On the Back of a Donkey

Luke 19:28-44 

After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. As he approached Bethphage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ tell him, ‘The Lord needs it.’ ”Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They replied, “The Lord needs it.”

They brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it. As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road. When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it. (Lk 19:28-41)

Next Sunday will be Easter Sunday, the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection from the grave, but this morning is Palm Sunday, when Christians commemorate the triumphal entry, when Jesus entered Jerusalem to the shouts of the multitudes: “Hosanna, the king is coming!” It’s hard to imagine how, in less than a week between those two days, Satan could so capture the minds of the Jewish leaders and even one of Jesus’ own disciples that they could plot and conspire and carry out his death on a cross.

Ever since Luke 9 when Jesus first told his disciples that he would be rejected and killed, and spoke about his departure with Moses and Elijah on the Mt. of Transfiguration, and resolutely set his face toward Jerusalem, we knew this moment would come.

You’ve been there. You knew the day was coming – a surgery, a move, a separation, a death. You laid awake at night thinking about what it would look like, how you would feel, how your life would change. And yet when the day arrived, nothing could prepare you for the intensity of the moment.

The walls of Jerusalem rise before them in the distance. For the other pilgrims who are gathering for the Passover, those walls are a joyful welcome to the end of a long journey. For Jesus, they signal the beginning of the end. This week that will begin with such glory, will end with unimaginable pain and death.

At previous Passovers, Jesus had come to Jerusalem with no fanfare or notice. This is the third Passover of Jesus’ ministry. But Jesus had made the trip to Jerusalem many times. You’ll remember back in 2:41, Luke tells us that “every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover.” Jesus had walked the streets of Jerusalem many years pushing through the throng of worshipers who had come to remember the mighty power of God in delivering their ancestors from Egyptian slavery. He had eaten the Passover lamb, the unleavened bread and sipped the wine in remembrance of that night long ago in Egypt when blood had been spread on the door posts of every Hebrew house as God passed over them to bring his final blow of judgment by killing the firstborn of every Egyptian family.

As the morning began he and his disciples are in a familiar place – the Mount of Olives. It is where he will spend his last evening praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is a ridge that looks across the Kidron valley to the east wall of Jerusalem. It is not far from Bethany, the home of his dear friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus.

Even now, preparations are under way that began centuries earlier as Zechariah prophesied about the coming Messiah, “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of
Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zech. 9:9). He sends two of his disciples on ahead to the nearby village of Bethphage where they will find this animal of prophecy, awaiting its destiny to carry the Messiah into Jerusalem. He tells them to untie it and take it. And just as Jesus had said, when the owner asked, “Why are you taking my donkey?” They replied, “The Lord needs it.”

Then they began the two mile journey to the city. The disciples threw their cloaks on the back of the colt and Jesus mounted for the ride. It was an ordinary sight with extraordinary meaning. Many travelers were making their way into the city, some certainly on donkeys. And yet, Jesus suddenly begins to attract attention. Onlookers begin throwing their cloaks before him on the ground, while Matthew, Mark and John’s Gospels add that others cut palm branches and laid them on the ground before him. And as the growing crowd came to the valley floor leading up to the gates, and throngs of worshipers poured out of the city when they heard that Jesus was coming, they began to shout praises to God: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” If that sounds familiar, it is the same song, second verse that was sung on the night of his birth by a chorus of angels. Now as he enters the final week of his earthly life, the air is once again filled with the sound of voices singing “Hosanna! The king has come!”
Not everyone was joyful. The Pharisees think it is scandalous – this pretender to the throne, riding the wave of popularity. They push their way toward Jesus and shout above the din of the crowd, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” He would not… he could not, even if he had tried. No more than he could keep the blind and the lepers and the sick who had been healed from telling about what Jesus had done for them, he could not silence this crowd. He shouts back to them, “I tell you, if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out!”

I want you to notice something about Luke’s account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He doesn’t. Luke stops short, his focus is elsewhere. Yes, Jesus enters the city – Matthew and Mark tell us that. But Luke zooms in on the moment Jesus looks up and sees the city rising in front of him and he begins to weep, not for himself, but for Jerusalem. They are not tears of fear over the personal trauma he will experience within these walls, but for those inside the walls and their blindness:

If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. They days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you. (Luke 9:42-44)

They are the tears a parent weeps for her children who are blindly making terrible choices – a son who is immersing himself in drugs, a daughter who is dating an abusive man, a child who follows the crowd and the crowd he is following is headed down a path of self-destruction. But they can’t see it. They protest that you have it all wrong – you just don’t understand them. But you do – better than they see themselves. And you know – you’ve been there before and seen the consequences their actions will inevitably bring. And you can’t stop them. All you can do is weep, and pray, “Father, protect them, for they know not what they do.”

Jesus has been there before. Standing beside every prophet who cried out for repentance, every prophet who called the people to return to God. And they rejected them, and ignored their pleas – and suffered the consequences. He was there. How many times through the centuries had Jesus stood at the walls of Jerusalem and wept, knowing that this day would come?

The chronology varies a bit between the different Gospels over what happens next. Luke and Matthew tell us that Jesus went straight to the Temple area and began to overturn the money-changers tables and then returned to Bethany. Mark says it was late so Jesus went to the Temple, looked around, then went back to Bethany for the night, and returned the next day to clear the Temple. And of course, John relates the clearing of the Temple in chapter two at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

Do contradictions in the Bible bother you? Does it rattle your faith when accounts in the Bible differ in their details? Ask a policeman who investigates crimes. Every witness saw what happened, but invariably their stories differ in details. “It all happened so fast!” “I’m sure I saw. . . .” “My memory’s a little fuzzy, but . . . .” The core of the story is the same, but every person sees things from a different perspective, or observed it from a different angle.

And then there is the author’s particular telling of the story. One may condense a particular scene, because it doesn’t serve a purpose in the larger picture. Could Luke and Matthew and Mark and John all be telling the same story accurately? Absolutely. For Luke and Matthew, the initial viewing of the Temple that evening wasn’t germane to their telling of the story, so they went straight to the next day when Jesus went and cleared the Temple. For Mark, something about that first night’s observation of what was happening in the Temple was significant to Jesus’ return to clear it the next morning, so he included it. And as John recalls the events sixty years later, it was the first (yes, I believe there were two Temple clearings) that stood out as the most important to the overall story of Jesus.

What is amazing to me is that any of them included it. Have you ever thought about Jesus getting angry? Of course, you and I get angry, and we fly off the handle and do and say things we regret, but Jesus? This isn’t Jesus meek and mild. This is Jesus who has had it with the abuses of the Jewish “religious system.” They have made a mockery of the simple faith his Father had desired and made a business out of it. And in the process, they have made it more difficult, not less, for people to come to God with a sacrifice from their hearts. And it angered him.

Now understand, Jesus’ anger wasn’t the result of a bad temper or a selfish tantrum. He didn’t fly off the handle. Jesus’ anger grew out of how Satan had once again twisted the purity of God’s creation to distort it and enslave people. Jesus wasn’t angry at the individuals – they were victims, they were the ones Jesus had wept over just hours earlier. He was angry at how grotesque this beautiful demonstration of loyalty to God had become. It was a legalistic transaction, further demeaned by the dishonesty and the callousness that had smothered any possibility of joining the Father with his children. And so he acted.

James, in his letter, tells us that “man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires” (James 1:20), and we’ve all seen and experienced the damage that anger can do to a friendship or a marriage. When we get angry, God’s purposes are rarely served. But Jesus’ anger had a purpose. Like a prophet from old, he rebuked their sin and by his actions, made a statement that was unforgettable.

You would think that would have ended about any possibility of speaking to people after that. They had seen Jesus in a whole new way. This wasn’t the Jesus who healed the sick and fed the hungry. This was Jesus knocking over tables and whipping the money changers and clearing the Temple courts. This was Jesus unapproachable. At least that is what I would have expected. Instead, his audience increases. Every day, he teaches in the Temple, and the people are hanging on his words, hungry for the truth, and sensing that Jesus is the only one who is telling it.

And as we have seen many times before, the adoration of the crowds inflames the hatred and jealousy of the leaders of the Jews. Only days earlier, when Jesus raised Lazarus, the high priest Caiaphas had announced, “. . . it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish . . . so from that day on they plotted to take his life” (John 11:50,53).

And though, as Luke writes, “. . . they could not find any way to do it,” Satan will make a way – a way that no one but Jesus would ever imagine.