popularity. This unnerved crowd, a week later, would be those who would advocate for Jesus’ execution.
Perhaps irreverent, but reading these four points, I am certain that there’s a Monty Python skit in this foolish portrayal of popularity. Popularity, in its base and crass manifestation, seems to pale in the multiple ways that this text critiques power and prestige. It takes the image of a solitary supreme leader – the Roman Emperor – and with a flurry topples it. We, indeed, know where this passage leads, and it is the central paradox of the Christian faith: resurrection. Choices that lead to transformation and change, suffering and pain, remain exactly that: choice.
So, perhaps, if we are to challenge or let go of this simple, perhaps superficial, idea of popularity, this passage holds another insight. What if we return to those stealing disciples? What if we anticipate the end of the story and the execution that we know is coming?
The reality is we would not be having this conversation if those who were left behind, the community of believers and disciples, had not continued: but how? In the ongoing foolishness of the passage, let me suggest the following …
The video below, about popularity at work, is part of a Time magazine article that explores the work of Mitch Prinstein. This crass popularity that we have discussed – which the article describes as adolescent – is not conducive to our well being as we journey. But popularity, to nurture a community, to embolden and fortify its members, is clearly something we look for, maybe even more succinctly, that we need.
The Jesus community, which entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, knew very well the power of their ministry to critique the injustices it witnessed. We know there was fear, but millennia later, we are still exploring this ministry because its potency lies not in the crassness often used to silence it, but the foolish promise of liberation for everyone when we care and hold up one another. When we curate confidence in one another, while endeavouring to let go of the trappings of ego, we begin to see in one another, in ourselves, a light that beckons to others in shadowed places. Perhaps, after all, being popular is Good News?