When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they 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. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
– Mark 11:1-11
I have to admit, I’m not a huge fan of poetry. It’s my own fault, I’m sure; I suppose I just haven’t been exposed to enough of it. A lot of what poetry I have seen seems to be either as sappy and simplistic as the rhyme in a budget-priced birthday card; or some long, rambling free-form thing that doesn’t sound very poetic and doesn’t really convey anything other than making you wonder if the writer had been smoking peyote when they wrote it. Let’s face it; even poetry lovers will admit there’s a lot of bad poetry out there.
One poem that’s always stuck with me, though, is one by Ralph Waldo Emerson called “Hamatreya.” It talks about how generations of people have come and gone, and each one has parceled up the land, and bought and sold it, and put their names on it, and held it, and took pride in saying that the land was theirs and that they had control over it and that it yielded itself to them. Emerson writes about these people, calling them
Earth-proud, proud of the earth which is not theirs;
Who steer the plough but cannot steer their feet
clear of the grave.
A little further on, there’s actually a kind of poem within a poem, called “Earth-Song,” where the Earth itself responds to the pridefulness of these people who claimed to be in control of things. The Earth says,
Mine and yours;
Mine, not yours.
Stars abide –
shine down on the old sea;
Old are the shores;
But where are the old men?
I who have seen much,
Such I have never seen….
… They called me theirs,
Who so controlled me;
Yet every one
Wished to stay, and is gone.
How am I theirs,
I they cannot hold me,
But I hold them?
The Earth’s, or Emerson’s, ironic point about the Earth ultimately having the last word, the word of the grave, regarding the pride, power, and control of things is a sharp stick poked in the eye of the way people understood the world and their importance in it, in his time and in our own.
In today’s gospel text, Jesus is very much using that same sharp stick to poke the supposed powers that be, and for a similar reason. Of course, this is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, when we remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem in the days leading up to his arrest. Sometimes we call it the “Triumphal Entry,” and in a broad, counterintuitive way I suppose it was that, but to have been there, to have experienced it as it happened, it would have seemed like anything but triumphal. The oddness of it would have seemed like a joke. Or, the more you thought about it, not a joke at all, but that sharp stick in the eye of those in positions of power.
The people in Jesus’ time were very familiar with the impressive way kings or generals or other powerful people arrived in a parade. Full of official pomp and circumstance, with banners, bands, military escort, wailing sirens, riding on big, strong, armored war horses; black SUVs full of Secret Service agents more heavily armed than some small island nations. And out ahead of them were the crowds – clapping, cheering, holding up signs and waving their hoodies in the air over their heads. That was how a VIP came to town.
Jesus certainly had the crowds. But he didn’t bring any of that other baggage with him as he entered Jerusalem, and a big portion of that was by design.
Many of the most memorable and transformative events we experience look spontaneous, when in reality they were very carefully thought out and orchestrated. Whether it’s something as simple and harmless as a flash mob orchestra showing up one person at a time on the plaza until they’re all there belting out a rousing version of Ode to Joy, or something more serious, like Occupy Wall Street, or an ACT UP protest, or a lunch counter sit-in or selecting Rosa Parks to be the person who refuses to give up her seat, all of these things were very carefully thought out to maximize their impact. And in this gospel story, Jesus does the exact same thing. He and his disciples have been wandering all over Judea and Samaria and Galilee and beyond for several years, and apparently doing pretty much all of it on foot. Now, all of a sudden, Jesus needs some four-footed transportation to get to Jerusalem – a distance that’s about as far away from Bethany as the high school is from us. It was a walk he’d normally have made without thinking about, or even breaking a sweat.
And the writer of this gospel spends a lot of time on Jesus’ instructions about how and where to get it, and what kind to get. In fact, there’s far more detail about that than Jesus’ actual arrival into Jerusalem, which he treats almost as an afterthought. There really does seem to be something important about this little colt.
It seems like Jesus is using it to make a carefully calculated statement. When he rides into town on this weak little animal, it isn’t like the other VIPs from the Roman Empire, who are oppressing the people. This is his way of poking a stick in their eye, tweaking their noses, making fun of them. He’s telling them that real power, and control, and authority, don’t need all those outward trappings. The real King doesn’t need the security detail and all those other things. In this bit of street theater, Jesus is saying there’s only one real King, and it isn’t Caesar.
It’s a very radical, revolutionary statement that Jesus is making here, mocking the Roman occupiers. It’s a very political statement. It’s most likely what got him killed. And the statement that he’s making is that those people who would claim to be in control, and to have power over them, are wrong. They aren’t the power that people should give their loyalty to, and any power that those people use to put them down or oppress them is illegitimate.
A large part of Jesus’ entire earthly ministry revolved around teaching that God’s love, and God’s kingdom, radically contradicts the message coming from all earthly powers and systems that would unjustly try to control or diminish us. The kingdom of God frees us from that, and calls us all to grasp onto that great truth of God’s love and acceptance. This is the good news that Christ came to share with us – that you don’t have to accept the judgment of those who would consider you less worthy, less human, because they don’t like the color of your skin, or your age, or your sex, or how good-looking you are or how smart you are or who your parents were or where you went to school or where you live, or anything else. Christ riding into Jerusalem on that little colt says that God considers us good, and precious, and worthy of justice and love – you, me, all of us; all those other would-be powers literally be damned. Emerson had his Earth-Song; I suppose you could call this the Christ-Song. The people cheering out in front of Jesus thought that he was going to change things and set this new reality into motion, and they were right about that as they sang the Christ-Song, even if they didn’t quite understand how. Today, from our perspective, we can all grasp onto that good news for ourselves, too. We can be singing that same song, and cheering, and waving palms in front of Jesus as he comes riding into Jerusalem – or is it Auburn?
Thanks be to God.