The Leadership We Want: Jesus on Palm Sunday

Monty the Donkey, and friends.
We live in interesting times, politically speaking. Few of you will disagree with me, I suspect, when I say that the United States, where I currently live and work is particularly “interesting.” Whether or not your UK politics are deemed so spectacular, many people in different parts of the world may find ourselves wondering what we have done to deserve the sort of leadership we have.

The 18th century political philosopher Joseph de Maistre famously said that each nation gets the government it deserves, which is usually a depressing thought. Leaving aside his effort to stereotype particular peoples this way, we may have to acknowledge this is closer to the truth than we would like. One of the great dangers of the Trumpian age is that we may be so appalled our leaders that we forget how they got there; how, that is, the venality and narcissism of some holds a kind of a mirror up to society as a whole, and hence to us all - not a complete or a fair image perhaps, but not one entirely without substance. A Trump or a Berlusconi - and you are better equipped to add any local reference than I - threaten us not just materially in the obvious ways regarding peace, prosperity and the rule of law, but spiritually too, with the delusion that since compared to them we seem fine, the worst problems of human life are someone else's.

Yet we can’t help wanting something, someone, different in power. And today we have it, after a fashion. What if God were in charge? Isn’t God in charge? Well - between the Gospel of the Palms and the Passion Gospel today, we get the shape, the high and the low points, of Jesus’ own campaign for power and what God being in charge might mean.

Jesus' entry into Jerusalem is a carefully staged event, as all the evangelists present it, something that would have worked well on Instagram or “live-tweeted”; Jesus mysteriously but clearly instructs his disciples to acquire a colt - from other versions we can assume this is a young donkey - and rides into Jerusalem to cheering crowds who acclaim him as Son of David, and hence as rightful ruler of Judea. This event is a carefully staged triumphal procession, no holds barred. The donkey may lead us astray, encouraging us to imagine this is either a whimsical or self-parodying event. Chesterton famously derided the donkey:

With monstrous head and sickening cry
   And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
   On all four-footed things.

…before the poet redeems the supposedly ridiculous animal through its participation in this: “far fierce hour and sweet. There was a shout about my ears,
   And palms before my feet."

However the butt of a joke in one culture can mean something quite different in another. To ride a colt or donkey was the prerogative of ancient Israelite kings, and a symbol of authority. In the Book Genesis, the patriarch Jacob blesses his son Judah thus:

The sceptre shall not depart from Judah,
   nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet...
Binding his foal to the vine
   and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine,
he washes his garments in wine
   and his robe in the blood of grapes (49:10a, 11).

The resonance is clear; Jesus, the descendant of Judah, is claiming his ancestor’s royal blessing.

But Jesus was also seeking to perform, to enact, another prophetic text, from 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 (9:9)

Zechariah, and Jesus, also seems to have Judah and David in mind. This king is indeed described as humble - as opposed to haughty - but primarily as triumphant. The donkey is not a comical figure here, but unambiguously royal, even if the king himself is yet humble before the sovereignty of God. Zechariah goes on:

He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
   and the warhorse from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be cut off,
   and he shall command peace to the nations (v.10)

The character of the true king’s humility is thus revealed as a paradoxical reign of peace, not of whimsy. This is not the pax romana or some other version of order imposed by force or fear.

Jesus ends the proceedings anti-climatically, going to the Temple to look, and then withdrawing to Bethany leaving unfinished business behind. Yet Jesus has sealed his fate with this action. A few days later we find him robed fleetingly in purple, crowned with thorns, and acclaimed as King - no fewer than six times in Mark’s account of the Passion, when in the whole of the Gospel he had never been so designated before. So the Passion gospel, not the palms story, is the one where irony abounds. Jesus again takes on royal accoutrements, but ironically and involuntarily. Roman power mocks the power of God, and in its own terms has the real triumph as the presumptuous and deluded Galilean dies abandoned by the God whose promise he had claimed riding on a donkey.

The whole character of God’s dealings with the world are presented in the space between these two stories; the unmistakeable claim to power, and the unquestionable display of powerlessness. Is this more than nonsense? Faith says yes. The platform of Jesus is not a personal quest for power, even though he pays the ultimate personal price; its heart is that since the power of God is love, only love can truly be powerful. Even Jesus' abject defeat is the victory of his refusal to coerce. God is in charge, then; but this is the only power God will exercise, this is all the power he knows because love cannot coerce us - it can only invite.

To follow Jesus can and must be to rail against injustice and all forms of human cruelty, and to seek the reasonable means at our disposal to love and serve all; but Jesus leaves us under no illusions about where this might go, and that cruelty and indifference may well claim their apparent political victories now as then. He may or may not be the leader we deserve; but we acknowledge him as the one we really have, the one who has loved and will love us, and calls us to love unstintingly. In the end, Jesus must reign, and love will reign.

[Palm Sunday at the Church of St Mary the Virgin (The University Church), Oxford].


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