Before the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in the year 70, Passover was one of the great pilgrimage festivals that brought together God’s people from near and far. Those who lived in Judea may have made the trip every year; for others it was a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage. They went up to Jerusalem, up to the Temple, to remember how the Lord had brought them out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and had led them to the land of promise.
I like to imagine how in the days leading up to the festival, the roads around the city were full of people, young and old, most of them on foot, some on donkeys – slow-moving traffic, but nevertheless a cheerful throng on the way to a joyous feast. They chattered and laughed, helped each other find the children that got lost in the crowd, shared food and water, ointment for their sore feet – and on the last few miles, when they could already see the city on the hill, they sang the songs of Zion, songs of longing and fulfillment.
Among the crowd were those who knew they would never make this journey again – who knows how many years they had been saving every little copper coin to be able to be in Jerusalem for Passover just once. You know they had tears running down their smiling faces as they climbed up the dusty roads; you know they laughed when they explained, apologizingly, “O everything’s OK, thank you for asking, I’m just so happy to be here.”
The little ones were watching, and while they may not have known all the stories of God’s mighty acts, they learned lessons about God and faith every step of the way. This was the journey of their people with their God.
For Jesus, according to Mark, this was the first and only trip to Jerusalem. He had told his disciples repeatedly what awaited him in the city, but they were unable to hear and grasp what he said when he spoke of rejection, betrayal, torture, and death, let alone resurrection.
James and John heard him talk about his humiliation at the hands of the religious and civil authorities, but all they could think about were seats of honor at Jesus’ right hand and his left. One more time Jesus taught them about servanthood and service as standards for greatness, but who knows if his words ever made it from his lips to their hearts.
Now they were approaching Jerusalem, and something very curious happened.
Jesus sent two of his disciples to go and get him a donkey. His instructions were very clear and detailed: where to go, what kind of colt to look for, to untie it, even what to say should anybody ask them what they were doing and why.
And then everything unfolded just as Jesus had said it would: they went away, found the colt tied near a door, began to untie it; bystanders asked, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” and they told them what Jesus had told them to say, “The Lord needs it and will send it back immediately.”
Now what would you say if a couple of guys showed up in your neighbor’s driveway, opened the door to the car, and looked for the keys behind the visor?
“What are you doing? Can I help you find something?”
I’m sure you would find the answer entirely satisfying, “The Lord needs it and will send it back immediately.”
This is a strange conversation, isn’t it? Perhaps the strangest thing about it is that Jesus has so much to say about where and how to get the little donkey, and then he is silent until the next morning; doesn’t speak a word. They bring the donkey, he sits on it, people spread cloaks and leafy branches on the road, they sing and shout, and Jesus doesn’t say anything. He enters the city, goes to the Temple, looks around, and then he and the disciples go back to Bethany for the night.
“Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem” says the header in our Bible, but the whole scene is a lot less triumphal than what Matthew, Luke and John describe, and more than half of the passage deals with fetching a donkey.
We know Mark knows how to be brief. Mark doesn’t waste any words. Why then is so much attention given to the instructions to the disciples and to the unfolding of the unusual scene in the village?
We like the pageantry and drama of Palm Sunday. We love the palms, the parade, the children singing and the crowds pouring through the city gates to welcome the king. We love it so much, we add a little trumpet to the song, and it sounds almost like Easter.
Mark’s little story is very different, very restrained in comparison. Yes, today we welcome God’s Messiah to the city, and the trumpet and the palms and the shouting are the least we can do. But I believe Mark wants to make sure we remember that we are disciples, and not the royal welcome committee. The curious details about where and how to obtain the donkey are all for our sake.
Jesus taught compassion and service; he spoke of God’s faithfulness in the presence of human rejection, betrayal, torture and condemnation; he told his friends what would happen, but they couldn’t hear it – they were preoccupied arguing about greatness, jockeying for positions of influence and prestige, dreaming of glory.
Had they known about “the triumphal entry” they would have wanted to walk in at Jesus’ right hand and his left, or perhaps ten paces ahead of him manifesting their self-importance and controlling the crowds with serious looks and officious statements.
Jesus sent only two of them, but they went on behalf of all of us. They listened, they did as they were told, and they found everything just as Jesus had said.
Were they surprised at the positive response they received when they said, “The Lord needs it”? No doubt in my mind.
Did they begin to understand that this wasn’t just about a donkey but about all the events of that final week?
Did they begin to trust that everything would occur as foreseen and foretold by Jesus ever since they left Galilee?
Did they begin to grasp that rejection and suffering were not the failure of Jesus but the very consequence of Jesus being God’s Messiah?
I don’t know – on Thursday night, all of them deserted him and fled (Mark 14:50). He was alone.
The more important question is, do we understand that we are on the way with the Son of God and that all that happens this week is not just a series of unfortunate events?
The gospel according to Mark begins with the call to prepare the way of the Lord(Mark 1:3), but that preparation does not translate into chairing the messianic party committee or writing choreography for the Son of David cheerleaders.
In Mark, preparation of the Lord’s way translates into “the arrangements people make for the ministry of Jesus” (Joel Markus) – things like finding him a boat and have it ready (Mark 3:9), gathering people in groups for a miraculous meal in the wilderness (Mark 6:39), fetching a donkey for the last leg of his journey to Jerusalem, and getting a room ready for the Passover meal (Mark 14:13-16).
Thomas Long came up with the lovely phrase describing disciples as “donkey fetchers.” What we are asked to do may seem mundane and routine, and on days when the donkey is particularly balky, pushing and dragging it to the Mount of Olives can be utterly exhausting. But our efforts have a place in the redeeming work of Christ.
We may think that a convertible or at least a white horse would be a more appropriate ride for a king, but Jesus knows what he’s doing.
We may think that leading an army of sword-wielding heavenly warriors would be the most promising way of dealing with humanity’s rebellious tendencies and the presence of evil in creation, but Jesus knows where he’s going.
We may think that what we do in response to Christ’s call and obedient to his teachings doesn’t amount to much in the grand scheme of things, but it does: because to be a disciple is to make arrangements for the ministry of Jesus the Messiah.
Mark’s account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem has another intriguing detail. In no other gospel do the songs and shouts end so abruptly. Verse 10 ends, “Hosanna in the highest heaven!” and verse 11 continues, “Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple.”
He is alone and all is quiet. He looks around. He knows where he is going. He knows that before the week is over he will enter the deepest loneliness.
One last word. When Jesus gave instructions to the two disciples for how to respond should anyone ask why they were untying the colt, he told them, “Just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” Mark doesn’t tell us, though, who took back the colt or if it was taken back at all.
I wonder if it stayed. I wonder if the donkey stayed when all others fled. I got the thought from a line in the book of Isaiah, where God declares,
“I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand (Isaiah 1:2-3).”
I wonder if the donkey stayed, a silent witness watching as the love of God for God’s people – Israel, you and me and all the others – went farther than any human being could have ever imagined.
This is the week when we remember that love prevailed against rejection, betrayal, torture, and death. This is the way of Christ. This is the journey of our God with us.