Palm Sunday is often a time to reflect on the humble nature of the Kingdom of God. Here comes Jesus, received as a king, but riding unexpectedly on a donkey. Not a horse, not a chariot. Not born on a litter carried by slaves or even angelic host. A donkey. How about that? The way down is the way up. Jesus was so humble, so meek and mild. He didn’t need horses and armies on his mission. Just a little old donkey. And that’s all true of the story, but it falls short in a couple of ways. One, it frames the whole story from an overly narrow (if not outright blind) perspective. As a result, two, it doesn’t really tell what’s going on.
True, the way down is the way up. But that’s true for us. Not for Jesus. It’s true for us because we have to get off our stupid high horse in order to accept another king. Was Jesus ever actually down? Or is it possible that our vision of power, rule, and authority is so blurred that we can look at a Warrior King in the midst of his triumph and think, “Poor guy.”?
I’m pretty sure Jesus was never down. His victory may have been obscure to us because of our expectations of what true power looks like, but he was never down. In this way, Christian culture could learn a lot from old kung fu movies. The quiet master rolls into the corrupt town reviled and laughed at, at least by the big bosses, but when the dust settles, the bosses are dead and the master hasn’t disturbed a single hair on his head. Thinking of that old donkey as such a humble, laughable steed reveals more about our expectations that it does about the advance of God’s Kingdom. The donkey reveals our blindness to true power.
We look at the palm frond and the donkey as an ironic pairing, but we have to remember that it’s only ironic to us with our shrouded view. Zoom out a little and you see the donkey fulfilling a generations-old prophecy, revealing a Kingdom that is actually writing history, not just enacting it. The donkey, far from being merely a humble choice, is a triumph of this Kingdom, acting out a sovereign, undeterrable decree. We look at suffering and death as defeat. That’s a pretty dim view as well.
During the season of his incarnation, Jesus rolled through history like a juggernaut on his way to storm the evil fortress. Heaven invaded enemy territory with his birth and Jesus played the long game. Steadily marching on the gates of Hell, accessible only by passage across mortal country. Entering by the only way: death (which he brought on himself by striking at the foundation of the power of his day, knowing that they would eventually execute him for it). Death was a genius act of war, an entry through an impossibly narrow corridor. You could look at it like the Persian army at Thermopylae, if the Persian army had been one man cutting through the 300-man phalanx as a scythe through wheat.
The whole story rolls out as a straight line from Heaven, through birth and death, into Hell, bursting out the other side, and returning to Heaven. A meat hook through the skull of a dead, darkened world, dragging it back into life and light. You could see that death as a humiliation, but it wasn’t. If death, then, looked so much like humiliation but was actually part of a perfect, unstoppable assault, what does that tell us about what is an is not weakness?
What I see from the donkey, and from everything in Jesus’ life that we call weakness, is that God’s Kingdom advances with unstoppable force and it mocks earthly power every step of the way, either through subversion or outright conquest. When we look at the passage of Jesus through history, we look through a darkened glass and we get confused. The bottom line is that a greater reality played out in our midst. In a theater fundamentally unable to fully understand what was going on. Jesus wasn’t an ironic king on Palm Sunday. He was just a king (but precisely the King). We see a king on a donkey and think, ‘That’s an odd scene.’ The scene isn’t odd at all. We’re odd. We expect odd things and so we miss great things.