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Tuesday, March 27, 2018

A confused donkey & a disappointed crowd

Change of Direction for Jesus

So far in the gospel of Mark Jesus has been secretive about his mission, warning his disciples not to tell the crowd what they know.  The disciples for the most part have been portrayed as lacking understanding and generally unable to do the things that Jesus asks of them.
All that is about to change.  Jesus is about to make a very clear statement that anyone – and most importantly the Pharisees – can’t miss, even if they have only the most basic understanding of their faith.

Disciples knew Jesus had changed

The disciples have known that Jesus’ attitude has changed since He declared that they must go to Judea.  In John 11 the disciples reminded Jesus that last time He was there they tried to stone Him.  Jesus is going to raise Lazarus (one of the people he loves the most) from the dead.  At the end of that conversation in John 11:16, it is Thomas who says “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  The disciples are dreading the journey back to Judea – but they can’t yet know the full horror that they will go through.


Lazarus lived at Bethany, which is less than two miles from Jerusalem.  It’s at Bethany that we pick up the story this morning. Bethany today is known as el `Azareyeh which the place of Lazarus.

Disciples Instructions

Mark doesn’t mention Lazarus, but has the disciples in the village anyway.  Here they are told to go and get a colt – a young donkey that had never been ridden.
The instructions are very simple and very clear.  They are told exactly what to say if they are challenged.  They are not given any other information, so probably don’t know why they are doing what they are doing – perhaps that is the best way sometimes.  They do exactly as they are told, and respond correctly to the challenge - “The Lord needs it and will send back shortly”.  As a result they are allowed to take the donkey to Jesus.

Miracle or plan?

Was this a miracle or a careful plan that Jesus had made.  There are a number of possibilities, if we are going to claim it as a miracle we need to be sure it wasn’t a plan.  The main objection to the plan theory is that Jesus hadn’t been here for a while – so how could he have arranged with someone to borrow their donkey.  It’s possible though that the donkey’s owner is in fact one of Jesus’ followers, and so had been with Him at various times and had made the arrangement.

Unridden Donkey

Miracle or not (and some commentators say ‘take your choice’) Jesus had chosen a donkey that had not been ridden. Animals that have not been under human control are specially valued for certain tasks.  Just as in 1 Samuel 6:7 when the Israelites were being given instructions about transporting the Ark of the Lord “Now then, get a new cart ready, with two cows that have calved and have never been yoked. Hitch the cows to the cart, but take their calves away and pen them up.”
This way it seems that it is clearer that God is in control, and that humans can have had no influence on the outcome.
The fact that Jesus was riding on an unbroken colt is a miracle.

The prophesy

Riding into Jerusalem on a donkey sends a very particular message.  The prophecy is in Zechariah 9:9 and says “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
Jesus is making a claim to be the king of the Jews.  The crowd see it, the Pharisees see it and their reactions and responses will lead ultimately to the crucifixion.  That is Jesus’ plan, that’s why he is heading to Jerusalem in this way.

The crowds response

The Pharisees response can wait until Good Friday, what’s of interest today is the crowd’s response.  Remember its coming up to passover.  Jerusalem is filling up with pilgrims from all over Israel and further afield.  The city will be heaving with people going in all directions – but here outside the city the crowds will mostly be headed towards the city.
There will be lots of foreigners who won’t know who Jesus is, but there will also be many people who have seen Him and even more who have heard what He has done.
At the sight of Him riding a donkey, they begin singing his praises ‘Hosanna in the Highest’ and ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’.

Royal Homage

They spread their cloaks on the road in front of him.  That must have confused the donkey!  You don’t do that for just anyone, I’ve never even heard of a celebrity receiving such treatment.  This response is reserved for Kings and Queens.  When Jehu was anointed king in 2 Kings 9:13 they immediately took off their cloaks and put them on the bare steps for him to walk on, the trumpets sounded and the crowd began shouting ‘Jehu is king’.

Simon Maccabaeus

The tradition of cutting branches seems to come from the victory of Simon Maccabaeus over the Syrians in 141 bce, where his return to Jerusalem was marked by his followers holding and waving palm branches.  As palms are not native to Jerusalem, the people responded by cutting down whatever leafy branches they could find and waving them and laying them in front of Jesus.  That must have confused the donkey too!

Peoples expectations

It is clear from these reactions and the chanting - “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” (v10) that the crowd were expecting just one thing.  They saw this as an opportunity to remove the Roman occupiers and restore the kingdom of David.  They saw this as a chance to restore their religious freedoms once again as Simon had done. Even though for the most part the Romans didn’t interfere with the Jewish religion.


We should look briefly at the other two chants – Hosanna and ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’.
Hosanna simply means ‘save now’, but by this time had already become a shout of praise to God, and has retained that meaning to this day. 

Blessed ...

‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’ was the greeting use as pilgrims arrived in Jerusalem, so it would have been very familiar to them all.  Both these chants come for Psalm 118 verses 25 & 26, one of the Hallel psalms that would have been sung on the pilgrimage anyway.  Now though the attention of the crowd is on Jesus and the chants and shouts are focussed on him and the expected outcome of his journey to Jerusalem.

Frenzy – return of the kingdom

The crowd has whipped itself up into a frenzy.  They have been calling for the return on the kingdom of David, not the return of the king, so they are going to be disappointed, because in the excitement they have missed the second part of the prophecy, so their understanding is limited.

Jesus in Jerusalem

Jesus enters Jerusalem and goes to the temple.  In verse 11 “He looks around at everything” might make Him sound like a tourist, but Jesus has been to the temple before – more than once.  He is looking around to see just how things work, the money changers, the people who sell small animals for sacrifice, any other trading activities that might be taking place.  He’s taking in the layout and getting ready for tomorrow.  By now its too late, and its time for the walk back to Bethany, two miles away across the valley.

No crowd

Now there is no crowd – where have they all gone?  They have melted away towards the homes they are staying in, to the outlying villages, to the camp sites.  They will be reflecting on what they saw today, and as they do their anger will grow as they believe their hopes have been dashed. 
Jesus did not begin an insurrection as they were hoping, he just looked around the temple and then left.  Herod’s palace is on the opposite side of the city, so word will have got around quickly that Jesus did not go there.

Donkey not enough?

Surely riding on a donkey was enough to convince them what Jesus was about, but apparently not.  The next verse in Zechariah says “I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.”

Save the World

Choosing to re-enact part of this prophecy should have made it very clear that insurrection was not the plan.  That the plan was crucifixion and resurrection.  That plan was to save the entire world, not just the Jews.  By dying the way he did he took all our sins, so that we can be forgiven.  And by rising to new life He proved, to his disciples and anyone else who will listen, that He was more than just a man.
We’ll hear more about that next week I’m sure.

The crowds reaction

The crowd reacted as they did because their vision for God was too small.  They were focussed on just their immediate problem and had lost sight of the amazing promises of God – even though they knew their scriptures much better than we know ours.  It is easy for us to be like the crowd and loose our sense of wonder and miss the big things that God is doing across His world, while getting very entangled in our own parochial problems.  It would be better to be like the disciples.

Be like the disciples

That’s much harder for us.  They were so attached to Jesus that even when all they could see was certain death – they still chose to follow Jesus.  Its hard for us to be like the disciples and simply follow commands, to respond to situations exactly as he would have us respond, with little or no understanding of what the point of our actions is.  If we can do that then Jesus mission will go on in the way that it should, bringing God to the world and

Glory to God.

It is those disciples and the ones who came after them who have made the ultimate difference.