Although I’ve never been there to see it myself, my understanding is that there is a road which leads from the Mount of Olives down to the bottom of a hill where the Garden of Gethsemane is located. And just beyond the garden is the wall that surrounds the old city of Jerusalem. Once upon a time and still today, this road marks the same route Jesus took when he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
If you want to walk the Palm Sunday route in 2016, it’s fairly steep with a number of stairs along the way. Or you could take a taxi up to the Mount of Olives. Or at least some years ago, for arguably the most authentic Palm Sunday experience, you could actually ride a donkey down the road. Then again, as you can magine, neither riding in a taxi nor riding atop a donkey is without cost. For taxi drivers and donkey owners, charging the tourist rate is how they make a living.
On the very first Palm Sunday, however, Jesus sent two of his disciples ahead of him on his way to Jerusalem. And when his two disciples arrived at Bethphage and Bethany, Jesus instructed them to “go to the village up there, and you will find the colt of a donkey. Untie it and bring it to me. And if anybody asks, ‘Where are you going with my animal?’ simply say, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’”
This morning’s scripture lesson is a familiar one. The first Palm Sunday was an exciting day. Hundreds of people lined the road of the city. The Passover holiday was fast approaching and there was a buzz in the air. It was the holiest time of the year and Jesus was the person many had gathered to see. Jesus was the rightful ruler of all God’s people who came to redeem the people from the oppression of the Roman Empire. So as he rode into the city the people lining the road hailed him with loud shouts and songs. “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”
Still, all the Palm Sunday worship services I’ve been to and all the Palm Sunday sermons I’ve preached over the years, and I’ve never really paid attention to one simple aspect of the story. Jesus rode into the city gates on top of a donkey. A donkey his disciples had to borrow from someone they did not know. A private jet, a helicopter, a yacht, a chariot, a limousine…those make sense. They’re all rides worthy of a king. But what kind of king would ride into town on a borrowed donkey?
Or is the borrowed donkey on Palm Sunday simply the continuation of a lifelong theme? Jesus was born in a back stable in a place Mary and Joseph borrowed from an innkeeper. Mary gave birth and laid him in a manger, which they had to borrow temporarily from assorted farm animals. As he traveled the Galilean countryside, Jesus never returned to his own home. Because Jesus didn’t own a home of his own, he counted on the hospitality of friends and strangers, borrowing rooms and borrowing food and other essentials to keep him going in ministry along the way.
After Palm Sunday and after he entered the city of Jerusalem, Jesus met with his disciples to share a final meal with them in a borrowed room. After Jesus was tried by Pontius Pilate, beaten by the soldiers and rejected by the crowds, he was crucified on a borrowed cross. Jesus wore a borrowed crown of thorns which his enemies placed upon his head. And according to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus was buried in a borrowed tomb that had been hewn out of the rock.
Among the many identitities of Jesus, among the many names we call him, Jesus was a “borrower.” He never grabbed or tried to claim that which did not belong to him. He never even tried to grasp too tightly to his own God given identity as the Savior of humankind. Time after time Jesus emptied himself. He did not force himself upon those around him. He gave himself away so that others might benefit from his abundant love.
If you’ve ever thought about these things in relation to Jesus, you are one step ahead of me. Jesus didn’t own much in his life. A well-worn pair of sandals. A basic, functional tunic. And even then after Jesus was arrested, the soldiers cast lots to see who would take the little clothing he had…
The trend started early on in his ministry, at the point where Jesus gave specific directives to his disciples. “When you go out to proclaim God’s good news,” Jesus advised them, “take no money, no knapsack, no extra clothes or shoes, not even a walking stick. Take only a word of peace, borrow a bed to sleep in, and tell people that God’s kingdom is coming very close…
At its core, the Good News of God doesn’t need a lot of props and bells and whistles to thrive. The Good News of God needs only people who can preach it and practice it and spread it and nothing more.
What a far cry from the materialistic, consumer-driven, keeping up with the Joneses world in which we live today. None of us is immune to the tendency to want the biggest, newest, fastest, best. There are even churches who buy all kinds of fancy equipment and crank up the volume and flash the lights in order to put on a worship service that looks and sounds and feels a lot like a show.
On the other hand, you have Palm Sunday about a Messiah who rides downhill towards his cross atop a borrowed donkey.
It makes you think for a moment or two about who is really blessed in this world. According to Jesus, the ones who are blessed in the world are the ones who don’t have a whole lot. The ones who are poor in riches and poor in spirit. The ones who are meek and lowly. The ones who are hungry for food and thirsty for justice. The ones who are imprisoned and sick and abandoned.
Blessed are the ones in life who keep a light grip on all that they possess. Blessed are those who know that everything they own and everything they are depends on God’s grace and generosity. Blessed are those who give away what they have in order that others may feel blessed in the same way.
A Benedictine monk was once asked why he kept no other possessions than the clothes he wore on his back. His response? “If your closet is empty, there’s more room for God.” Hmmm.
Meanwhile, how often have you watched someone in your house step over a huge pile of dirty laundry on the floor and pronounce that they have absolutely nothing to wear? Or heard someone else in your house talk about how bored they are when they are surrounded by a shelf full of books while the warm, bright sunshine beckons through the window.
There is a beauty that comes with simplicity. Not owning more than necessary and not needing too much to make it from day to day. People who live simply often pay better attention to the people around them. They don’t have much that distracts them or competes for their time. They tend to make fuller use of their imagination and their creativity and their faithfulness.
Let us not forget, however, what Jesus did possess. He possessed a deep knowledge of God’s word written down in Scripture. The words of the Hebrew ancestors and the prophets guided Jesus in his words and in his steps.
Jesus possessed a profound sensitivity to the needs of the world. He identified the needs of both the poorest and the richest. He understood how people lost their way in life and how forgiveness could put people on the right path again. And he was forever looking for ways to heal those who were broken in mind and body and spirit.
More than anything else, Jesus possessed a deep and abiding love for every single person. In fact, Jesus loved people so much that he gave everything he could. He humbled himself. He poured himself out. And he gave his own life to demonstrate that his love knew no bounds.
The kind of king who rode on a borrowed donkey into the city of Jerusalem was a king who found power by giving his power away. The kind of king who rode a borrowed donkey into the heart of a city that would ultimately reject him. The kind of king who gave his entire self in order to save those who called on his name. And to save even those who did not.
On this Palm Sunday in the year 2016, God keeps on doing God’s saving work. Working to set us free from that which distracts us and weighs us down and keeps us focused on our needs. And claiming us as disciples of Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, who owned very little and borrowed whatever he needed, but who wishes to possess our whole hearts and our whole spirit in the end.
Keep it simple then during this Holy Week. And let God set you free so that you can feel the love of Jesus Christ with all your heart and soul and mind and strength. Amen.