The story is that Solomon rode a donkey on his way to become king. People are forever comparing Jesus to him, pointing out that kings rode burros, that Jesus entered Jerusalem in a kingly procession, and all of that is true, so far as it goes. We may be sure of one thing: Solomon never had to borrow a donkey.
The path ahead of Jesus was strewn with the robes of common folk and whatever else they had at hand, palm branches and the like. They were poor, and they could have used some deliverance. As Alan Culpepper wrote, “Jesus was a king, but no ordinary one—the king of fishermen, tax collectors, Samaritans, harlots, blind men, demoniacs, and cripples.”¹
A raggedy, raucous, tumultuous crowd, and a borrowed donkey—it was a spectacle. Some of the better folk urged Jesus to calm the multitudes, but he answered that were the crowd silenced even the stones would start shouting. There’s an image. No doubt his answer did nothing to endear him in the hearts of the religious folk.
Is it surprising that religious people wanted the procession quieted? The people who were following Jesus believed in him, believed in the things they had seen him do, believed that they needed a new king to get rid of Caesar, but they were not the religious establishment. They were the fringe, the outsiders, the odd folk Jesus drew to himself over and over. They were the sort of people who make churchgoers nervous.
The religious leaders had told everyone what the messiah would be like, and none of what they taught from their reading of scripture said anything about this man riding into Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey.
All that learning and study and preparation, and God surprised them. They had read the same scriptures that early Christians used to portray Jesus as messiah, and they still expected something different. This man could not be the messiah, could he?
They didn’t miss the signs because they were bad people. They missed the signs because they had traded their sense of wonder for forms of worship, had begun to believe their own ideas about what God is doing instead of believing God is doing something.
We are no better. Some of us think God does nothing, not anymore, and maybe never did. Others are so fervently and devoutly lost in our own expectations that we would not recognize God riding up to us on a borrowed donkey. We’d probably miss the shouting rocks, too, or tell them to hush while we closed our eyes to pray.
We should keep our eyes open. After all, God has better things to do than listen to long prayers. Anyone who’s ever ridden a donkey knows that much.
¹ R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leander Keck et al (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 370.
At the dinner table sat Lazarus, the man who died and lived to tell about it. Except that’s the interesting thing: he didn’t tell about it, at least not in the story recorded in John’s Gospel. Surely people of that day were just as curious as we are, wondering what Lazarus experienced in death, what it was like, whether there were things to fear, what it was like to awaken in the tomb, to shuffle into the light wrapped in a burial shroud.
We don’t hear any of that.
Jesus also sat there, the man who was headed toward confrontation and nearly certain death. Everyone in the room knew trouble was coming. The crowd outside knew it. The spies sent from nearby Jerusalem knew it. Judas knew it. Jesus knew it.
As they sat, Lazarus remembering the tomb and Jesus looking forward to it, they were overwhelmed by the scent of the perfume that Mary was rubbing on Jesus’ feet. It is said that smell is the most powerful trigger of memory that we have. Everyone in the room remembered the smell they encountered when they approached Lazarus’ tomb days after his death. Now for the rest of their lives they would remember the scent of this room, this dinner.
John tells us that Judas complained at the cost of the perfume poured out. He had foreseen the end of their discipleship days and wanted a golden parachute for his retirement: today he would have been called a shrewd executive, but John just calls him a thief.
Then Jesus said a strange thing. “Leave her be, that she may keep it until the day of my entombment.”
So that is what it smelled like that morning at the tomb, after it was all done, like Mary’s perfume, the same one she used on his feet, the same scent that filled their house at this dinner gathering, perfume she saved to anoint his body.
As I write this reflection, on and off, I have paused to work on a home improvement project, installing an interior passageway door. It is an old door, one that was left in this house by a previous owner I never met. It has twenty seven panes of glass, though I can find no theological significance in the number. It has been trimmed, cut down, repurposed, like many of us. I have just been scrubbing it with vinegar and water.
Vinegar is a cleansing agent and a preservative, but I find the scent reminds me of spring time and nature, of life. Perfume, on the other hand, often reminds me of funerals.
It may be that the scent of Mary’s perfume reminded everyone in the inner circle of this last gathering, one of their last suppers. Jesus may have carried the scent throughout his last days, some of it remaining as he washed his disciples’ feet at their very last supper. As he was crucified, the scent may have lingered in Mary’s hair, may have mixed in the air with the sweat and blood and the pungency of the vinegar Jesus sipped.
We think that God speaks to us in a voice like men, that we might hear it like Charlton Heston in the version of The Ten Commandments that plays in our heads. Maybe that happens. More often, I think God pricks our memory with things as simple as the scent of perfume or the aroma of vinegar.
How strange that we can find the eternal in such ordinary things. Scents. Tastes. Memories. It is amazing that something so ephemeral as perfume can linger with us all our lives.
It is more amazing that something so ephemeral as our lives can linger after us, like perfume in a room we have already left.
In the late 1970s, Bruce Springsteen famously introduced his song “Thunder Road” in concert this way:
We were out in the desert, over in the summertime, driving to Nevada, and we came upon this house on the side of the road that this Indian had built… Had a big picture of Geronimo out front, said ‘Landlord’ over the top… Had this big sign, said ‘This is a land of peace, love, justice and no mercy.’
This is a parable of peace, love, mercy, and no justice.
The prodigal son was right. He had taken his share of the family wealth before it was his to take, and he had wasted it. That is the truth of the matter. If there were any justice, when he returned his father should have done exactly what the young man planned to ask—make him into a servant and nothing more.
The older brother was also right. He had been a true son, loyal and hardworking, and he had to watch their father welcome his sorry younger brother back as though he were a hero just for showing his face.
In the story, of course, the father is God. So much for God being just, at least so far as this parable goes.
In the story that Jesus tells, God is not in the justice business.
It’s a good thing, too, since we are all like the two brothers. On the one hand, most of us squander most of what we get. Actually envying pigs, though—that is something of a defining low, especially for a first century Jew. The pigs themselves were off the menu, and here this fellow would have been happy to eat what the pigs were eating. Most of us haven’t been quite so low as that, which leads to the other hand–we are more inclined to judge people who have faired worse than we ourselves. They deserve what they get, we think, or they deserve not to have what they don’t have.
There needs to be justice in the world. Maybe God’s justice has less to do with punishing the wrong and more to do with making sure people get what they need. Safety. Food. Shelter. Respect.
The father didn’t need to run to meet his younger son. He could have waited, knowing that the long walk in his father’s sight would drive home this son’s contrition. He would have been right to wait. He would have been just, but he would not have been God-like.
Likewise, the father was under no compulsion to go out into the yard and find his angry elder son, to make peace with him. Waiting for that son to return to him would have been the just thing, the right thing, but just as the father ran to one son, he went also to the other.
Our notions of justice are small, often petty, more like revenge. Revenge seeks to punish. True justice seeks to restore what has been lost, as much by the sinner as by the sinned against.
When I was young my father told me the story of a lady who grew up not far from where he did. She was what the people of their time called simple, though there is nothing simple about living with mental and developmental challenges. As a girl she loved school, and she loved riding the bus. Measured by her test scores, she was perhaps the worst student in the school, maybe in the county. Measured by her devotion and her enthusiasm, she was the finest pupil they had.
Long past the years when she was eligible to attend, she would get up and ready herself, and she would go and stand beside the dirt road along which her family lived, along which my father’s family lived, and she would wait for the bus. And for a time, they let her ride to the school and let her sit in the classes she loved, until modernity caught up with them all. One morning the bus no longer stopped for her, was not allowed to stop for her, and she was left crying, in shambles, as she watched it go.
Stopping her going was the right thing to do, by all the rules, but that did not make it any less wrong.
There is a sort of religious thinking, I would not grant it the title of theology, that says when something is wrong or simply different about us, when we are sick, when we have financial setbacks, when our children are somehow not like the majority of other children (as though being in the majority were something to be sought after,) that it is our fault. We hear that we are not right with God, that we should repent, that it is God’s just judgment.
Take my father’s neighbor, the girl who loved school. Given her challenges, just getting up and getting dressed, meeting a schedule and following her routine were magnificent achievements. Her plain joy in simply going to school was a blessing to everyone who saw it.
Of course, some people looked askance and thought that her existence was the judgment of God. Had her parents been better Christians, such thinking goes, their daughter would not have been born so.
Oh, it is not the sort of thing such people usually say straight out. They imply, suggesting that with prayer and commitment, most of all with repentance, God may yet heal, or change, or lift a burden.
Never mind the implication that a child is a burden. Let’s save that one for another day.
Let’s look at the idea that such challenges are the judgment of God. The idea is a corollary of simplistic notions of original sin: someone, not us, did something wrong, and so God, painting with a broad brush, judges us all. It is the flip side of the prosperity gospel: good health, possessions and wealth are the blessings of God upon the faithful. Anyone can understand the attraction of the concept. It makes it easy to explain why bad things happen—they deserved it, didn’t they? And it flatters those who have health and wealth—see how God rewards the faithful?
There are a lot of very good arguments against such thinking. Most are expressed in subtle ways by eloquent theologians.
I have two arguments. Neither is subtle.
First, anyone who believes that disease, or any other such thing, is God’s doing should go to the children’s ward of a hospital, stand at of the bedside of a child, any child, and try to pinpoint the particular sin that resulted in that child’s condition. It doesn’t work, and in the end such thoughts make God into a monster, the sort of tyrannical being nobody could or should endure. Frankly, people who think that way should be worried that they might convince God to go along with them, and then where would they be?
Second, Jesus didn’t think so. In the passage from Luke’s Gospel, he asks whether the victims of Pilate’s oppression, or those killed by a disaster, were worse people than those who had lived, unscathed. We don’t know the particulars of either incident, but it doesn’t matter. Jesus was making a point. He was talking about the same fallacy, that bad things only happen to bad people. Anyone paying attention to business and politics knows better.
“Did you think they suffered because they were worse sinners?” asks Jesus.
Then he tells a story about a fig tree that doesn’t fig. Three years of watching it, not a single fig, so the man tells his gardener to chop it down. (Never mind the implied wealth of the household, with an owner and a gardener and all of that. Think of it as a metaphor, or even an allegory—three years of Jesus teaching, God watching our response, and that sort of thing.) The fig wasn’t an ornamental plant. It was there to do something, but it didn’t. The gardener, being patient and fond of the plant, suggested adding manure and giving the thing one more year of opportunity.
It’s a word of warning and of grace. Warning, clearly, because the gardener—we may read into the story what we like for this role, a gardener, time, death, karma, God—may decide we aren’t worth keeping. We use up matter, take up space, consume and produce energy. Something in the universe is measuring return on investment.
It’s a word of grace because there is more time to make our existence worthwhile. I’m not talking about the future, since that is always a little dodgy. I mean the present. We get today to be a decent human, today to produce something decent, to be caring. Putting off giving a fig is a dangerous business.
One more season. One more year. That might be what we have—one more year, a season, a decade, one more day in the garden to give a fig. And the stuff that life dumps on us? We may find a way to use it, even if we don’t care for the way it smells at the time.
A man walking purposefully toward his death, even though he has been warned, and God is a sitting hen with a brood of chicks—this is an odd bit of scripture.
Pharisees came to warn Jesus, Pharisees mind you, that Herod wanted to kill him. Jesus told them that it was impossible for a prophet to be killed outside Jerusalem. It wasn’t true, of course. Not literally. Plenty of people get killed all over the place, most of them nowhere near Jerusalem.
He wasn’t talking about the city. It was what she stood for, her role in the story. Jerusalem is, in the symbolism of Judaeo-Christian beliefs, the city of faith and the city of betrayal. Without faith and belief and love there can be no apostasy and no betrayal. Only the faithful, the people of faith, could put Jesus to death, and it was toward the faithful that he walked, knowing full well the price of his admission to Jerusalem.
Our story matters.The story of Christ’s death on a cross, his willing and intentional self sacrifice, his three day journey into darkness, his resurrection, was so powerful that it began to be told in every part of the world. By the time the story of the crucifixion reached northern Europe and the blood minded vikings, the people who heard it embraced it, wove it into their own mythology, trying to make sense of it. In their stories, Odin, the All-Father, the god who walked abroad in the form of a man, goes of his own will to be hanged on the world tree, a sacrifice of himself to himself in the search for wisdom, a boon to all humanity. He is hanged for nine days—three times three, to have one up on the Christian tale. Odin’s side is pierced with a spear, and in his death Odin gains in mystical power. Afterward Odin is wiser, transfigured, alive. It is a clear appropriation of the Christ story. Perhaps the incorporation of the Christ story into the Nordic myths explains why the northern peoples were notoriously averse to convert to Christianity—unknown even to themselves, they had already embraced something of the Gospel, though they had mapped Christ onto Odin. The Gospel story, even changed and adapted by Norsemen, had power.
The early Church did not rely on explanations. In the first and second century, one did not find lengthy theological explanations of what transpired on the cross, on the meaning of the resurrection, past being the signs of God. The explanations would come later. Instead, they relied upon the story and upon their comprehension that something mystical, miraculous, transfigurative had occurred in the purposeful life, teaching, willing death, and astonishing resurrection of Christ.
They held to the old, old story.
We moderns, on the other hand, want to hold to our newer explanations. We want to rely upon our systematic theological explanation of what it meant, how it worked. Good theology is central to faith, inseparable from a life of faith. Nevertheless, the best theology is not a substitute for faith. It is not the same thing, much as the study of biology, no matter how wonderful and powerful and useful, is not the same as being alive.
I am certainly not against theology—quite the opposite. Much of what I write is, at heart, theological. No, it is that I suspect many of us confuse our ideas about God with actual faith in God.
And what if our explanations are wrong? Or what if our systematic explanations of what happened on the cross are only partly right, partly true? What about the rest, the part we have missed, the parts we have overlooked, the ideas that we added, the parts we have wrong? The story is the thing that matters most. Without hearing the story—Christ’s journeying, Christ’s crucifixion, Christ’s resurrection—and without wondering at it, being amazed by it, even doubting it and looking askance at it, we have nothing but notions and rules. It becomes only an explanation, and every child who has ever seen a rabbit pulled from a hat knows that the magic is more than smoke and mirrors. We grownups explain and think we are so brilliant to have figured out how the thing was done and why, that we miss the magic of it being done at all.
It was impossible for a prophet to be killed outside Jerusalem, Jesus told them. A man may die somewhere else—a criminal, a rebel, an innocent person—but a prophet only dies a prophet within the context of the faith community. It would make no sense outside the context of the life of faith: everywhere else the prophet is merely another human being. The Romans, left to their own devices, may have refused to harm Jesus. Pilate does, in fact, try to set him free. It was the people of Jesus’ own faith group who made sure he died.
In three days, he tells them, his work would be complete. We do not need to comb the narrative, trying to tell how long Luke’s Gospel takes to get Jesus to Jerusalem. Three is a perfect number, a symbol, and three days measure the perfect fullness of time.
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!
Jesus the prophet, Jesus the human expression of God, stands and proclaims the love of God as Mother, female, nurturing. It is not the only expression of God in the feminine form to have survived.¹ Given that the scripture we have was recorded, edited and preserved by a male dominated culture of priests and holy men, we may regard the survival of such feminine descriptions as miraculous, there because God wished it so.
So, we have Jerusalem and prophets, Odin and Norse mythology, God as our Mother, and Jesus walking toward his own death. What are we to make of that?
In this season of Lent, perhaps we need to let go of our explanations and simply embrace the story. It worked for the earliest Christians. Surely, the old, old story can work for us.
If you’d like a way to hear it without reading an entire gospel, here is the Nicene Creed, from the Book of Common Prayer. Yes, there is meaning here, and deep theology, but my God, the story:
The Nicene Creed
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
¹ Descriptions of God embracing female aspects may be found in Genesis 1:26-27; Deuteronomy 32:10-18; Psalm 123:2-3; Isaiah 42:14, 49:15, 66:13; Hosea 11:3-4; Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34.