Our King Is Humble
Mark 11:1-11, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church. March 25, 2018, Palm Sunday
It seems strange how much time Mark spends on the donkey—or as he calls him, the colt, a donkey’s child. Mark records Jesus’ instructions about how to get the donkey, then he repeats the whole thing again as the plan is carried out. 6 of the 11 verses in the story are about getting the donkey.
But maybe the donkey is the key to the meaning of the story. Is this any way for a king to enter the capital city? Wouldn’t he choose a more dignified—and intimidating—animal to ride? A burro is for Sancho Panza, not Don Quixote. Other gospels point out that the choice of a young donkey seems to be an intentional echo of Zechariah 9:9-10:
Rejoice, O people of Zion![
Shout in triumph, O people of Jerusalem!
Look, your king is coming to you.
He is righteous and victorious,
yet he is humble, riding on a donkey—
riding on a donkey’s colt.
I will remove the battle chariots from Israel
and the warhorses from Jerusalem.
I will destroy all the weapons used in battle,
and your king will bring peace to the nations. (NLT)
The donkey means that the king is humble. And note that it’s not a triumphal entry, in Zechariah or in the gospels. “Triumph” is a Roman word, and it means a military parade after a battle or longer war, when the victorious troops return home. Zechariah says that when the Lord’s king comes to Jerusalem, he will not come as a conquering general on a warhorse but in peace, on a donkey’s colt. When he comes, the Lord will in fact remove the warhorses and the battle chariots; the Lord will destroy all the weapons used in battle, and the new king will bring peace to the nations. Like the parades the young people led yesterday, this was an anti-violence parade, an anti-weapon demonstration.
It helps to understand Jesus’ motives if you know that there were two parades in Jerusalem that day, two dramatic entries. The Roman governor Pilate did not live in the Jewish city of Jerusalem. The Romans had built a brand-new city on the Mediterranean coast with a large port, which they named Caesarea. That was the center of Roman power. But every year at the time of Passover, when everybody and his brother would gather for the feast in Jerusalem, Pilate would move his headquarters to the Jewish capital for the week.
Pilate would have been coming into the city from the west, and his entrance really would have been a parade. You’ve probably seen Roman processions in the movies. Pilate would have ridden a large white horse, wearing armor, surrounded by soldiers and flags. New Testament scholars Marcus Bog and John Dominic Crossan described the procession as
A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful [The Last Week, 2006].
It is all meant to signify that Rome is in charge—if necessary, by means of violence. For Pilate, it was a way of saying arrogantly, “Don’t mess with me. I am above you in every way.”
But from the east, here comes Jesus, entering Jerusalem through the opposite gate. It is possible that Jesus planned his peasant parade to mock Pilate’s entry. But even if it’s not a spoof, it’s clearly an alternative. I am not like Pilate. I come as a humble king—even if that seems like an oxymoron. I come in peace. I come as one meek and lowly of heart; come to me and I will give you rest. I rule by love and sacrifice.
The Jewish leaders in Jerusalem had a choice to make. Which leader would they follow? Which government would they align themselves with—the Roman Empire or the kingdom of God? They knew that Jesus was the one living a life consistent with Jewish values, seeking God’s justice and righteousness. But they knew that Pilate was a winner. Rome seemed to have all the cards—the money, the weapons, the organization. Virtually all the leaders of the religious establishment chose a path they might call “pragmatic.” We know that Pilate is a pagan, but we have to work with him. We have to go along with violence to avoid being victims of it. And, I think, these leaders were cynical about what God could actually do. Let’s trust politics rather than God.
We too have a choice to make. There are two parades on the move. Which parade are we going to march in? Will we wave our palm branches before the self-proclaimed humble one riding his almost pathetic donkey colt? Or will we salute the soldier who seems to have all the power, and follow his troops? Will we lead lives that accommodate the powerful, even if power seems to have corrupted them deeply? Or will we choose the humble king and his way of life as our model?
Christian leaders in the United States face a similar choice—whether to follow Jesus in his humility and his critique of our violent culture, or to go along with the majority culture, accepting that God’s people are under the authority of pagans, conceding that the culture is shaped by the rulers—and worse, giving God’s blessing to the raw use of power to get your way. Humility was not considered a virtue in ancient Rome, and it is not a virtue in today’s America. It is seen as weakness.
The cover story in the April issue of The Atlantic is a long piece by evangelical writer Michael Gerson, a political conservative who was George W. Bush’s speechwriter. The title is “How Evangelicals Lost Their Way,” and it traces how Evangelicals changed over the past 200 years and how, eventually, some chose to sacrifice their values in order to get access to power and to protect their own interests. Gerson writes, “Strength-worship and contempt for ‘losers’ smack more of Nietzsche than of Christ.” Then he gives a list of beatitudes reflecting the values of those in power: “Blessed are the proud. Blessed are the ruthless. Blessed are the shameless. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after fame.”
The antithesis of a humble king is the king we have: one who is never wrong, one who, like Pilate, is completely cynical about the truth (What is truth anyway?). He brags about his greatness. I suppose he would agree with Muhammad Ali, who said, “When you are as great as I am, it is hard to be humble.” He demeans rivals and women and his own staff. His first value, like so many kings, is self-aggrandizement and loyalty which fits his narcissism.
The problem for Christians is that you can’t quarantine your king and pretend his behavior won’t infect you. It is a commonplace to say that the culture has been coarsened in the past two years; that is a way of saying that people in general are giving up Christian ways for mud-wrestling. The only way to stay out of the mud is to be very intentional and public about saying, “My king is the humble king. I choose to live by the values of Jesus.”
The early Christians announced, “Christ is Lord” as a way of refusing to say, “Caesar is Lord.” Like them, we have to announce that we refuse to live in the moral universe this man creates. We will not behave as he behaves. We will not allow our families and our churches to treat such pride as normal. We will look for humble leaders who rule by agape—sacrificial love—rather than those who focus on winning.
I was thinking about who an example of a humble king could be, and it struck me that are very close to the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King. Whatever his failures, his leadership was shaped by Jesus. He trained countless Christians in nonviolence. He identified with the poor and worked for them to the end, even though he could have ridden best-sellers and a Nobel Prize to a comfortable life. He came into city after city riding, in effect, a donkey-colt and marched alongside the lowly. Even in death he was humble; many of you will remember the pine coffin pulled by mules. Don’t you wonder what Dr. King would say about the moral tenor of our times? No doubt he would cheer on the teenagers and children gathered yesterday so close to the ground he made sacred in Washington, but he would react with horror to those who live on pride and hatred and division.
It would help us in these days if the church focused on humility as a prime virtue. One of my favorite poems is T. S. Eliot’s “East Coker,” which looks back on his writing life as it nears the end. It says
Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly…
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “A great man is always willing to be little.” And his English contemporary John Ruskin wrote
I believe that the first test of a great man is his humility. I don’t mean by humility, doubt of his power. But really great men have a curious feeling that the greatness is not of them but through them. And they see something divine in every other man and are endlessly, foolishly, incredibly merciful.
Jesus taught humility and modeled it for us, but virtually all religions teach humility. Listen to this nugget from the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, the father of Taoism:
I have three precious things which I hold fast and prize. The first is gentleness; the second is frugality; the third is humility, which keeps me from putting myself before others. Be gentle and you can be bold; be frugal and you can be liberal; avoid putting yourself before others and you can become a leader among men.”
I have one more quotation, which comes from Mother Teresa, who might be one of the greatest modern models of humility. She suggested an action list:
These are the few ways we can practice humility:
To speak as little as possible of one's self.
To mind one's own business.
Not to want to manage other people's affairs.
To avoid curiosity.
To accept contradictions and correction cheerfully.
To pass over the mistakes of others.
To accept insults and injuries.
To accept being slighted, forgotten and disliked.
To be kind and gentle even under provocation.
Never to stand on one's dignity.
To choose always the hardest. [The Joy in Loving: A Guide to Daily Living]