Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Man on the Donkey

Palm Sunday 2018

Readings: Mark 11:1-11; Mark 15.

It would surely be true to say that all periods in history have their troubles and there is no reason to assume that our time should be any different but … and so much ‘hangs’ on that ‘but’!  But ours is the age of Facebook!  Now we have heard of Cambridge Analytics and we have learned of how personal information and opinions of millions has been procured and used to produce algorithms that will in turn influence an election in the United States and maybe the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom.   A new populism has emerged and we see it played out via Twitter; we try to make sense of it, but it is as if the climate has changed.  The tweets are targeted; a new culture spawns, is managed and feeds on its own toxins.  The modern mob is managed by algorithms and smart phones.

So, what about Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday?   Each of the gospels tells the story with different nuances. 

It could be argued that Jesus knew how to work the crowd; how to make an impact.  Think of the timing –to enter Jerusalem in the wake of raising Lazarus!  And then ride in on a donkey – the mode of transport in the OT (Zechariah) for the Messianic King to enter Jerusalem: that might be argued as ‘staging’.  Is there a kind of management and set up here?

No. In Mark’s telling of the story the mob is rather a motley group of his followers and not the whole city (as in John); and there are certainly no delegates to welcome him.  In Mark’s account, certainly Jesus enters on a donkey, but Jesus is silent; he makes no statements or declarations.  Instead there is the enigmatic silence of the man on the donkey, who makes his way through the crowd even as they acclaim him as king.

There is a hefty irony in Jesus’ silence: the crowd are wrong in their expectation that Jesus will restore the fortunes of Jerusalem, but right in their hope that Jesus is the promised Messiah.  He is more of a King than their words can say but his kingdom is different and more than they might dare to imagine.

We see Jesus enter the temple, look it over, and then go off to Bethany with his friends. It is a quiet poignant ending to his entry.  One can imagine Jesus looking over the temple: it represents his whole purpose: might this be a moment when he reconsiders what is about to do?  A moment when he could change course? That was not to be.

This is a day of two gospels.  We have the Gospel of the Palms to remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and then we have the gospel of the Passion which rehearses the story of Jesus’ sham trial, humiliation, crucifixion, death and burial.  Of course there is the tension of the contrast between the acclamation's of the ‘Hosannas’ in the one and the ‘crucify him’ in the other.  We rightly take the tension to heart – for we recognise that same tension and latent duplicity in us.  We too can in one breath acclaim him and in another condemn him.  We are not constant in allegiance but prone to self-seeking, to courting favour and approval.

The silence of the man on the donkey is our chance to choose who we follow and who we would become.  There is no management or manipulation or plan to exploit us.  The events of this week and the story of the passion will test and try us.  We are free to choose where we stand.  Is there a sense in our hearts that there is a choice for us to make or for us to renew?  The silence of the man on the donkey speaks to our hearts – he is more than we can or dare imagine – and he is the fulfilment of our deepest longing. Will we, dare we, choose to follow him?

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