“A symbol, shorthand, a sign”

Mark is always brief – as if he is trying to tell us his version of the gospel 140 characters at a time – so when he spends almost 2/3 of the verses about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on the acquisition of a young colt, you know he is trying to make a point!


A young colt is a symbol, a shorthand version of a longer tale, a sign.


The people who gathered on Palm Sunday would have understood.

The disciples examine the fresh wounds on Jesus's body after the resurrection

​Mark 11:1-11

March 28, 2021

Dr. Todd R. Wright


Mark is always brief – as if he is trying to tell us his version of the gospel 140 characters at a time – so when he spends almost 2/3 of the verses about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on the acquisition of a young colt, you know he is trying to make a point!


A young colt is a symbol, a shorthand version of a longer tale, a sign.


The people who gathered on Palm Sunday would have understood.

 

Years ago a candidate began showing up to campaign events driving a used red pickup. Maybe you remember. Fred Thompson was running for Al Gore’s Senate seat in a special election. He was 20 points behind in the polls … until he started driving across Tennessee in a run-down Chevy. His campaign manager thought it was a goofy idea. The Democrats said it was a gimmick. But it hit a positive nerve with the voters.[i] That truck symbolized made-in-America pride; it was shorthand for no-frills; and a sign that he would work hard, just like his voters did.


An image like that is powerful!

 

So Mark stresses Jesus entering Jerusalem in the equivalent of a red pickup.


It was important because it said something about who he was and what he was doing.


I want to make sure you understand what that common beast meant to people streaming into the capital city for Passover:


First, let’s admit that Jesus’ mode of transportation wasn’t going to impress anyone. It wasn’t designed to.


As the poet Mary Oliver reflects:


On the outskirts of Jerusalem, the donkey waited.

Not especially brave, or filled with understanding, he stood and waited.

How horses, turned out into the meadow, leap with delight!

How doves, released from their cages clatter away, splashed with sunlight.

But the donkey, tied to a tree as usual, waited.[ii]

Still, it would have reminded people of the words of 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.”[iii]


So no stallion, no charger, no mustang, just the most unmilitary mount possible.


Riding in the way he did symbolized that Jesus was claiming to be a king and fulfilling a prophecy as he did so.


Second, let’s admit that most people who are claiming power want to show others that they are confident, capable, and commanding. If that had been Jesus’ intention, he would have ridden in on a snorting war horse; he would have been at the head of an army; he would have been trailed by carts full of those taken captive in battle.


Instead Christ came “humble and riding on a donkey” – that’s shorthand for all that was important to him: bringing peace to the powerless, showering blessing on the least of these; and gathering together a band of willing followers.


Third, let’s admit that the details of acquiring the beast of burden are curious. Why send two disciples into the village ahead. Why not pick one up in Jerusalem and turn it back in once you arrive? Are village prices cheaper? Are small-town animals of better stock? Are local people more willing to loan what they have?


John Petty asserts that this is a sign that Jesus has grass-root support – in fact, that the


“Jesus movement” is a movement of peasants, a network that extends from Galilee in the north all the way to the outskirts of Jerusalem in the south.[iv]


If he is right, then Jesus riding in on “an agricultural tool not a weapon, a tractor not a tank,”[v] would have endeared Jesus to the common people.

 

Now critics will tell you that Fred Thompson just rented that red pickup as a campaign prop; that he swapped it out for a more suitable ride as soon as the cameras were put away; that he was creating a persona to sell to the voters.


His defenders will protest that he hated campaigning is suits and traveling in a campaign van. Bill Lacy, his campaign manager, will explain that in order to be a better candidate, Thompson needed to be comfortable. The truck (and speaking directly to voters in language they understood) helped with that.


Either way, we can agree that humble gestures are a useful tool for the powerful. They establish a bond with people without sacrificing any actual power.


So the real question is: Was Jesus manipulating people with his humble prop or genuine?


Let’s consider whether this act fits the rest of his life or seems to be adopted in the moment as a calculated fraud.


When you look back at his life, “Jesus was born in a borrowed [space] and laid in a borrowed manger. As he traveled, he had no place of his own to spend the night. [After] he rode into the city on a borrowed donkey, he ate his final meal in a borrowed room. He was crucified on a borrowed cross, wearing a borrowed crown that [soldier] stuck upon his head [as a mockery]. And when he died, [they] placed his body in a borrowed tomb.”[vi]


With that kind of background, riding in on a humble colt doesn’t seem like misdirection or manipulation; it doesn’t seem like a false prop; it doesn’t seem like a lie. It seems like a perfect summation of who he is.

 

It also seems like a good reminder that preparing the way for this sort of humble figure, will involve donkey–fetching style ministry – short on flash but characteristic of a serving heart:


Like members of the property committee stringing conduit to make this service possible;


or Amy and Don spending countless hours on figuring out the technology;


or volunteers mowing the lawn for our return next week to in-person services;


or congregation members quietly collecting canned goods so the hungry can eat;


or one member filling zip-lock bags so children will have worship kits waiting for them;


or, thinking back, one family assembling donated items into blessing bags for the homeless;


or one Sunday school class taking simple gifts to local veterans;


or one congregation raising funds to support an arts opportunity at Kathy Kruk’s school.


When we do these sorts of things, they function as symbols, or shorthand for a longer story, or signs that point to a larger truth. They witness to who we are and who we serve:


The One who entered Jerusalem on a humble beast and won the hearts of a crowd! Amen


[i] I ran across this story in Benjamin Dueholm’s sermon on the text for the Christian Century, 2/21/18 and investigated further at Remembering Fred Thompson and that red pickup truck (tennessean.com) and Fred Thompson’s Red Pickup Truck | Washington Monthly to be able to make remarks later in the sermon.
[ii] from her poem, “The Poet Thinks About The Donkey”
[iii] from a longer quote in Zechariah 9:9-10
[iv] from his blog, see progressive involvement: Lectionary blogging: Palm Sunday, Mark 11: 1-11, 3/26/12
[v] from Sam Wells’ reflections on the text for the Christian Century, 4/5/00
[vi] William Carter thanks Rob Elder for this insight in his sermon, “The Best Things Are Borrowed”, 4/1/12
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