The image of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, with palms being waved, is an enduring one. It always looks slightly ridiculous for an adult to ride a donkey: the adult looks too big, his or her feet almost touching the ground; and we feel some pity for the donkey and its back.
It is of course in the Jesus story a parody. A conqueror, a Roman adorned in armour, would lead his troops from atop a powerful stallion. This conqueror would symbolize power, the power of the sword and control via the threat and reality of violence. The donkey, and the one who sat upon it, symbolized a different type of power, the power of little things like love, the very opposite of violence.
And in our Passion Play the adoring palm-waving crowds would be disappointed in this weak power of Jesus. When the power of the sword, vocalized by Pilate, asks this same crowd what they’d like him to do with Jesus, they holler back: “Crucify him!” The support of the crowd is a fickle thing. When weakness isn’t understood, doesn’t get ‘results’, sympathy quickly shifts.
It’s important to remember that this is a play. It’s a staged interpretation that formed the basis for early liturgy. Historically, yes Jesus was crucified. Which tells us the Romans killed him; which, in turn, tells us that Jesus was seen as a threat to the Romans. And yes Pilate was the Prefect of the Roman Province of Judea at the time. But most of the Passion Play has little to do with history and a lot to do with creating an understanding of Jesus. The riding on a donkey episode, for example, is better understood as taking a text from Zechariah 9:9 (Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey) and creating a new story around it.
The Joy Cowley psalm that we heard this morning of Jesus the Bikie is likewise an interpretation. Rather than Jesus the humble leader, the parody of Roman power, Cowley interprets Jesus as an outsider, who attracts disciples of the same ilk. Jesus the outsider upsets our expectations of what a saviour or messiah should be. He doesn’t dress right, talk right, and act right. The Church however wants Jesus to be more a reflection of its values; someone who is known as a good and upstanding member of the community.
The link with our biblical text is the expectations of the crowd. Like the man who road on the donkey, who had no sword and no wish to use one, and who was later derided by the crowd because of this weakness; Jesus of the leather jacket and bike, was likewise an outsider, for the crowd sought for a Messiah who reflected their needs and methods.
There is a long history in the Church of making Jesus and his disciples in our image, making him into a reflection of our expectations. Most obviously they were made into pale-skinned Europeans: Jesus a robed and crowned king, with princely disciples on the left and right, and elevated into stained glass, statues, and hierarchical theology.
Jesus the outsider though was good news to those relegated to the outside. The Bible portrays him as disregarding the boundaries that set the respectable and the rejects apart. He ate with the rejected, touched and was touched by the rejected, taught and was taught by the rejected, and healed and was healed by the rejected.[i] He also suggested that this was how God was too.
Which is really the nub of the matter: for donkey-riding peaceniks and bikies with L-O-V-E tats can be largely tolerated by the mainstream. We all like oddities. But when someone comes along and says God is more like the donkey and motorbike riders than the pillars of respectable society we pause. When someone says God is more on the outside than the inside, and God is not our ‘in-house God’, but more like in the ‘out-house’, or over the fence entirely, then eccentricity becomes heresy. Then any hosannas morph into cries of crucify.
Jesus was crucified not because he was kind to poor people, or healed sick people, or loved. Jesus was crucified because he dared to imagine God beyond the boundaries of the established religious, social, and political authorities, and lived as if it was so. Jesus was crucified because he was a heretic and a threat.
Then there are Jesus’ disciples. What do we know of them? Well, at least one had serious mental illness. Seven demons, in a time of no medications, is code for seriously ill. A few of the boys liked to fish. One of whom was akin to Frank Baum’s cowardly lion. Rumour had it that another follower was a member of a terrorist organisation, and another sold their body for sex. But then this was an itinerant, fringe, co-ed company that attracted rumours.
If you or I were choosing a team to take over the religious world, which of course in the first century couldn’t be differentiated from any other world, we wouldn’t have chosen this lot. They consistently didn’t understand what Jesus was saying. Even after his death they still thought it was all about ‘restoring the Kingdom to Israel’. They wanted to sit on his left and right in glory, not understanding that so-called ‘glory’ would not be power and riches. When the heat came on they disowned him, and most ran away. The betrayal gene was in them all.
There’s an old story re-told by Martin Bell[ii] called the “Rag Tag Army”. It has some theological structure that poses difficulties – like it pictures God as a human being. It also uses the metaphor of ‘army’ to talk about the Church, and with God as it’s general. Like the hymn ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ it comes from another time.
But the army metaphor is important here because this story is subversive of everything we know about effective armies. Kind of like Jesus’ disciples being subversive of everything we know about effective leadership and management of a global organisation.
The story goes like this:
I think God must be very old and very tired…. God’s been on the march a long time, you know. And look at God’s rag-tag little army! All God has for soldiers are you and me. Dumb little army.
Listen! The drum beat isn’t even regular. Everyone is out of step. And there! You see? God keeps stopping along the way to pick up one of God’s tinier soldiers who decided to wander off and play with a frog, or run in a field, or whose foot got tangled in the underbrush. God will never get anywhere that way. And yet, the march goes on.
Do you see how the marchers have broken up into little groups? Look at that group up near the front. Now, there’s a snappy outfit… – at least they’re in step with each other. Only they’re not wearing their shoes. They’re carrying them in their hands. Silly little band. They won’t get far before God will have to stop again.
Or how about that other group over there? They’re all holding hands as they march. The only trouble with this is the people on each end of the line. Pretty soon they realize that one of their hands isn’t holding onto anything – one hand is reaching, empty, alone. And so they hold hands with each other, and everybody marches around in circles. The more people holding hands, the bigger the circle. And, of course, a bigger circle is deceptive because as they march along it looks like they’re going someplace, but they’re not. And so God must stop again. You see what I mean? God will never get anywhere that way!
If God were more sensible God would take this little army and shape them up. Why, whoever heard of a soldier stopping to romp in a field? It’s ridiculous…
Listen! The drum beat isn’t even regular. Everyone is out of step. And there! You see? God keeps stopping along the way to pick up one of God’s tinier soldiers who decided to wander off and play with a frog, or run in a field, or whose foot got tangled in the underbrush. God will never get anywhere that way!
This parable playfully suggests that Jesus’ followers are likely to be those distracted by the pleasure of playing in a field, picking flowers, holding hands and forming circles, or wandering off to satisfy their curiosity…, rather than those who are highly organised, efficiently and effectively militarily marching to success. In a similar way Jesus’ followers are more likely to be fooling around on donkeys with palms than being armed conquerors on warhorses. Or being found where outsiders are found, round the back, rather than in the midst of the influential and important out the front.
I’ve always liked this Rag Tag Army picture of Jesus’ followers because it is true to my experience of the Church – people of all ages heading off to do whatever piques their interest or catches their eye, going in circles, enjoying the journey rather than being focused on the destination, delightfully concerned with the small so-called ‘weak’ things of this world.
[i] ‘Healed by the rejected’ is how I would interpret the encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman Mark 7:25-30.
[ii] Martin Bell’s The Way of the Wolf.