Always on a donkey

Palm Sunday 2023
St Andrew’s Church, Lismore
2 April 2023

Here we are at the beginning of Holy Week, that rare point in the lectionary cycle where we can almost track the action day by day thanks to the time markers embedded in Mark’s account of Jesus’ final days:

  • Sunday – “when they were approaching Jerusalem …” [Mark 11:1]
  • Monday – “on the following day …” [Mark 11:12]
  • Tuesday – “In the morning …” [Mark 11:20]
  • Wednesday – “It was two days before Passover …” [Mark 14:1]
  • Thursday – “On the first day of Unleavened Bread …” [Mark 14:12]
  • Friday – “As soon as it was morning …” [Mark 15:1]
  • Saturday – “When the Sabbath was over …” [Mark 16:1] 
  • Sunday – “Early on the first day of the week …” [Mark 16:2]

Earlier we heard the call to walk the way of the Cross with Jesus during this coming week:

This morning begins the Great Week of the Christian Year.

During Lent we have been preparing
for the celebration of the Lord’s death and resurrection.
With Christians throughout the world
we come together this week to call to mind,
and to express in word and action,
the centre of the Easter mystery:
our Lord’s Passover from death to life.

Christ entered in triumph into the Holy City 
to complete his work as Messiah:
to suffer, to die and to rise to a new life.

Today we commit ourselves to walk the way of the cross,
so that, sharing his sufferings,
we may be united with him in his risen life.

Over these coming days, there will be opportunities for us to gather every single day and reflect on the spiritual wisdom we discern as we share that journey during Jesus’ final days.

It was a special privilege for me to spend the previous Saturday with a group of men from across the Diocese as we read and reflected on the story of Jesus’ final week in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew.

You may want to do that spiritual exercise for yourself this week and, in that case, you are welcome to download the PDF that I prepared for the retreat and which sets those two gospels side by side for easy comparison of how Mark first told the story and how Matthew later edited Mark’s account to give us the version found in the Gospel according to Matthew. 

Along the way, you will find as we also did last weekend, that several familiar elements of the story are only found in Luke and others are only found in John. The one story is told four different ways in the New Testament and—like the two different stories of Christmas in the Bible—it is best not to mash them into a single story never found as such in the Bible, but rather appreciate the particular focus and message of each version.

So, there’s your homework for this week, eh?

Palm Sunday

Holy Week begins with the celebration of Palm Sunday.

This a day when the liturgy really does speak for itself, and there really is no need for a sermon.

But you are not getting off that lightly!

Let me offer a brief reflection on the details in that story, where Jesus rides into town on a donkey.

It is a simple but important piece of wisdom.

Donkeys then and now in Palestine are like the small Massey-Ferguson tractors from the 1950s. 

These are often described as “work horses” but are better described as mechanical donkeys. Had they been around Jerusalem in the first century, I am sure that is what Jesus would have ridden into the city.

Here is the point for you to ponder this week: powerful people did not ride donkeys.

And they still do not.

When Pontius Pilate rode into Jerusalem at some stage during that same week, he would not have been sitting on a donkey. He would have been mounted on a horse and accompanied by a detachment of armed soldiers in gleaming armour.

The contrast was obvious.

The serving of spiritual wisdom for us today is also clear.

The church is always at her best when she rides a donkey rather than a horse.

When we seek power and influence, we tend to lose our spiritual integrity. Perhaps it is because once we have power and privilege, we are loathe to relinquish it.

Christians in general and Anglicans in particular, have been cutting a deal with the powers that be for a long time. It began with Constantine around 300 years after the death of Jesus. It has continued in various countries and political systems ever since. 

Our own connection with power is literally carved in stone at the bottom of the hill: Church of England. But perhaps our location on the high point inside the government quarter from the 1800s says it most vividly. Not to mention the Warrior’s Chapel with the colours and other precious items from the 41st Battalion.

However, we are no longer on the white horse of privilege.

We have been demoted to the donkey.

And that is a good place for us to be.

Religion never flourishes when it has political power.

Christianity is at its best when we are located with and among the little people.

We follow a spiritual master who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and we must never be tempted to mount the horse.

Postscript: For a powerful reflection in the donkey and horse theme, see this piece by my colleague and friend, John Squires

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  1. the donkey thing that interests me is the “colt” that appears in one entry story. It takes about 4 years for donkey’s legs to strengthen up, so it would be unusual to ride one before that. but maybe mr squires knows what it’s all about.

  2. Hi Jane: The reference to a colt is simply part of the original poetic Hebrew in Zechariah. This is well-known pattern In Hebrew poetry, with parallelism and repetition being key elements of the art in that culture.

    What is odd is that Matthew (supposedly the most Jewish of the Evangelists) entirely misunderstands the poetic parallelism and has the disciples bring two animals to Jesus, who rides them both into the city after the crowd throw their cloaks over the two animals.

    For sure Jesus did not perform a most interesting circus act by riding two animals of different size at the same time.

    For me, the most interesting aspect of this little details is that demonstrates that the Gospel of Matthew was not written by anyone with a good knowledge of very basic Hebrew poetry forms, such as we find repeatedly throughout the psalms.


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