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Sunday, March 16, 2008

A Sermon for a Jackass

Here is the text of today's Palm Sunday sermon:

Meeting Jesus Again
John Shuck
Palm Sunday
March 16, 2008


I have been puzzling over donkeys this week.

I invite you to take a moment and imagine a donkey.

Picture in your mind’s eye a donkey.

Think of stories you know about donkeys.

Think of images and iconography.

Now think of what the donkey as a symbol represents to you.

What characteristics are associated with the donkey?

What feelings can you identify when you think about a donkey?

Now I am going to leave that there. I would be curious of course what images and characteristics came into your mind. You can tell me later if you like. The reason I did that little exercise is that I want to bring to some awareness that symbol.

All of those associations that you have with the donkey are part of our collective knowing. The donkey is a symbol. It doesn’t matter if our associations come from recent literature or film. They all represent this symbol.

Think of the children’s movie, Shrek. The Shrek films are brilliant movies because they capture the symbolism. While everyone loves the character, Shrek, the favorite character is of course, the donkey.

What is the donkey? A beast of burden. Not very bright. Stubborn. Humble. Common. Not much to look at.

I know it is a bit of risk to talk about such a thing during election season. The donkey is the symbol for the Democratic party. It is kind of interesting how that came about. In the 1828 election, Andrew Jackson was called a jackass because of his populist views and his slogan: “Let the people rule.” Jackson was clever enough to use the donkey symbol to his advantage.

Apologies for being vulgar in the pulpit, but the phrase dumb-ass has to do with the ignorance of a donkey. The point is that the donkey is not what we might associate with spirituality, intelligence, or leadership.

Yet it is the donkey who is the main character in today’s story.

Jesus rides a donkey into Jerusalem.

Let’s go to the beginning of the Gospel story. Think of Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem. Picture it. What is Mary riding? A donkey, right?

It is interesting that you won’t find in the gospel narratives that Mary rode a donkey. It doesn’t say that. But we know she is on a donkey because of the imagery that we have inherited.

Mary rides a donkey into Bethlehem, very pregnant with the Son of God.

The Son of God rides a donkey into Jerusalem as he faces his last week.

Lesser known but still in our imagination is that the donkey was at the foot of the cross when Jesus was crucified. Some breeds of donkeys have a dark strip of hair across their shoulders and another strip that crosses it. The legend is that the donkey followed Jesus to the crucifixion and he turn away because he couldn’t bear to see Jesus crucified, yet he couldn’t leave his friend. As he turned his back the shadow of the cross fell upon the donkey’s back.

The donkey is associated with Jesus as opposed to say the war horse. We will find the warhorse associated with Jesus in the Book of Revelation when Jesus returns as the conqueror. But that is much later. Jesus is in the gospels rides a donkey.

We find the donkey in the Hebrew Scriptures at a couple of important points. The Bible is odd in that it often doesn’t give us details that we would like to know. At other times it pauses for details.

Moses after he receives his assignment from YHWH to go to Pharaoh to liberate the people, gets ready for the trip. YHWH speaks to Moses, telling him that his brother Aaron will be the spokesman:

20So Moses took his wife and his sons, put them on a donkey, and went back to the land of Egypt; and Moses carried the staff of God in his hand.”

Does that prove anything? No. It is simply evocative. At the point where the hero of the story is to go to do a liberating act on behalf of YHWH, the storyteller pauses, to tell us about the donkey.

In the most significant story regarding Abraham, YHWH tells him to take his son, his only son, the one whom he loves, and offer him as a burnt offering. Here is what Abraham does without blinking an eye:

So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt-offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. (Gen. 22:3)

All I am suggesting here is that at the gospel storytellers knew these stories. They used them to tell of the significance of Jesus who is both the liberator and the sacrifice. Those who heard the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem as both liberator and sacrifice on a donkey would have made the connection.

Then of course the gospel writers found a prophecy in Zechariah that fit quite nicely:

9Rejoice 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. (Zechariah 9:9)

The donkey ties together the role of Jesus as liberator, sacrifice, and king.

The author of Matthew’s gospel does an odd thing. For some reason he doesn’t understand the parallelism of Zechariah’s poetry and thinks that the phrase:
“Riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” means that Jesus must ride two animals. So Matthew has Jesus ride two animals into Jerusalem. That detail is a clue that the authors were not writing history, they were writing, if you will, creative legend. They were writing theology.

The theology is this: the embodiment of God’s love is known in the story of Jesus who is liberator, sacrifice, and king, and in a very different way than we normally think of liberation, sacrifice, or kingship.

The authors of the gospels, I believe, are telling us: If you think Jesus and what it means to follow Jesus in this world, don’t think warhorse, think donkey.

The donkey was used by the opponents of Christianity in the early centuries as a form of derision. A piece of graffiti was found dated to around 200 that features a man crucified with a boy standing at the foot of the cross in prayer. The one crucified has a head of a donkey. The inscription reads: “Alexamenos worships his god.”

The donkey also symbolizes ignorance. It symbolizes foolishness. Celsus an intellectual pagan criticized Christianity as a religion for the not very bright. It attracted the masses and the ignorant. To which of course, the Christians turned around: the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of human beings.

Early Gnostic Christians viewed the gospels in a very interesting way. In one of the Gnostic texts, the image of Jesus entering into Jerusalem on a donkey symbolized Jesus overcoming his brute, ignorant nature. He would enter into Jerusalem and die to his old self and be liberated to his new self. Thus he would show the path of liberation.

Upon his entry into Jerusalem he was cheered by the crowds because they had a glimpse of him for who we was. Don’t be fooled by the donkey, this one is the Son of God.

Whatever we think of donkeys, humble, a beast of burden, foolish, common, they appear to be in the gospels and in the key texts upon which the gospel writers found their inspiration, a symbol for the way God was revealed through Jesus.

From Philippians chapter 2:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was* in Christ Jesus,

6who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,

7but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.


The Christian religion is an ambiguous one. Its mystery is hard to grasp. It is the embrace of what the powers of the world consider foolish.

Love your enemies.
Give away your possessions.
Respond to violence with non-violence.
Die to your to self.
Be born anew to embrace all.

Let the donkey be your guide.

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