One of the things that intrigues me in the story of the first Palm Sunday is to imagine the crowd that is gathered. Who’s among the crowd and what are they thinking? What are their thoughts as they wonder about the person riding that donkey?
I imagine there are some among the crowd who have no idea who Jesus is. They’re probably out on the fringes of the crowd, late arrivals to the scene attracted by the noise and the excitement. But they have no clue who that is riding the donkey.
Then there is another group of people, probably closer to the front of the crowd, earlier arrivals to the scene because they’ve heard some of the stories circulating through Jerusalem about this Jesus. Hearing that this Jesus is coming to Jerusalem, they’ve come out of curiosity, wanting to know if the stories are true. All they know about the person riding that donkey is from the few stories they’ve heard. Perhaps they’ll witness a miracle or two.
Then, closer still to the front, are those who have not only heard the stories, but have witnessed some of the events taking place. They’ve joined the entourage somewhere along the way. Perhaps they’ve come all the way from Galilee and were witnesses to some of the healings that took place. Maybe they were among the crowd of people on a hillside in Galilee miraculously fed by this Jesus. Possibly they’re from Jericho and recently witnessed the blind receiving their sight, or are still amazed about this man who dined in the home of the hated tax collector Zacchaeus. Maybe they’re from the outskirts of Jerusalem and know somebody who knows somebody who witnessed Lazarus being raised from the dead. They’ve been touched in some way by this Jesus and they want to know more about the man riding that donkey into Jerusalem.
And in front, crowded around Jesus and the donkey are the disciples themselves, the 12 disciples and other close followers of Jesus—the women, for example, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Salome, and others. They have witnessed much with this Jesus and the excitement has been growing. Yet even his closest disciples are unclear about who Jesus is. Is he the Messiah? And what does that mean? Who is that, really, riding that donkey?
It’s only with a later perspective that clearer answers come. Crucifixion, and resurrection, changed lives through the power of Holy Spirit bring better understanding of who Jesus is. With greater awareness after the event and from his own experiences since the events of what we’ve come to know as Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday, the apostle Paul identifies who it was riding that donkey. Perhaps even Paul, then known as Saul, is among the crowd that day. After all, Paul was a Pharisee and likely would have been in Jerusalem for preparations for Passover. What thoughts might he have had that day about that man riding the donkey? But now, standing on this side of the events of that week and the event of his own Damascus Road experience with this Jesus, Paul tells us some important things about Jesus in his letter to the Philippians. And it’s important to note the words Paul uses.
First of all, Paul says that Jesus was "in very nature God." The word Paul uses here is morphe. It means the essential nature of something. In other words, the essential nature of Jesus is divine. I doubt any among the crowd that day had that thought on their mind. This is God on that donkey? How is that possible? Because, Paul goes on to tell us, this Jesus did not consider his "equality with God something to be grasped," a difficult phrase to translate but with a meaning that Jesus didn’t consider his divine nature something to be used to his advantage. Rather, "he emptied himself" and took on the very nature of a servant. All of this is to say that Jesus could’ve claimed all the prerogatives of divinity, but instead took on the nature of humanity, to experience all we experience as human beings. It was not a pseudo-humanity that Jesus experienced. It was complete humanity. Contrast that with the Greek gods of mythology who took on the appearance of a human being, but kept all their godly powers to employ whenever they needed it. Jesus gave up such prerogatives and experienced all that humanity experiences.
Yet, his humanity, while very real, was also temporary. Paul goes on to say that Jesus was "found in appearance as a man." The word Paul uses here, to make the clear distinction of who this Jesus is, is schema, not morphe. Schema is an appearance that changes. Morphe is the essential nature. The best way to understand the difference is to look at how we might describe our humanity. Our morphe is that of a human being, a homo sapien. That doesn’t change. Our schema would be the temporary stages of our humanity—infant, child, youth, adult. Our schema changes, it is temporary. Our morphe is our essential nature.
So, Paul tells us something that would be shocking to those present at that first Palm Sunday. This one who is riding on a donkey is by nature God, has emptied himself of that nature and its prerogatives, has taken on the very nature of a servant and, although temporary, experiences all that humanity experiences.
Paul goes on to tell us more about this one who is riding that donkey—and it also would be shocking to those present at that first Palm Sunday despite the fact Jesus had told his disciples it was coming. And that is he would experience death on a cross, the lowest form of death one could experience, the most humiliating way a person could die in first century Palestine. Crucifixion was reserved for the lowest of criminals and was never inflicted upon a Roman citizen. It was a disgraceful, humiliating and excruciating way to die.
Yet, Paul goes on to say, through that humiliation, Jesus would experience the highest exaltation—that every knee would bow, every tongue confess that he, Jesus, is Lord. From equality with God, to the lowest form of human experience, to the highest exaltation. That’s who’s riding on that donkey.
In your contemplations of Lent leading to Easter, reflect upon just who that is riding the donkey. It is, by very nature, God; taking on the nature of humanity, and a servant at that; humbling himself to experience death, and not just any death but death on a cross; then to experience the highest of exaltation, resurrection from the dead and the One before whom every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord.
Now, as important as that is, that’s not the main point Paul wants to make. The main point is this; in our relationships with others we’re to have the same attitude as Jesus. Rather than asserting our rights and privileges over others, our "prerogatives" whatever they might be, we are instead to empty ourselves, becoming a servant for the benefit of others. Rather than expressing prideful exclamations and expectations, we’re to humble ourselves and exert the rights of others. Our passage for today begins with these words: "Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus," and there follows the description of this person entering Jerusalem on that donkey that first Palm Sunday. Prior to that, Paul writes these words: "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others," (Phil. 2:3, 4). Our model for doing that is Jesus Christ, as Paul goes on to show. That’s Paul’s point. As powerful as his theology about Jesus is, his greater concern is how we might follow Christ’s example.
As we consider the nature of this One who is riding that donkey, we’re challenged by Paul to consider the nature of our Christianity. Therefore, we might ask, are we morphe Christians, or schema Christians? In other words, is our Christianity a temporary thing, occasionally taking the form of what a disciple of Jesus Christ should look like? Or is the very nature of our being a reflection of Christian faith? Does our Christian faith show up occasionally…on Sunday mornings, or when it benefits us, but then on other occasions there’s no hint of it? Someone observing such a schema Christian would find them asserting themselves over others, ignoring the interests of others, or, worse yet, working against the interests of others. In contrast, the morphe Christian consistently reflects the same attitude as that of Jesus Christ—emptying of self, humility, even sacrificing for the benefit of others.
I’ve mentioned before the book Good to Great. I’d heard it mentioned by speakers at several different church conferences I’d attended and finally decided perhaps I should read it. The book is not a church book. It is a book about business and building companies that move from being merely good companies to being great companies. Yet, there are a lot of lessons in the book apropos to churches. One fascinating thing in the book is what the author, Jim Collins, and his researchers discovered about the leaders of great companies. It surprised Collins and his researchers. The expectation was—and I bet it would be your expectation also—that leaders of great companies were charismatic, big ego figures, people who exerted their strong wills and personalities upon the company. The reality was far from it. What the researchers discovered was that leaders of good to great companies had a surprising humility, evidenced in one way in what Collins calls "the window and the mirror." Such leaders, he writes, "look[ed] in the mirror, not out the window, to apportion responsibility for poor results, never blaming other people, external factors, or bad luck." Additionally, in an expression of "personal humility," great leaders "looked out the window, not in the mirror, to apportion credit for the success of the company—to other people, external factors, and good luck," (Good to Great, Jim Collins, p. 36). Interesting, isn’t it? That’s the kind of leadership Jesus models for us.
As William O’Malley states in the quote on the cover of the bulletin, the message Jesus gives is not what we might expect, and certainly not what we want to hear. Jesus takes the parade of Palm Sunday in a different direction. We expect exaltation of ego and assertion of our rights. Jesus leads us in a parade of humility and concern for the rights of others, revealing that as the pathway to exaltation. I doubt that many in the crowd that original Palm Sunday would observe the events of the week and proclaim Christ a great leader. But, the funny thing is, the One riding that donkey knows what is best for us—and modeled it in his own life.