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On Donkeys, Palms and Money-Changers: A Meditation for Palm Sunday by Rev. Josh Pawelek

In the Christian liturgical year, today is Palm Sunday, the celebration of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as a humble king, five days before his crucifixion on what we know as Good Friday. This humble entry is followed in the books of Matthew, Mark and Luke with a rage-filled act of violent aggression as Jesus and his followers drive the money-changers and various merchants from the temple.[1] I’ve always experienced a profound dissonance between the humble entry and the violent confrontation. This morning I want to talk about this dissonance which I can’t fully resolve, and reflect on the often tenuous relationship between our aspirations to minister to a hurting world with humility and our anger, frustration, indignation and rage at injustice.

On Palm Sunday, depending on which Gospel is read, Christians will hear some version of words (or a reference to them) from the ancient Hebrew prophet Zechariah:

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! 

Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!

See, your king comes to you,    

righteous and victorious,

lowly and riding on a donkey,    

on a colt, the foal of a donkey.[2]

Matthew and John quote Zechariah directly as Jesus rides into Jerusalem. Mark and Luke make reference to the prophecy without directly quoting it. I try to conjure the image of Jesus riding a donkey down that dusty road. Donkeys are not the most elegant animals. Far from it, in fact. I imagine Jesus is a little too big for his clumsy steed. I imagine the donkey is halting and jerky. Maybe it needs to be coaxed along. It is likely more stubborn than compliant. The image borders on absurd.

Nevertheless, at least some of the people bearing witness to Jesus’ awkward ride would be familiar with the relevant verses from Hebrew scripture, would be making the connection to the prophet’s words. It would be dawning on them: this is the fulfillment of the prophecy. This person Jesus must be the long-awaited king. Indeed, as the people along the way are laying their cloaks and palm fronds in the road, they begin singing Hosannah! Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven.[3] If he is a king, then he’s a peaceful king, a humble king, a lowly king sitting astride a lowly donkey.

Some commentators interpret this scene as political theater. For many, the donkey is a symbol of humble service; the donkey’s foal, or colt, even more so. Instead of the symbolism of power, force and violence that we might associate with ancient kings and modern autocrats, instead of riding in on a war horse or chariot, instead of entering the city at the head of an army, this king rides on a donkey, his onlookers singing praises and quoting scripture. This king oozes humility, his humble appearance an implicit critique and stinging rebuke of the power of the Roman Empire and its occupying forces.

I’ll speak for myself, but I suspect this is true for many of us, this image of a humble king appeals. This soft power, meek power, nonviolent power, spiritual power, this power of vulnerability—as opposed to the power of force, violence, militarism and empire—appeals. The prospect of learning to nurture and wield this kind of power—within a congregation, within the wider community, within social and environmental justice movements—for the sake of weakening the hold of the of power domination over our lives and our society—is what called me into ministry in the first place.

Humility is and must be an essential dimension of our character, our interactions, and our relationships as people of liberal faith. Humility in ministry, in activism, in preaching, in speaking to those who lack access to political, economic and social power and in speaking to those who control access to and wield political, economic and social power is essential.

And it is insufficient.

In fact, it is abundantly clear to me that the powers and the principalities, the war-makers, the large land-holders and property-owners, the hoarders of wealth, the corporate interests, the hedge funds buying up medical practices and real estate and raising costs with impunity, the anti-worker spin masters undermining unions, the ambitious politicians holding onto power no matter the cost to their integrity, endlessly pummeling the vulnerable and voiceless in cynical bids for votes—it is clear to me that they welcome our humility with open arms, precisely because it is ineffectual. They welcome our humility, even praise it today, because it is easy to ignore tomorrow. They’ll listen today, and nod, “yes.” They’ll say nice things, “thank you for your testimony pastor, it’s always good to hear from you.” And tomorrow it’s back to business as usual, back to excessive profits, to protecting excessive wealth, to a pervasive unwillingness to fund the priorities of the people, a pervasive unwillingness to serve the people.

And though humility is clearly an essential trait for Jesus and his ministry, and though he clearly meant to dramatize the power of humility over the power of empire with his dramatic if absurd entry into Jerusalem, surely he knew it was insufficient too.

In Matthew, after entering Jerusalem, Jesus goes immediately to the temple and drives “out all who were selling and buying.” He overturns the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sell doves, quoting the Hebrew prophet Isaiah: “My house shall be called a house of prayer; but you are making it a den of thieves.”[4] Luke tells the same story, as does Mark (though in Mark Jesus waits a day). John tells the same story, though it happens much earlier in the narrative.

I contemplate turning over tables. I contemplate driving other human beings out of the Temple—people who had economic reasons for being there, who were entrenched there, who had permission from the authorities to be there, and who weren’t in any way predisposed to leave. I can’t imagine they said to themselves, “Oh, it’s that dude who just rode into town on the donkey with the Hosannah chorus, we better do what he says.” Of course not. This is not just symbolism. This is an exercise in physical violence. In John’s telling, Jesus fashions a whip of cords to drive them out. Jesus is clearly enraged. We might call it righteous, principled, God-centered rage, but it is rage. He channels that rage, clears out a space for himself and his disciples, and then proceeds to teach and heal for the next few days. This is important. His actions do not amount to a coup. He doesn’t claim political, economic or social power. He doesn’t use his rage to dominate. He uses it to create a space for collective spiritual practice—for healing, for saving lives—which in his view is the Temple’s purpose.

When I assess my own ministry, my public witness, my activism, my leadership, I recognize that I am much more at home with humility than I am with rage. In the beginning I felt called to a ministry of humble engagement—forceful when necessary, yes—but certainly not to the use of physical violence and destruction of property. I still don’t feel called in that direction.

And yet, I do feel rage. And beneath that rage, perhaps more potently, I feel sadness. I feel this way in response to many aspects of our society. I want to preach a sermon on how upside-down our state tax-code is, how it penalizes poor people and rewards the state’s wealthiest residents and corporations. I want to preach on Connecticut’s arbitrary state budget spending cap which limits state spending on essential programs and services with no regard to the actual needs of actual people, further perpetuating our already stark racial, gender and economic inequality. I want to preach on the governor’s refusal to implement Clean Slate, a major piece of criminal justice reform which he signed into law in 2021. I want to preach about how hard it is to open HUSKY to undocumented people who qualify—how many lives it would save, and how much money it would save if people could have access to health care before visiting emergency room. I feel rage and sadness at efforts to curtail reproductive health care and access to abortion; at the way so many politicians across the nation refuse to adopt common sense, widely supported gun control measures; at ongoing anti-GLBTQ violence and legislation sweeping the nation; at efforts to limit voting rights. All of it is enraging, saddening, even sickening.

But what enrages, saddens, sickens and frightens me the most is the rise of Christian Nationalism in the United States. Many of my colleagues have started preaching about it. I am not emotionally ready. I find I can’t listen to reports about it. I start reading articles, but I can’t continue. I shared Pat and Dan’s version of Woodie Guthry’s “All You Fascists,” because Christian Nationalism is a fascist movement. It openly rejects democracy. It openly rejects the pluralism which is central to United States society and enshrined in the first amendment to the United States Constitution—which is also central to Unitarian Universalism. It celebrates autocrats and dictators. It seeks to curtail the rights of women, GLBTQ people and communities, immigrants and other religious minorities. It traffics openly in White Supremacy. The thought that a Christian Nationalist minority is actively seeking to impose its world-view through the law on the rest of us is enraging. If anything could lead me to turn over tables in a public space, it is the arrogance, cruelty, anti-democratic intentions, and the threatened and actual violence of Christian Nationalism.

If anything could….

But I am not taking the bait. I really don’t want my rage to lead me in that direction.

My question, in response to Jesus’ action in the temple, is not about how I or we leave humility behind and bring rage into the public arena. That’s a recipe for the unbridled, ungrounded rage of the January 6th insurrection. That’s the wrong revolution. My question is about how we express our rage—and the sadness and fear underlying it—without losing our humility, without losing our humanity, without losing our divinity. If we are enraged—saddened, fearful, sickened—expressing these feelings out loud, naming the reasons for them, and holding firm against this Christian Nationalist tide, is essential. But is there a way to do it that that honors the integrity and the divinity in those whose actions enrage us, even though we know they have no interest in honoring our integrity and divinity? Is there a way to do it without writing them out of the human family—even though we know they have no problem writing us out of the human family? Violence has never offered a sufficient answer to this question. I’m not second-guessing Jesus. But I do wonder how express our rage in a way that doesn’t escalate toward violence even in the face of threatened or actual violence.

It wasn’t Jesus’ normal mode, but in this one instance he resorted to violence. It is easy to gloss over this, to take it as a metaphor for something less violent. It is easy because we’ve been socialized to think of Jesus as nonviolent. So this action must not have been violent, despite the whip of cords. I’ve yet to read a sermon in which the preacher questions Jesus’ tactics in the temple, though I have to assume I’m not the only one. It helps that Jesus didn’t use violence to take over, to dominate, to oppress. Again, he used it to create a space for teaching and healing.  He used it to save and uplift people. But it doesn’t change the fact that he resorted to violence. Believe me, I want the moneychangers out of the temple as much as he did. I want the temple to be a house of prayer. I’m with him. But I don’t think I would follow the path he did. That’s why I say I can’t resolve the dissonance. And maybe I don’t have to. Maybe the best we can do is live with the dissonance, praying that whenever we feel compelled to bring our rage out into the open—and there are times when we must—that we hold on as best we can to our humility, humanity and divinity. But the dissonance remains.

We know this: our humility, without our rage, is all too often ineffectual. We also know this: our rage, without our humility, is the path to dehumanizing violence. So let our humility inform our rage; and let our rage inform our humility. Let this mutual informing yield an enduring commitment to our common humanity and our common divinity. Let this commitment sustain us in our individual and collective struggles. Let this commitment sustain our moral vision. Let this commitment generate a unique form of power. Not the power of violence or its threat, not corporate or political power; but an absurdly different power that rides into holy cities on donkeys, that prays to a loving God, that uses rage, when it must, not to control humanity but to serve humanity, not to harm but to heal, not to dominate people, but to uplift people.

May we strive always to attain that power.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] This scene takes place much earlier in the book of John. See John 2:15-17.

[2] Zechariah 9:9 (NRSV)

[3] Luke: 19: 38. (NRSV)

[4] Matthew 12-13. 

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