October 7, 2008
King of the Mashup
Today's donkey tale comes just in time for Yom Kippur, as it has to do with two other major Jewish holidays--not to mention atonement.
On the week of the Passover, the celebration of the Jews' deliverance from slavery in Egypt through the culmination of the plagues and the sacrifice of the firstborn, Jesus entered Jerusalem--but not before he sent ahead for a donkey that he could ride in on. If anyone asked why his messengers were taking a donkey, he told them to say, "The Lord needs it."
Why does Jesus, a lifelong walker, suddenly need a donkey? Dorothy Sayers imagines a prior conversation between Jesus and the Zealots. They want him to join them, to lead them in the overthrow of Roman oppressors. They give him a signal to alert them to his decision: hitched together are a horse and a donkey; if he chooses to fight, the horse is his, but if he chooses otherwise, he is to take the donkey. Jesus chooses not to fight.
It's compelling drama, this imagined apocryphal interchange, but it's not the only horse in this theoretical race. N. T. Wright, in his John for Everyone commentary, suggests that Jesus rode a donkey, accompanied by followers waving palm branches, as a symbolic reminder of the Maccabean revolt led by Judas Maccabaeus, which was celebrated by waving palm branches while entering Jerusalem and culminated in "Judas and his family [becoming] kings of Israel." In other words, Jesus is celebrating Hanukkah.
But Hanukkah is usually mashed up with Christmas, not with Easter. Easter--the story being told here--is mashed up with Passover, the celebration of God's (not the king's) deliverance of Israel from Egypt. That's what Jesus was trotting into atop this donkey. Is Jesus guilty of mixing metaphors?
Let this be a lesson to you, boys and girls: rules can be broken, but only once you've mastered the rules. Jesus is bringing together Hanukkah and Passover as a third reminder to his people: God--no mere man--is the true king of Israel. The Maccabean deliverance was led by mere men and didn't take, and the Jewish kingship had suffered a gradual hollowing out by the long line of people whom Rome had graciously allowed to occupy the throne. The deliverance that took, that dealt firmly and finally with Israel's oppressors, came from God and God alone, and everything--not just the powers that be--was changed as a result.
Jesus accomplishes this great mashup of imagery by riding a colt, the foal of a donkey. Zechariah goes on in his messianic prophecy:
Jesus' reminder of the blood covenant is still coming, mere days away, and will bring into this matrix of metaphors the third great Jewish holiday: Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement. But for now he rides a donkey, proclaiming peace, and the people lay down branches before him, shouting "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!"