A pastor was asked to speak for a certain charitable organization. After the meeting the program chairman handed the pastor a check.
“Oh, I couldn’t take this,” the pastor said with some embarrassment. “Please use this for something else.”
The program chairman asked, “Well, do you mind if we put it into our special fund?”
The pastor replied, “Of course not. What is the special fund for?”
The chairman answered, “It’s so we can get a better speaker next year.”
Yes, life is full of humbling experiences.
Jesus was a humble guy. That is the essence of the Good News for this Palm Sunday. On the one hand, we see that no greater man ever lived than Jesus. He was the very Word of God come down from the Father. He was the Life, the Light, the Truth, the Way. And yet no one ever emptied himself more completely of pride and arrogance than did Jesus Christ.
Consider the donkey on which he rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. You or I may have chosen a handsome stallion on which to ride into the city. After all, we are careful about the kind of car we drive, are we not? The world will not respect an old beat-up Chevrolet like it will a new BMW. At least, that is what we tell ourselves.
My first car was a 1963 Chevy Nova, a little rust bucket that burned oil and had holes in the floorboards, thereby ensuring that I always got a heavy dose of fumes as I drove along, which necessitated the windows being rolled down at all times, lest I became asphyxiated. So I then made a vow, a bit like Scarlett in Gone With the Wind, that after I graduated from college I would never, ever, drive a beater again. And I have kept that vow.
But Jesus chose the equivalent of a 1985 Yugo to drive into Jerusalem. For the donkey was definitely not a symbol of pride and prestige.
Jesus was “very God of very God.” Yet here he was humbling himself by riding a donkey into the city where he was to be sacrificed like a farm animal on the cross of Calvary. Indeed, he is referred to in the book of Revelation as “the Lamb that was slain” (5:12). No crown, no throne, no comfortable palace – he gave it all up for us.
Jesus reminds us that humility is the key to greatness, that servanthood is the path to true success. All greatness grows out of humility and service.
Back in old Tsarist Russia, there was a rabbi in a small village who vanished for several hours every Friday morning. The villagers bragged that during these hours their rabbi ascended to heaven to converse with God.
A skeptical newcomer arrived in town. He had trouble believing that the rabbi ascended each Friday to converse with God. He determined to uncover where the rabbi really was during these hours. On Friday morning, the newcomer hid near the rabbi’s house and watched him. He saw the rabbi say his prayers and then clothe himself as a peasant.
Next, he saw the rabbi take an ax and go into the forest. The newcomer watched as the rabbi chopped down a tree and gathered a bundle of wood. Next he saw the rabbi proceed to the poorest section of the village, in which lived an old woman and her sick son. He watched as the rabbi deposited the wood, which was enough for a week, at the old woman’s door and then quietly return to his home.
The newcomer stayed in the village and joined the rabbi’s synagogue. And after that, whenever the newcomer heard one of his fellow villagers say, “On Friday morning our rabbi ascends all the way to heaven,” the newcomer added, “if not higher.”
Jesus came into Jerusalem riding on a donkey. Part of this was undoubtedly to fulfill an ancient prophecy. When Solomon was anointed king, he rode into the city on a mule, to the shouts and praises of the people (1 Kings 1:43-45). Zechariah prophesied the Messiah would arrive the same way “gentle and riding on a donkey” (Zech. 9:9). Jesus knew about this prophecy when he chose a donkey for his ride.
But this act was also completely in his character. “He humbled himself,” writes St. Paul “and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:8).
There were probably two parades in Jerusalem that Palm Sunday. We see Jesus riding on a small donkey, accompanied by his followers coming from the north into Jerusalem. But that parade wasn’t the largest or most spectacular parade in town during that particular Passover season. Also entering Jerusalem at Passover, from the west, was the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.
Like the Roman governors of Judea before him, Pontius Pilate lived in Caesarea by the sea. In other words, Pilate spent most of his time at his beach house. But when the crowds of devout Jews flowed into Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, Pilate would put on a display of force. After all, Passover commemorates the Jews’ deliverance from the rule of Pharaoh. Pilate didn’t want them to get any ideas about a similar liberation from Rome.
When Pilate entered Jerusalem with his army, his aim was to prevent any possibility of violent rebellion against Roman rule. No one likes the foot of a foreign power on their necks and, to make matters worse, Rome imposed high taxes on subject nations. So there was always the threat that zealots would stir up the Jewish population to try to throw off the yoke of Rome.
The Roman army that accompanied Pilate on Palm Sunday included cavalry and infantry carrying weapons, banners, and golden eagles mounted on poles. There was the sound of marching feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. All this would have had a sobering effect on all those who saw this parade.
No one shouted “Hosanna!” as Pilate rode his imposing horse into Jerusalem leading a regiment of his most trusted soldiers, hoping to strike fear into the resentful onlookers. And if things did get out of hand, Pilate had several battalions of Rome’s finest garrisoned on the west side of Jerusalem ready to flood into the city to crush any hint of rebellion.
So, there was Pilate willing, without exception, to take the life of anyone who dared question his authority, and there was Jesus, willing, without exception, to lay down his life for the least and lowest. No contrast could be more stark. And we are left to choose. Will we go with Pilate or will we go with Jesus? It is a choice we make more often than we think.
We are easily seduced by the Pilates of this world, the Pilates who bid us to join them in running the affairs of this world. Why ride in Jesus’ Yugo when Pilate offers us the possibility of our own Mercedes? Many of us are not ready for the manner in which Jesus could change our lives. We lack the love, the compassion, the humble caring that Christ embodied. Sure, we’re thankful for the grace that covers this and all our sins, but we’re not certain if we want to take our faith that far.
On this first day of Holy Week, I pray that we will want to be more like Jesus and less like Pilate.