Palm Sunday: God on a Donkey, Herod on a Warhorse
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Palm Sunday, Year C
The Very Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Dean & Rector
When we ponder Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, it’s important to remember another kind of parade that happened on the other side of town: Herod’s entrance from his headquarters in Caesarea Philippi. That entrance is what you would expect from someone of Herod’s ranks and status. He enters on a warhorse with banners. Phalanxes of soldiers march in lock-step with their helmets, shields, and spear tips glinting in the sun, swords buckled to their belts. Herod comes in the name of Caesar, in the name of Roman Imperial power. High above the fray on his warhorse, flanked by chariots, Herod peers down on his subjects who know that if they don’t bend the knee, trouble is certainly coming.
Now recall for yourselves, a very different kind of entrance that we just recapitulated at the start of the liturgy. In place of banners and trumpets, the crowd around Jesus waves palm branches plucked from roadside trees. The red carpet is a bunch of coats tossed hastily on road. The one whom they hail with their “Hosannas” comes not in the name of Caesar, not in the name of imperial, top-down power, but in the name of love, forgiveness, peace: in the name of God. The one whom they hail is not seated on a warhorse, surrounded by soldiers and chariots, but is riding on a donkey followed by a ragtag group of followers who look a little tired, hungry, and worn-out from their peregrinations all over Galilee.
Two processions. Two different ways of being in the world. Herod seated on a warhorse coming in the name of Caesar, and Jesus seated on a donkey coming in the name of love, coming as love itself in human form. In a way, that little detail—God on a donkey—says it all and sets the stage for the events that will unfold in Holy Week. It’s the perfect image for how God in Christ through the Holy Spirit operates in the world. When we go low, God goes lower, humbles Himself taking the form of servant and is obedient even to the point of death on the cross. Jesus comes not to be served, but to serve. He calls us not subjects, but friends. He heals the sick, breaks bread with sinners and outcasts, proclaims good news to the poor in order that the whole world might come within the reach of his saving embrace.
This king doesn’t store up power and privilege or hanker after reputation and accolades. This king doesn’t keep people in line at the point of a spear or by throwing his weight around. This king pours himself out for others. He runs out to meet us while we are still far off. He feeds us with himself that we might be in him and he in us. He ties a towel around his waist and stoops down to wash the feet of his disciples. This king wastes himself on us, meets us exactly where we are, becomes sin so that we might be freed from sin, gets down in the muck in order to lift us high. This king becomes a donkey for us to ride into the Jerusalem of his coming Kingdom—the feast of divine love with no one left outside its walls, no one whose name is not known, no one going hungry.
Herod on a warhorse and God on a donkey. Those are emblems of two different ways of gathering people together. Herod gathers people through fear, through threat of violence and in Jesus’ case by turning him in a scapegoat whose obliteration and erasure will secure a temporary peace by means of sacrificial violence heaped on back of an innocent victim. Herod, the way of the fox, gathers by force, by top-down imposition of power. This way of gathering is really no kind of gathering at all. It scatters. It fragments. It isolates in loneliness and fear. It keeps people turned in on themselves, forgetful of the needs of others, deaf to their cries.
Jesus, recall gathers like the mother hen. Jesus is radical welcome and indiscriminate hospitality. There is no one outside the reach of his saving embrace. Jesus comes on a donkey to show a new way to be, a new mode of being human: how to be fully human. Jesus comes on a donkey to the gates of the city, to the gates of the heart, to show us that scapegoating, casting out, the creation of boundaries between who is in and who is out only keeps us trapped in cycle of violence and thirsting for peace. Jesus comes to the gate riding on a donkey with his motely crew to announce a new way of being human—it’s a do-over. Human Being 2.0. Jesus is trying to save us from our addiction to violence and show us what it means to be fully human.
Acclaimed biblical scholar Walter Wink in his memoir Just Jesus: My Struggle to Become Human puts it this way:
And this is the revelation: God is HUMAN … It is the great error of humanity to believe that it is human. We are only fragmentarily human, fleetingly human, brokenly human. We see glimpses of our humanness, we can only dream of what a more human existence and political order would be like, but we have not yet arrived at true humanness. Only God is human, and we are made in God’s image and likeness — which is to say, we are capable of becoming human (102).
That is the dream, the invitation, the outstretched hand to us. God desire is for us to become fully human as Jesus is fully human. To journey from image to likeness, to become more and more like he is that our lives might reflect his love for all peoples and all of creation.
The trouble, of course, is that God on a donkey, the way of love, forgiveness, and welcoming the stranger is counter to how we’ve done things for millennia. Human beings are well-practiced at scapegoating others, expelling them from our community, casting out, and accusing. We secure a temporary peace and breathe a sigh of relief at having got rid of those troublemakers without whom we presume life will be so much better. “It is better for one man to die for the people than for the whole nation to be destroyed,” Caiaphas, the Chief Priest, tells the crowd—a clear, unvarnished statement of entrapment in the belief that sacrificial violence heaped on the backs of innocent victims brings peace.
But it doesn’t. Sooner or later (usually sooner than later), we identify another group, another person, another political foe whose existence troubles the settled order of things. So we accuse, cast out, expel, and erase in an endless cycle of violence. Jesus at the gates and Jesus going to the cross is revealing to us a different order of things, a new way of gathering—not around sacrificial victims—but in peace, in love, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Jesus shows us the cost of our addiction to scapegoating violence—it hangs God himself on a cross—and proclaims, “No more of this!”
The two prayers that Jesus offers on his way to and through to cross mark out the path for the new people, the new community, the new humanity God is trying to create in and through us. Crucified between two criminals Jesus responds not with anger, hatred, or displays of power, but with a compassion and forgiveness—“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” That’s what it means to entrapped in the cycle of violence—we don’t even know we are doing it most of the time. The way out, our salvation, is to walk the costly path of forgiveness, so that there is no over-against in our hearts. The second prayer is at the moment of Jesus’ death—“Into your hands I commend my spirit.” The new people, the community, the new humanity are a people of forgiveness, but also a people of letting go, release, surrender to God. They are called to be a people who open, who receive, who yield to love, who make a little space for God to be God in and for them that they might be that love for others—bread to feed, water to wash, oil to heal, and wine to slake the thirst of the parched.
That new community is enacted at the foot of the cross where Jesus’ proclamation of no more scapegoats, no more of this, is made manifest. The “acquaintances including the women who had followed him from Galilee standing at a distance watching these things,” is the first church. And that’s us as well. May Jesus’ “no more of this!” be our no more of this. May we be a people of peace, a people of forgiveness, a people whose eyes are opened to God’s preferred mode of transport—donkeys not warhorses, palm leaves not banners, bread and wine not spears and swords.