The Lord Needs It
At some point, I think most every kid has heard some variation on, “Your wants won’t hurt you.” This idea, for the lucky kids, first shows up in the toddler stage or the terrible twos. It looks something like this, a kid goes into a store, sees a toy or candy or whatever, asks for the thing and is told no. Usually, the kid asks again, and the parent says no again. This is where the “your wants won’t hurt you” comment shows up and is reinforced by the kid not getting what they want in the moment.
But, depending on how the parent says no (weak or firm response), the kid will either know (A) they are not getting a toy or (B) whine, yell, throw a tantrum to get the item. At this point, the parent ignores the kid, or they cave and get the item. When parents cave or give in, kids know they can get the parent or grandparent to cave and give in the next time. After caving enough times, the want becomes a need for the child because there is an expectation fulfilled enough to expect it every time.
Getting to it
This story of Palm or Passion Sunday is one we revisit every year, though the differences in the way the gospels tell the story make for different emphases. We could talk about a lot of aspects both mentioned in scripture and known from history. We could talk about the two triumphal entries, Jesus entering from the east and Pilate entering from the west. We could talk about the crowds massing to celebrate or honor the prophet of Galilee or the Roman proconsul. We could talk about how the Pharisees were afraid of and the Romans were wary of the Jesus crowd given that at least three riots and revolts had taken place in Jerusalem during Jesus’ lifetime, some around Passover. But I think there is something else to be seen today.
While much is similar in each gospel version of the Triumphal Entry story, the gospels do have their differences. Some gospels have quotes from Psalms and Zechariah, some on Psalms. Some have palm branches thrown on the ground, others have clothes. Some have Pharisees, some don’t. Three have the people yelling hosanna, a Hebrew word scholars believe means, “Help us!” or “Save us!”, an expression that may have gotten Roman authorities attention for a number of reasons. But one thing all four versions have is a simple farm animal, the donkey.
The donkey is symbolic of many things. It is a humble but stubborn animal. It is surefooted in difficult places. It has royal connotations. It was considered a sign of wealth as they were pack animals capable of carrying large amounts of goods either by cart or on their backs. The more wealth you had, the more donkeys you needed to carry it. God even speaks through a donkey in the story of Balaam. And we find the humble field animal in the Triumphal Entry.
The Gospel of John simply gives the story that the donkey was “found”, and Jesus used it to ride into Jerusalem (John 12). In the other accounts, the synoptic or literally “seeing together” gospels, record a colt, that Jesus sends two disciples to get from a nearby village on the Mount of Olives. It had to be a colt, unridden because such animals were used in the Old Testament for ceremonial purposes.Oddly enough, Matthew is the only gospel mentioning a donkey, but most assume, rightly or not, the same for the other gospels. The colt’s owner or people standing nearby ask why the disciples are taking it and they reply, “Its master needs it, and he will send it back right away” in Mark, or just “the master needs it” in Matthew and Luke. The colt is taken, and Jesus enters the city in a fashion like what is described in Zechariah 9. In that moment, Jesus is, for several reasons, in need of the colt.
What does the Lord really need?
That idea, the master needs it, stuck with me when I read this passage. It made me think about the idea of children and their tantrums, their inability to see the difference between need and want. It made me wonder if we ever get to the place where we can, as adults, tell the difference between want and need. Do we know the difference? A better question, do churches know the difference and how often do a disciple’s or church’s wants become their needs?
I think this was the problem in the Old Testament, the problem prophets were sent to address. The Hebrew people often made needs out of wants and found themselves wandering away from God. Those in power, the kings and rulers and religious leaders decided God was in favor of them having their wants rather than their needs and the needs of the people—the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the hurting, the marginalized—became casualties. Even after losing the land through a series of invasions and exiles, the people failed to learn, their baser natures firmly entrenched. Jesus comes along and the Pharisees and Sadducees are no different than the rulers and priests the prophets of old had preached about and against. The needs of the people—the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the hurting, the marginalized—were still casualties to the desires of those in power. The people thought about what they wanted without asking what God wanted.
So, what did God want? Let’s look at Micah 6.
What is justice? According to the Old Testament,
- Don’t undermine the justice that your poor deserve in their lawsuits.—Exodus 23:6
- He enacts justice for orphans and widows, and he loves immigrants, giving them food and clothing.—Deuteronomy 10:18
- Let the king bring justice to people who are poor; let him save the children of those who are needy, but let him crush oppressors!—Psalm 72:4
- Remove your ugly deeds from my sight. Put an end to such evil; learn to do good. Seek justice: help the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow.—Isaiah 1:16-17
Justice almost always has to do with how the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the hurting, and the marginalized are treated. Jesus in Matthew 25 declares the ultimate justice by declaring sheep, those who feed the hungry, offer water to the thirsty, give clothes to the needy, visit and support the sick, the imprisoned, and the stranger.
What is embracing faithful love? To love as God loves and to love those who God loves. How does God love? Completely and without reservation. Who does God live? Everyone, no exceptions, exclusion, provisos, or otherwise. Faithful love is for all, and all means all.
And how do we walk humbly with our God? We remember that we are disciples, followers of the Great Teacher Jesus. We are not our own. Our needs will be met by God and our wants should never interfere with the needs of others. Our problem is many disciples, and many churches have the idea of want and need mixed up. They assume if they want it for church, it must be good, as if everything they want is inspired by the Holy Spirit. Wants are preferences and preferences are not needs. What we need is to live into the mission every disciple is called to live into: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God. The calling is echoed in Luke 4, Matthew 25, the Sermon on the Mount, the Great Commandment, and many other places throughout the gospels.
But we want what we want and rarely give the needs of others a second thought. We have our club. We have our little pet projects and activities that cost us very little but make us feel good. We have our little groups where we hide away from the real needs of the community in favor of comfort. And we enjoy these things, these luxuries of the church, while the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the hurting, the marginalized continue to be hurt. The question is, how long before God sends us into exile? How long before God calls others to the real work of the church and leaves us wander off into desolate pastures? How long before we are so entrenched in ourselves we no longer see anything else?
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