MAN ON A DONKEY
"Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!"
Perhaps without knowing it, every week as we celebrate the Eucharist we remember Palm Sunday, the day Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey at the beginning of Holy Week. We join the crowd who welcomed Jesus into the city at the beginning of the week that ended in his crucifixion. We do so as, in the prayer of thanksgiving, we welcome Jesus into our midst as the one "who comes in the name of our Lord. But why say "Hosanna?" We have become accustomed to shout out "Hallelujah!" at the end of the liturgy, but why e say "Hosanna" every time as we give thanks in the Eucharist? We are not welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem back then are we? No we are here at Volmoed on a Thursday morning having communion. Yet there it is, embedded in the prayer we say week by week, perhaps puzzled by why it is there, or simply accepting that it is and not bothering to find out why. So what is going on here?
The clue is in the contrast between a horse and a donkey. In olden times kings and knights rode on horses when they went into battle, or entered cities they had come to liberate or conquer. Peasants, poor and humble folk, if they rode at all, did so on donkeys when they travelled from one village to another, or went to town on market day. Horses are noble and proud creatures. They are owned, groomed, and ridden by the powerful, famous and rich. Each week around the world there are horse races that attract thousands of people. But nobody attends a donkey race except maybe some farm labourers in a dusty township in the Northern Cape. What president would arrive at the EU or AU or UN or our own Parliament seated on a donkey cart? Not even an ordinary member of parliament would do that. No, the President arrives in a gleaming Mercedes or BMW. And alongside are the proud horses that accompany the procession as a sign of power. Don't even think that donkey carts of VW Beetle might be more appropriate, for that would suggest that politicians are a bunch of asses or clowns. Perish the thought. It's a BMW or nothing!
But the peasants who welcomed Jesus riding on a donkey knew that only cruel conquerors rode into Jerusalem on powerful steeds, and they also knew that Herod the king was a puppet of the Romans who, even if he had many horses in his stable, was impotent to save them from their oppression. No, it was the man on the donkey who excited the people that first Palm Sunday. After all, had not the prophets foretold that the Messiah would come to save Israel in such a manner? No wonder they shouted out "Hosanna," which literally means "save us", deliver us from our oppression and set us free. They knew the words by heart because they prayed them daily during the Feast of the Tabernacles and seven times on the seventh day as they waved palm branches and sang Psalm 118: "Hosanna. Save us we beseech you, O Lord!... Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord." (25-6)
When we say these words in the Eucharist we are not only praying for the salvation of the world and our own salvation, not only for the liberation of the oppressed and the freedom of people and ourselves from bondage, we are acknowledging that our salvation will not come in a gleaming Cadillac's with outriders flashing blue lights, but through the humble and compassionate service of those whose life-style expresses dedication to the task. The salvation of the world and our country is not dependent on the promises made by politicians as they jet into town and leave again at high speed under escort. Our salvation comes through him who came to serve and give his life to set us free. That is why we cry out "Hosanna: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!"
Palm Sunday is a dramatic challenge to the abuse of political power when used to control and dominate people rather than save, heal and deliver them. Of course, political power is important in governing a country and sorting out the world's problems. So I am not an anarchist who wants to get rid of governments or United Nations and the like. On the contrary, I think they should be strengthened but also challenged to do their job better than they are and, fortunately there are those politicians and public servants who use their power for the common good. But power is also problematic because it so easily becomes corrupt, and the more powerful the more corrupt. The moment power is abused for selfish gain and not used for the public good it is no longer of God. Those who come in that way do not come in the name of the Lord. For God's power manifest in the man on the donkey is the power that saves, heals, and transforms. So on Palm Sunday God throws down the gauntlet to all those who are abusing their power and authority whether in government, town councils, or any of the institution including the church.
But it is not only politicians who abuse power; we also know how fickle people can be and how we all can be sucked into the system that benefits us at the expense of others. Many of those who shouted "Hosanna" on Palm Sunday shouted "Crucify him" and "release Barabbas" the next Friday. And even Jesus' own disciples who loved the limelight of Palm Sunday were decidedly uneasy as the week unfolded. Judas betrayed Jesus because he was disappointed in the way in which Jesus refused to take Jerusalem like a genuine liberator riding on a horse. Crowds prefer their heroes to ride BMW's at high speed and act like power figures rather than travel humbly on donkeys, because it seems to improve their own status. Look how powerful our leaders are compared to yours! Yet in our better moments we know that Jesus' way is the way of salvation for us and the world. That is why we are his followers and join together here today to break bread in thanksgiving for his self-giving love. For that is the power of God at work in changing lives and bringing hope to the world. "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!" Soon Easter Day will dawn and we will also be shouting Hallelujah as well.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 10 April 2014 Lent 5