Lectionary Commentary: “Jesus, a Donkey, and Jon Stewart’s Rally for Sanity” (for Palm Sunday, April 17, 2011)

Matthew curiously gives us a lot of details about the procurement of Jesus’ donkey. Anyone familiar with the book of Zechariah would immediately recognize why. Zechariah 9:9 says,

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River [Euphrates] to the ends of the earth.

Many commentators have speculated that Matthew emphasizes the details of retrieving the donkey to give his readers time to have “ears to hear” the allusion to Zechariah’s prophecy — that the one who comes riding on a donkey will nonviolently bring peace.

Importantly, this connection between Zechariah and Matthew is not merely the speculation of modern scholars. Remember that both Matthew and Luke had a copy of Mark on their desks when they wrote their respective Gospels a decade later. In this case when Matthew copied Mark’s account of Palm Sunday, he explicitly adds in Matthew 21:4 that, “This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet,” and then Matthew explicitly quotes Zechariah to make clear Mark’s allusion. But here’s where the story gets really strange. Whereas Mark simply has Jesus riding a donkey colt, Matthew oddly switches into the plural. In Matthew 21:6-7 if you read closely, you’ll notice that it says, “The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.” In other words, Matthew’s version sounds like Jesus rode in of both beasts at the same time, straddling two animals like some circus act.

In Matthew’s defense, Zechariah said that the prophesied one would come “on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” But any Hebrew scholar could tell you that Zechariah was simply speaking poetically using Semitic parallelism, which was commonly used to describe the same object in two different ways. But Matthew, reading a Greek translation of Zechariah (the Septuagint), may have misread the prophet as speaking literally, and then changed Mark’s account to conform to Matthew’s understanding of Zechariah’s prophecy. In other words, many scholars have maintained that Matthew must have thought that if Zechariah said two animals, then Jesus must have ridden two animals no matter how odd that seems.

This alteration is one of those cases that some scholars gleefully point out to show inconsistencies in the Bible. And although I am certainly not mounting an argument that the Bible is inerrant, I will confess that the more I study the Bible, the more I am convinced, not that the biblical writers were infallible or perfect, but that the biblical authors are operating at a much more sophisticated and challenging level that is typically thought.

On this point, historical Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan has recently sought to debunk the argument that Matthew was a scriptural literalist who altered Mark’s story to the absurd length of Jesus riding in on two animals at the same time in order to conform to Matthew’s misreading of Zechariah. Instead, Crossan proposes what I believe to be a much more compelling interpretation of Matthew. Crossan writes that Matthew:

wants two animals, a donkey with her little colt beside her, and that Jesus rides “them” in the sense of having them both as part of his demonstration’s highly visible symbolism. In other words, Jesus does not ride a stallion or a mare, a mule or a male donkey, and not even a female donkey. He rides the most unmilitary mount imaginable: a female nursing donkey with her little colt trotting along beside her.

I find Crossan’s reading compelling because Jesus riding an unmilitary mount matches the rest of the Zechariah prophecy — that the one who comes riding on a humble donkey into Jerusalem will nonviolently bring peace. Remember the language from Zechariah about “cutting off the chariot, war horse, and bow into to command peace.”

This interpretation is even more convincing when you consider that historically triumphal entries into Jerusalem would have been exactly the opposite of what Mark, Matthew, and Zechariah described. The triumphant military leader would not have come nonviolently on a humble donkey to cut off the chariot, war horse, and bow; but would have come riding a chariot and war horse and wielding a bow or other weapons.

Crossan notes further that in 332 BCE, three centuries before Jesus’ Palm Sunday entrance, Alexander the Great, having conquered “Tyre and Gaza after terrible sieges . . . Jerusalem opened its gate without a fight.” And we can “Imagine the victorious Alexander entering Jerusalem on his famous war-horse, the black stallion Bucephalus.”

Crossan similarly highlights that the custom likely would have been for Pilate to make a similarly militaristic triumphal entry to Jerusalem — with war horse, chariot, and weapons — each year in the days before Passover to remind the pilgrims that Rome was in charge. Such a demonstration would have been especially pertinent at Passover since Passover was explicitly a celebration of the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. Thus, Jesus’ subversive donkey ride reminded all those waving Palm branches that Rome was the new Egypt, and the Emperor was the new Pharaoh.

I have titled this reflection “Jesus, a Donkey, and Jon Stewart’s Rally for Sanity” because Jesus’ actions on Palm Sunday remind me of Jon Stewart’s “Rally for Sanity” on the National Mall a few months ago. My sense is that a large part of what drew almost a quarter-million people to that event was a shared sense of frustration at the seeming insanity of how much of our government runs. (The recent budget debates and potential government shutdown are a case in point.)  A basic definition of sanity is whether you are in touch with reality, with how things really are; and many people in our county feel like most politicians are out of touch with the realities of their daily lives. So, citizens responded in mass numbers to the public satirization and lampooning of the petty power struggles that characterizes so much that happens in Washington. The whole event could be described as a “public liturgy,” and I believe similar sentiments drew those palm-waving crowds to seeing Jesus entering, not militaristically on a war horse, but nonviolently on a donkey. And I think the basic hopes of the two crowds were the same: for peace, hope for the common good, for an alternative to the broken system at hand.

But in many ways the lampooning and satire are the easier part. The next day, Jesus continued the trajectory that had begun with his unusual entry to Jerusalem when he overturned the tables in the Temple to interrupt, if only briefly, business as usual. As indicated by the odd symbolism of the fig tree that follows this week’s Gospel lesson, Jesus’ issue was that the current religious and political establishment, like the troublesome fig tree, was not bearing fruit.

Suddenly, we find Jesus making broad, increasingly public and controversial demonstrations in the big city of Jerusalem in the middle of Passover (the height of the pilgrimage season) in contrast to merely making controversial teachings in the small towns and villages around Galilee. I do not think that Jesus wanted to die, but his passion for justice and his anger at injustice — a passion and anger he inherited from the Hebrew prophets before him — led him to take increasingly large risks to show the contrast between the status quo (where Herod was king) and the kingdom of God. These risks led directly to Jesus’ tragic death.

This claim is not to say that following Jesus necessarily means we will die a tragic death. There are those like St. Francis of Assisi, Clarence Jordan, and Dorothy Day who followed Jesus in radical, controversial ways and died of old age. But there are also those like Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gandhi who — like Jesus — were killed when they risked following Jesus’ way. Similarly, theologian John Mabry has written that

Rosa Parks is an imitator of Christ, not because she suffered for taking her stand (or keeping her seat, in her case), but because she had the courage to believe in her own dignity and fought for it in spite of the conflict that resulted.  Nelson Mandela is an imitator of Christ, not because he suffered in prison, but because he held out for peace and justice, and led a nation to resurrection.  In each case it is not the suffering that is redemptive, but the courage to pursue justice in the face of pain and evil.

As we prepare to enter Holy Week, may Matthew’s story of Palm Sunday continues to haunt us, to challenge us.  Today, how God may be calling you — or us — to follow Jesus’ way for such as time as this?

Notes

1 On biblical contradictions, see Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them).

2 For Crossan’s interpretation of Palm Sunday, I am drawing from the study guide he wrote to accompany the 2009 DVD series First Light: Jesus and the Kingdom. Crossan makes a strong contrast between the Emperor’s Triumphal Entry and Jesus’ “Triumphal Entry” — going so far as to call Jesus’ entrance a “lampoon” of the emporer’s pomp and circumstance in a book co-written with Marcus Borg, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem.

5 For one of many articles on the Rally for Sanity, see “Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert host Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear on Mall” at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/30/AR2010103001573.html.

6 On the shutdown, see “Shutdown Near, No Sign of Compromise” at

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/09/us/politics/09fiscal.html?hp=&pagewanted=all.

7 Matthew 21:19-20 says, “19 And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it and found nothing at all on it but leaves. Then he said to it, ‘May no fruit ever come from you again!’ And the fig tree withered at once. 20 When the disciples saw it, they were amazed, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?’”  Interestingly, one of the famous signs from the Jon Stewart rally said, “God Hates Figs!” as a spoof of Fred Phelps’ homophobic protests. For a picture of the sign, see:

http://www.thehighdefinite.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/ezIiW.jpg.

8 John Mabry, Crisis And Communion: The Remythologization Of The Eucharist, 129.

9 If you resonated with my reading of Matthew, you may be interested in a book that I have recently purchased, but have not yet read that appears to be from a similar perspective — Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Bible and Liberation Series).

About Carl Gregg
  • Jonathan+

    Not a huge point, but it would seem that the closest noun for “them” to refer to (the “them” of Jesus’ sitting on) is the cloaks that were thrown on the beasts – rather than on the multiple beasts. Perhaps the image is not of Jesus straddling two donkeys, but of Him sitting on a pile of cloaks on one animal.
    The use of two animals when only one is ridden is still attested today, when a young colt at the early stages of being ridden will be walked beside its mother, which will aide in keeping it calm and collected as it learns to give rides to its master.

  • Carl Gregg

    An interesting take, but I disagree. Looking again at the quote (“The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.”), the disciples put their cloaks on them (the two animals), and he sat on them (the two animals). The first of the two final “them”s is clearly referring to the two animals; thus, it follows that the second one is as well.

  • Jonathan+

    I should have also noted that I think your application is right on, as regards the failure of the systems to produce the fruit that they were intended for.
    I suggest, however, that Matthew knows Hebrew pretty well – as he shows in many places throughout his gospel. He is familiar with the customs, with the scriptures, with the culture. You are welcome to disagree with me on this point, but my opinion is that Matthew knew how to read Hebrew poetry pretty well and understood parallelism pretty well (and that it’s only a contemporary elitism that would rob him of this and claim to know better). Thus, I choose to look for ways to understand what he wrote that don’t require him to be ignorant of the culture that he was seemingly a part of.

  • Barb

    Thanks, Carl, for your thoughts about this text. I, also, had humorous images of Jesus trying to ride on two animals at the same time. I also was searching for something refreshing to ponder in regards to a, at times, too familiar test. BTW: What bike do you ride? I have a Bike Friday.

    • Carl Gregg

      Barb, Glad you appreciate the reflection. As for my bike, it’s a Trek (somewhere in the $200-$300 range if I remember correctly). I’m currently in the second week of training for a Sprint Triathlon, so I may eventually look into a more expensive model, but for my first race, my current mountain bike will suffice.

  • gerhard

    I like matthew’s version,

    A donkey that is untamed does not easily ride in solo. the female donkey would certainly ride easier with her colt than without it. otherwise they could make life extremely difficult in public. Donkeys are also very very sensitive on which male would ride on them, they are naturally more connected and at ease with children and females. This entry on a donkey certainly illustrates the nature of the man, Jesus, being trusted by the humble female animal. a different kind of king, with a different kind of touch.


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