Scripture: Luke 19:28-40
After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, "Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, 'Why are you untying it?' just say this, 'The Lord needs it.'" So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, "Why are you untying the colt?" They said, "The Lord needs it." Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!" Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, order your disciples to stop." He answered, "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out."
Sermon - Occupying Jerusalem
Do you wonder when you hear this story how Jesus knew there would be a colt tied up, just waiting for his disciples to come get it? Sometimes I do. I’ve thought that maybe it was a plan, set up by Jesus and the owner of the donkeys for the benefit of the disciples. Or maybe Jesus knew that colt would be there, or was it just a really, really good guess. My personal understanding of who Jesus was as a human being is that he was just like the rest of us. After all, if he wasn’t, how could he possibly identify with humans? As a matter of fact, how could we ever expect to become like him if he was anything more that a human being when he walked the byways of the Galilee?
So, I don’t think he knew ahead of time that the colt would be there – at least, not supernaturally. Though he might have had a touch of what my Scots ancestors called “the second sight,” that is, an intuition that there would be a young donkey tied up. I think it’s more likely that he had an arrangement with the donkey’s owner, or that it was a really, really good educated guess because after all, it was spring, and there was likely to be at least one young donkey tied up in a yard, don’t you think? Of course, it really doesn’t matter how he knew – but it certainly seems that he did know, since it’s reported that the disciples found just such a colt and untied it, as Jesus asked. All those questions ae interesting, but I think there is a more important question to be asked. That is, why the donkey?
You see, the donkey is one of the most important characters in the story. Of course, Jesus is the central character, and because he chose the donkey, this little animal becomes the center of our attention. Why did he choose it? Why didn’t Jesus have them get a horse? Surely there were horses tied up in yards. Another good question might be, why did Jesus need to ride any animal? After all, he had walked everywhere else he went over the three years of his ministry, hadn’t he? I suspect that Jesus never did anything without a good reason. He had something important to say, and the little donkey was a brilliant choice for making his point.
Inside your bulletin, you will find some symbols. Take a moment to see if you know what they mean. Write it down if you’d like. I’ll give you a few moments to do that.
(GIVE THEM A FEW MINUTES)
Now, let’s look at them together.
(HOLD UP LARGE COPY ONE AT A TIME) What does this symbol mean? And this one? (GO THROUGH ALL…CROSS LAST)
See how recognizable these symbols were? Well, in Jesus’ time, the donkey was just about as recognizable to the Hebrew people. Hundreds of years before, the prophet Zechariah had spoken these words: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Jesus knew when he chose to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey that those who saw his entrance would know the reference. By arriving in Jerusalem as the humble King, Jesus set himself up in direct opposition of the political power of his day. He wanted to draw attention to what he felt was the immoral behavior of the political and religious leadership.
The political leadership would have been King of Judea, Herod, who was appointed by the Romans. As you know, the Romans were an oppressive power over the Hebrew people. This Herod had ordered the death of John the Baptizer, because John spoke freely and loudly against the King’s illicit marriage to his wife Herodius, who had been the king’s brother’s wife. This King who lived such a wanton life was also the one who enforced the huge taxes that were demanded of the Hebrew people. The Jews of this time also lived in what writer Kurt Willems calls a “Temple-state,” and were required to pay heavy tithes and sacrifices to the temple. According to Richard Horsely, author of a book called “Jesus and Empire,” the requirement to pay the tributes to Rome, taxes to Herod AND the tithes and offering to the temple created economic distress on Hebrew people. After years of struggling under these demands, families were going into debt and many were on the verge of losing their land.
Do you remember the “Occupy” movement that began in 2011? It began with “Occupy Wall Street,” with hundreds of people protesting in Zuccotti Park in New York City. The protesters gathered to speak out against the corporate culture that set what they call the 99 percent up for economic failure. The top one percent – that is, the very rich leaders of the corporate class – controlled most of the money at the expense of the majority of the people. Members of the Occupy movement would soon declare that they were “Occupying” cities all over the world. In fact, my family and I spent some time “Occupying Phoenix” on that first weekend. There is a picture of us on the back of the bulletin.
I would like to suggest that Jesus went into Jerusalem on that day to “Occupy Jerusalem.”
When Jesus rode into the city on the back of a small donkey, he was making a statement. He led a large group of his followers to fill the streets of this city that represents both the leadership of secular society and the leadership of the “Temple-state.” Instead of the handwritten signs and rhyming chants of today’s Occupiers, Jesus’ disciples waved palms and shouted “Hosannah!” Thus, they drew attention to their presence and their purpose.
Jesus was a rabble rouser and a freedom fighter. He dared to model radical love for his people. He performed miracles; he served the poor, he healed the sick, he taught women, men and youth alike. He loved the children and he spent time alone with God. He spoke out against tyranny and oppression of all kinds, and he turned over the moneychangers’ table at the temple. In the end, he died for the Truth. In his living and in his death, Jesus provided the highest example of living an honest life that has ever existed.
When Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem, they had no choice but to stay there until they were counted for the census imposed by the emperor. Just like Jerusalem, that city was under the control of the Roman army. The Hebrew people were forced to gather in the streets to meet the demands of an empire. Jesus was born there, among the displaced people of Israel. He grew up understanding that whatever peace they had in their lives was at the expense of the people. He grew up to stand up for those who were bent under the burden of governmental control and the demands of the rich. And now, about a week before he died, Jesus led his disciples into Jerusalem. He was accompanied by a large group of those who heard what he had to say and had seen him perform miracles. They had learned that it is truly possible to love your neighbor, even the tax collector and the Samaritan.
Jesus came into Jerusalem that day, sitting on a donkey as if he was parodying the passage of a great king; the people tossed their cloaks on the ground, shouting, rejoicing, and drawing attention to themselves…and to Jesus. The crowd that Jesus led into Jerusalem that day Occupied that city from the day they entered until after his death. Then, they dispersed into smaller groups; they feared for their lives, and some even denied knowing him.
But on that day that they arrived, the very people who had once been forced to Occupy Bethlehem chose to Occupy Jerusalem. Jesus entered into the city with others rejoicing, but this is a somber time for him. Life is like that – we rejoice in the wonders of creation and God’s love, the great events in our lives, even as we walk in the sadness of loss of loved ones, jobs, homes, and the struggles of daily life. The Buddhists say that all life is Dukkha, or suffering, and they are right. But Dukkha also means impermanence. All things will pass – not only the joys, but also the sadness. The writer of the Hebrew book of Ecclesiastes says it differently. “ To everything there is a season.” We know there is hope and joy even in suffering. The joy comes in knowing that if we do right, even in the midst of our suffering, the world becomes a better place. Jesus is the greatest example of the kind of life that is aware of Dukkha, but continues to do what is right, even when it leads to suffering or even an early death.
Life will not always be the sunshine and daffodils we will be celebrating on Easter. It may more often be disappointing and a little frightening. John R. Mabry wrote that “Rosa Parks is an imitator of Christ, not because she suffered for taking her stand (or keeping her seat, in her case), but because she had the courage to believe in her own dignity and fought for it in spite of the conflict that resulted. Nelson Mandela is an imitator of Christ, not because he suffered in prison, but because he held out for peace and justice, and led a nation to resurrection. In each case it is not the suffering that is redemptive, but the courage to pursue justice in the face of pain and evil.”
Yet, we are called to serve one another. We are called to imitate Christ. We are called, like Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela, to hold out for peace and justice, for hope and love, and for the kind of world that Jesus showed us is possible. We are called to do all we can to help the 99 percent rise from the mire of economic quicksand. I know of a number of Occupiers who have dedicated their lives to speaking on behalf of the poor, of those who have been treated unjustly, and those who have suffered violence at the hands of others. They attend hearings, protest at rallies, and set up camp in public places to keep the authorities aware of their presence. Many of us can’t or don’t want to spend our days and nights living in tents in city parks or being arrested in order to make a point, so we work in different ways. We write articles speaking out against violence, we connect people through our own network on the internet and in the real world, and we pray that the Holy Spirit will lead the movement in the direction that will do the best good for the greatest number of people.
As we enter into Holy Week, we look forward to our hope in the Resurrection. Even so, we must remember that as followers of the Way of Christ, we are called to live what is right, wherever we are called to live.