Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Ride of Choice

Giotto's Entry Into Jerusalem

It is a truism that in America, the ride of choice reveals a lot about the driver.  You are what you drive.

Are you bad to the bone?  You won't be trading in your Harley for a Vespa anytime soon.  Defined by your human cargo?  Then you probably drive what one wit has called the equivalent of “Mom Jeans” on wheels: Dodge Caravan, Toyota Camry, or Chevy Impala equipped with a DVD player to keep the kids from killing each other in the back seat.

Then there are the Testosterossa:  Camaro/Firebirds, Corvettes, and Vipers exuding a stench of masculine insecurity that is almost as thick as the cologne marinade applied by their drivers, guys who confuse virility with velocity. 

And then there are those driving a big car, who can’t see over the dashboard (or much of anything for that matter), can’t hear you when you honk the horn at them, and even if they could, couldn’t care less.  This marks the official entry into the “Nothing to Lose, the Later Years” category:  Buick Park Avenues, Cadillac DeVilles, Lincoln Town Cars, Ford Crown Victorias, and Mercury Grand Marquis.  These are the cars you own when your name appears in your obituary![1]

Now these stereotypes are silly, but also illuminating to the extent we see ourselves in them (and not anyone else).  They also help us to see the significance of one small detail in the Palm Sunday story that illuminates the whole Passion Narrative:  Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey.  And his ride of choice tells us a lot about him and his mission. 

In fact, Mark’s version of the story of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem lingers on the details of Jesus’ ride: how the donkey was procured, the fact that it was a colt, never ridden and therefore untrained, how it was covered with cloaks before Jesus sat on it.  Mark wants us to pay attention to this donkey.

Perhaps Mark lingers on these details so as to give his first hearers, who would have been very familiar with Hebrew scripture, time to catch the allusion to the prophet Zechariah:

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 to the ends of the earth.[2]

Jesus is a king, but not the kind of king the people were expecting, unlike any king they had ever known.  He doesn’t come riding on a war-horse or a chariot, brandishing weapons and surrounded by soldiers.  He rides a donkey, indicating peaceful intentions.  And not just any donkey: a colt that has never been ridden.

Now, I am no horseman, but I understand that a colt that has never been ridden is challenging because it isn’t trained or, probably, even neutered.  Riding such a donkey is dangerous because there is no way of knowing in advance how it will respond.  Jesus is doing something new, something untested and risky, as he rides this colt.[3]

Jesus is taking risks for peace, offering a non-violent alternative to the kingdoms of his and every time and place.  It is quite possible that just about the same time Jesus was entering Jerusalem from the east on a donkey, the Roman governor, Pilate, was making a very different entrance into Jerusalem from the west.  It was, after all, just a few days before the Passover festival, when Jews from around the world streamed into Jerusalem by the thousands to celebrate their liberation from Egyptian slavery.  

With a full retinue of soldiers demonstrating military power and underscoring Roman imperial domination, Pilate would have been anxious in the days just before the Passover festival to remind the Jews gathering there just who was in charge.  Against Pilate’s triumphal entry on his mighty war-horse, Jesus would contrast his entrance on a humble donkey.[4]   We have here a full-on military parade vs. a nonviolent protest march: two very different leaders representing two very different kingdoms.  Jesus’ action and his timing could only have been seen as provocative.

Of course, Jesus’ nonviolent alternative not only threatened Roman imperialism, it also disappointed his fellow countrymen.  The same crowd that hailed Jesus as a king on Palm Sunday would become a lynch mob demanding his death in less than a week.  It is here that we see the real novelty of Jesus alternative kingdom, the depths of the risk he was taking.  He was willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of reconciliation between enemies, embracing all as God’s beloved children and refusing to scapegoat anyone. 

Jesus stood in uncompromising solidarity with the poor, the outcast, the disposable people of the world, in judgment on those whose privilege rested on the misery of others.  Yet, he did so for the sake of calling all into a new community of healing and forgiveness, in the name of a God who sends sunshine and rain on the just and the unjust alike.  For Jesus, judgment and mercy were inseparable, and so both injustice and vengeance had no place in his kingdom.  Such a vision could satisfy neither tyrants nor revolutionaries.   So they crucified him.

Now, we know that this is not the end of the story.  But the challenge of the story remains.  We are presented with two very different visions, two very different kingdoms.  In which will we claim our citizenship?  War-horse or donkey:  the ride we choose reveals a lot about ourselves, and our ultimate loyalty.

[1] Thomas Bey, “What Your Car Says About You”,
[2] Zechariah 9:9-10
[3] Mike Baughman, “And the Horse You Rode in On”,
[4] Carl Gregg, “Jesus’ Subversive Donkey Ride”,

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