Our story this week (while fairly well known) is also quite the oddity even among a book of so many strange stories. In this passage, Jesus orchestrates a strange parade into Jerusalem that is one of deep contrasts. While the people gathered along the route are full of shouts of Hosanna! and acclimation these come while he rides in on the back of a colt, or young donkey. It’s a strange image in and of itself…Jesus riding a juvenile and untrained donkey (one wonders even if Jesus’s feet even were off the ground while it bucked and rebelled!) while people call out very real and heartfelt petitions for God to save them through Christ’s work and ministry. It’s a scene of almost comical contrast.
In addition to that though, is the strangeness of how the story is told in the Gospel of Mark. You see, the Gospel of Mark is distinguishable by its hectic pace and concise phrasing. As opposed to the other Gospels which all have over 20 chapters, Mark only has 16 and a breakneck pace to tell the story of Jesus ministry. In fact, one of the author’s favorite words is “immediately” because of how often it is used to transition the reader from moment to moment and place to place. The writer doesn’t waste a single word or moment to get us through the story quickly.
Which makes what happens in the beginning of this story all the more strange. Out of the eleven brief verses the author gives to tell the story of Jesus’ triumphant and odd entrance to Jerusalem, more than half are given to telling the seemingly uneventful story of how Jesus acquires the donkey in the first place. Six verses are dedicated to this tale, while multiple miracles in the same Gospel only receive 4 or 5 verses. Why does the author of Mark place so much focus and interest on what appears to be such a mundane moment before the real action of the parade begins?
On the surface, it is a relatively unremarkable moment. Jesus in preparation for entering Jerusalem sends his disciples ahead to find him a young donkey to ride in. They go ahead to a small village where they find the untrained colt as he assured them they would. They tell the owners that Jesus needs it and off they go. Now, on one hand, it’s clear that the author is paying attention to a previous story from the book of Zechariah to hint at the Messiah symbolism of Jesus riding in on a donkey. (Zechariah 9:9 says Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.) But none of that explains why the donkey is untrained and why the author spends so long talking about how Jesus just swings in and claims it from its owners. Why take so many verses to explain how Jesus gets this animal when it is enough to just say that he rode in on it? Why tell us how Jesus ends up claiming such an unimpressive animal?
I wonder, though, is the author just preparing the reader for how Jesus will be claiming so many ordinary things as sacred? Because as the Gospel of Mark continues, it does seem to be a thread that shows up again and again. A widow who gives only a penny to the temple is lifted up as the place of divine charity more than all others. The disciples with no experience in religious training or understanding become the leaders of the church. Bread at a meal together becomes the enduring symbol and site of the fullness of Christ’s presence. Ordinary wine at the end of the meal becomes the symbol of the redemption of all creation. And, most strange of all, even Christ’s wounds of the crucifixion become signs of God’s glory. In some small way, I think the author of Mark is already asking us to watch and prepare for how God claims the inexperienced, the everyday, the unused and the rebellious to be sites of the divine. For if even a rebellious donkey can become the carrier of Christ, what is possible for us?
As we near Easter and the story that comes at the end of Mark of how the tomb was empty and the disciples fled in fear because now anything was possible in what they’d been caught up in, I ask us to prepare for that story together. Do we know? Do we know that we like this colt are being claimed as by Christ even unaware? Even in the middle of a life of contrasts and strangeness, we hear the truth of this story and the strangest truth of all. Christ claims us and all of creation to be a part of his parade of a new way and kingdom. Let us always be surprised!