In 2000 I was part of a group of friars who had gathered in the Holy Land to reflect and pray on the origins of our Order in the place where we came to be. A highlight of the trip was being able to read and ponder on many scripture passages in the place that they actually happened. One of my memories is very pertinent for today.
Our tour bus stopped on the top of the Mount of Olives. The plan was to walk down a road, more of an alley – a very steep alley at that, which has been there for three thousand years.
At our left was the largest Jewish cemetery established in the ancient belief the Messiah will appear on the Mount of Olives. At the bottom of the hill is the Garden of Gethsemane, guarded by the remains of olive trees that overheard the betrayal of Judas Iscariot. Straight ahead was Mount Zion, with the ancient walls of the city of Jerusalem. This is the route that Jesus took when he entered the city on Palm Sunday.
Right by the bus were a couple of local men. They waited for the tourists like us. “Would you like to borrow a donkey to ride down the hill?” they asked. “Perhaps you would sit upon one and we can take your picture.” These were not kind offers by generous new friends. This was the way those men make their living.
None of us took them up on the offer, particularly when we heard it was £50 for the picture and three times as much to “borrow” the donkey. These concessionaires would demand such fees because of the location. The Mount of Olives is the most famous place on earth to “borrow” a donkey. We turned down their invitation. It was enough for us to know we were on the same road with Jesus.
The people behind us, however, were some Americans. They were shelling out cash right and left for the privilege of riding those donkeys down the hill. The scene was somewhat comical. I think if they really wanted to take their Scripture seriously, they should have insisted that no money should have changed hands.
Our Scriptures tell us the donkey was borrowed. Jesus sent two disciples ahead of him on his way to Jerusalem. When they got to the small village of Bethphage, he said, “Go to the village up there, and you will find the colt of a donkey. Untie it and bring it to me. And if anybody asks, ‘Where are you going with my animal,’ simply say the Lord needs it, and we will bring it right back.”
This time through the familiar story, it’s the act of borrowing that catches my attention.
Anybody who has heard the story knows how exciting it is. Hundreds of people lined the road of the city. The Passover holiday was near and excitement ignited the air. Jesus intentionally chooses to join the festival parade in this way. He is the One that everybody awaits. He is the rightful ruler of God’s people, not Caesar. He comes to redeem the people from the oppression of the empire. And they sing, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”
But he comes on a borrowed donkey. Now what kind of king is this?
All of us know the story. Jesus was born in a borrowed place and laid in a borrowed manger. As he travelled, he had no place of his own to spend the night. He rode into the city on a borrowed donkey. He ate his final meal in a borrowed room. He was crucified on a borrowed cross, wearing a borrowed crown that soldiers forced upon his head. And when he died, friends placed his body in a borrowed tomb.
Jesus was a borrower. He did not grasp or grab what did not belong to him, but shared what was given to him freely. As the early church pondered the identity and character of Jesus, it declared and as we heard in our New Testament reading: “Jesus did not count equality with God as something to be crasped.” Our Lord did not hold onto his divinity and throw his weight around. He never forced himself upon anybody. So Jesus emptied himself poured himself out. He gave himself completely away for the benefit of others.
Have you ever considered how remarkable this is? Jesus didn’t own very much–just the tunic on his body and the sandals on his feet. After he was arrested and condemned, the soldiers tossed dice to see who would take his clothing.
He commanded the same of those who followed him. As he instructed them, “When you go out to proclaim the good news, take no money, no knapsack, no extra tunic, no extra shoes, not even a walking stick. Take only a word of peace, borrow the bed given to you, and proclaim that God’s kingdom has come very close.”
At its core, the Good News of God does not need a lot of props. What it needs is the kind of people who believe it simply as they can.
That is remarkable, especially in our culture so bent on consumption. Materialism infects a lot of otherwise Christian people. The best places in town buy a lot of fancy equipment to razzle-dazzle the crowds. They crank up the volume to amplify what they say. They put on a good show because they have been seduced to think the Gospel depends on having a lot of toys. But today we remember how the Saviour of the world is the One who borrows a donkey to ride downhill to his cross.
Who are the real blessed ones? At the sermon on the mount, Christ says they are the people who don’t have very much: the poor in spirit, those who mourn the loss of a loved one, those who are meek, those who are hungry for food and thirsty for righteousness. These are the blessed ones, says Our Lord. Who are the blessed ones? Blessed are those who keep a light hold on all that they have, for they know that everything in life depends on the generosity of God. They are the people who have everything.
There is a beauty to simplicity, to not owning much and needing very little. Those with this freedom will pay attention to the people around them. Little distracts them from the deep needs of the world. Nothing competes with their imagination or faithfulness.
From everything we know about him, Jesus was just like the people of his time, and he owned very little. What Jesus did possess was of infinite value. He possessed a deep knowledge of the scriptures. And that’s how he knew the prophets expected the true ruler of God’s people to be completely humble.
Jesus possessed a deep sensitivity to the world’s deepest needs. He paid attention to the hurts of poor and rich alike, comprehending the forces that twist a good person out of shape, seeing how forgiveness can cancel every festering hurt and always healing the minds, bodies, and spirits of the people whom he encountered on the way.
Most of all, his greatest possession was a love for every person. His love was never a hovering, needy love, but rather a willingness to give what he could for the well-being to those around him. In the words of the early church, Jesus emptied himself. He humbled himself.
And this is the kind of God that we glimpse in the man who borrows a donkey. Today we remember how Jesus gives himself to the world. On this festive day, he rides a borrowed donkey into the centre of the city that will reject him. A person with few possessions, he empties himself of all that he has. It’s all for the benefit of saving the world. And God keeps doing this saving work, setting us free from all selfishness and claiming us in the name of Jesus who owned very little, but who ultimately wishes to possess our hearts.
And then, dramatically, the tone of our liturgy changes. Now those same voices that cried out Hosanna, now shout the words ‘Crucify him!’ We begin to sense just how complicated and searing the events of these days will be. How are we going to live these days? How can we make this week truly holy? Maybe we can just make time. Some time to pray. Some time to focus on the cross that we wear or that we have on the walls of our homes. Some time to think of the love that is being offered to me. Some time to think of all those things that complicate my life unnecessarily. Let us all take time over these days to ponder the lengths that God goes through to communicate his love. To tell us that we matter.
May you have a blessed and holy week.