A conversion of the imagination

Thousands were on the roads to Jerusalem for Passover, actually hundreds of thousands. Pilgrims converged on the city from all directions, and there must have been sheep everywhere, the closer you got to the temple. More than 250,000 lambs would be slaughtered in the temple for the Passover meal, one for each family or groups of friends who had made the journey together.[1]

During Passover, the population of Jerusalem quadrupled – there were people everywhere! Residents opened their homes to welcome the pilgrims as their guests – some because hospitality was a sacred duty, others because short-term rental provided a little extra income. The city was packed, and those who couldn’t stay in the city, camped in the hills or found lodging in the surrounding villages.

The roads around Jerusalem were full of people men, women, children, most of them on foot, all of them looking forward to the festival, sharing the joy and hope of remembering how the Lord had brought them out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and had led them to the land of promise. It was slow-moving traffic, much slower than 440 during rush hour, but in my imagination I see a cheerful throng, a happy crowd, people talking and laughing, sharing food and water, helping each other find the children that inevitably got lost in the crowd – and on the last few miles, when they could see the city from afar, the temple glistening like snow under the bright spring sun, on the last few miles they sang the songs of Zion, songs of longing and fulfillment.

Jesus and the disciples must have been in the middle of that joyful traffic jam several times that year; they were staying in Bethany, a small village just a couple of miles from the city, on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives. Jesus had told the disciples up in Galilee, long before they began the journey south, what awaited him in Jerusalem – he told them repeatedly, but they were unable to hear or grasp what he said when he spoke of rejection, betrayal, torture, and death, let alone being raised.[2] James and John heard him talk about his humiliation at the hands of the Jewish and Roman authorities, but all they could think about was who would get to sit in the seats of power at Jesus’ right hand and his left. One more time Jesus taught them how greatness was about servanthood, but who knows if his words really sank in.[3]

Now they were approaching Jerusalem, and a very curious sequence of scenes began to unfold. Jesus sent two of his disciples to go and get him a colt. His instructions were very clear and detailed: where to go, what kind of animal to look for, to untie it, even what to say should anybody ask them what they were doing and why. And then everything happened 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 imagine this: a couple of guys show up in your neighbor’s driveway, and you watch as they open the door to the car, and they’re looking for the keys behind the visor what do you say?

“Excuse me. What are you doing? Can I help you find something?”

One of them looks at you over his shoulder and says, “The Lord needs it and will send it back immediately.”

“Oh, the Lord needs it, well, in that case, go ahead and take it.”

Sounds slightly surreal, doesn’t it? But the point is, as surreal as the scene may seem, Jesus told them what would occur, and then it happened exactly as he had said. Jesus knew what lay ahead, he really did, and he made careful preparations for his entry into the city. And he wasn’t the only one.

Every year, in time for Passover, the Roman governor moved his headquarters from Caesarea by the sea to Jerusalem. Passover made the empire very nervous. Large crowds were difficult to control under any circumstance, but add the hopeful memory of Israel’s liberation from Pharaoh’s yoke, and the situation could turn quickly from joyful worship to revolt. So Rome made its presence and power known. The governor, Pontius Pilate, entered the city riding on the biggest horse he could find in his stable. Behind him, elite soldiers on horseback, followed by row after row of foot soldiers. The pilgrims stepped off the road so the long column could pass through. They saw the banners on poles topped with gleaming eagles, they saw helmets and spears reflecting the sunlight; they could hear the beating of drums long before they saw anything, the could hear the clopping of the horses, the rhythmic beat of soldiers’ feet, the clanging of metal against metal.

The parade was designed to impress and intimidate. Rome knew how to project power and quell any outbursts of enthusiasm that might escalate into a governor’s nightmare. The heavy wooden beams that would be used to crucify the most dangerous troublemakers in the name of the Emperor had already been stacked at the governor’s headquarters; Rome was prepared.

On the other side of the city, the disciples brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. It was a red carpet, and the colt was a throne.

It was a parade, a procession, with people in front and behind shouting acclamations, Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! And Jesus didn’t say a word. He didn’t tell them to be quiet, he didn’t correct them like he had done before.

He entered the city, went to the temple, looked around, and then he went back to Bethany with the twelve for the night.

Jesus entered the city like a conqueror, but his parade was nothing like the governor’s imperial procession on the eve of Passover, and his conquest was nothing like the conquests of other rulers. The words of the prophet Zechariah surround this scene with the hope of generations, “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey...”[4] Triumphant and victorious – that’s our kind of king, but look how poor he is: he doesn’t even own a donkey, he had to borrow one for the parade. What kind of king claims the city, the throne, and the kingdom for himself by riding into town on an Uber?

Our own visions of a world made right often have more in common with Pilate’s parade and with imperial dreams of world domination than with the peculiar way of Christ. We get power wrong. And so those of us who wish to follow Jesus on the way celebrate this triumphal entry every year, hoping that this humble savior will convert even our dreams and imaginations.

We call this week ‘holy’ because we enter the mystery of God’s power revealed in the death of Jesus. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” the Apostle Paul urges believers in Philippi. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit … Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”[5]

Such words were rare and foreign in a city like Philippi. The citizens of Philippi cherished their connections to the imperial household, and their privileges as friends of Caesar. Roman culture valued force, competition, and honor-seeking. Humility was not considered a virtue. Roman society, much like ours, was built on the pursuit of status. You move up, and you socialize with the people who can help you move up even higher. You only look around to check out the competition, but you press on, your eyes on the next rung of the ladder, leaving behind those who cannot keep up.

Jesus moves in the opposite direction. Jesus emptied himself, Paul tell us. He humbled himself. He “made himself of no reputation,” as the King James Bible renders the words so beautifully. He reached down, his mind on nothing but the will of God, loving us sinners with a passion and a vulnerability for which we have no words.

We call this week ‘holy’ because the final days of Jesus’ life on earth reveal to us the heart of reality, and it’s not relentless competition in the pursuit of status. It’s God’s relentless love in the pursuit of communion with us.

We call this week ‘holy’ because our humble king died on a cross, and it was to him that God gave the name that is above every name.

We call this week ‘holy’ because in Jesus’ death and resurrection we see love that goes all the way for the life of the world.

Yesterday morning, in downtown Nashville, we had ourselves a parade. Thousands were on the streets, walking from City Hall up to Legislative Plaza and back, marching for our lives, and not just our lives, but our life together. With hundreds of thousands in D.C. and in other cities across the nation we marched for a better vision of our life together. We marched for a common life that isn’t shaped by proud, gun-toting self-assertion, but by care for each other’s well-being.

I can’t speak for all the participants, all the children, women, and men who walked together, laughing, shouting, chatting and chanting, I can’t speak for all of them, but I had Pilate’s parade on my mind, and I knew we were walking in the other procession, the royal procession of Jesus, the humble king of life.


[1] According to Josephus, Jewish Wars 6.9.3.

[2] See Mark 8:31; 9:30-32; 10:32-34

[3] See Mark 10:35-45

[4] Zech 9:9

[5] Phil 2:3-4

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