Rev. Dr. Eric Elnes
March 20, 2016
The Way of Jesus: A Journey Through Luke Part 23: Jackasses for Jesus
The Way of Jesus: A Journey Through Luke
Part 23: Jackasses for Jesus
Countryside Community Church
Rev. Eric Elnes, Ph.D.
March 20, 2016
Scripture: Zechariah 9:9-10; Luke 19:28-40
On Palm Sunday, Christians around the world gather to wave palms, shout Hosannas, and remember Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. In church pews everywhere, people hear the story retold and interpreted for our times. In over fifty years of attending church I’ve heard this story dissected, analyzed, and presented through the eyes of every single participant in it, from the donkey’s owners to the cheering crowds to the jeering Pharisees. But there’s one perspective I’ve never heard represented: that of the donkey itself! What was the donkey’s experience of Palm Sunday?
This sort of question may seem a bit odd, but I would contend (with tongue only lightly pressed in cheek) that a Christian can learn at least three important things about discipleship and fulfilling our higher purposes in life, when Palm Sunday is viewed through the donkey’s eyes. In fact, by the end of this reflection, I’m hoping you may become a Jackass for Jesus!
But first, a word about terminology. According to the American Donkey and Mule Society (yes, such an organization exists!) “Ass” is the correct term for the animal commonly known as the donkey, burrow, or jack stock. The term comes from the original Latin name for the animal, Asinus. The term “ass” fell into disrepute through confusion with the indelicate term “arse” meaning the human backside. Thus, you are never at fault when you refer to one of these noble animals as an ass, and the term is not improper unless you misuse it so yourself!
A “Jackass” is a male donkey; a Jenny is a female. So perhaps to be more inclusive, this reflection should have been called “Jack-and-Jenny-Asses for Jesus,” or more neutrally, “Asses for Jesus.” But I prefer the word “Jackass,” mostly because so many people over the years have referred to me as one! Here is why you might want to be one, too:
1. The jackass responded from his nature, not his neediness.
When Jesus tells his disciples to go fetch the donkey from its owners before riding down the Mount of Olives, he specifically states that the donkey has never been ridden before. This may not seem like the smartest choice of pack animal to ride down a steep cobblestone hill on, but Jesus has chosen such an animal for a reason. He seeks to fulfill what was written in the Book of Zechariah about a new king who would arise and enter Jerusalem “riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” In other words, the donkey would be a young one, and any donkey that had never been ridden before would certainly be young.
Finding an inexperienced jackass may have been good for Jesus and his purposes, but consider the donkey’s point-of-view: Suddenly these utter strangers are taking you from your masters and leading you to the top of a very steep hill where people all the way down are making enough racket to rival a Nebraska Huskers game – and acting about as wildly. Then suddenly this complete stranger walks up to you, pets you a little on on your nose, then jumps on your back expecting you to head into the crazy crowd in this super steep and slippery hill.
Faced with this distinct set of challenges, what would you have done if you were the donkey? Consider those times in your life when you have been asked to do something very difficult and risky that:
• you have never done before, thus have no experience to guide you
• puts you at the center of public attention – and scrutiny
• directly engages you with larger issues whose significant you don’t fully understand
• sets you in contact with people whose behaviors you have a difficult time interpreting
• exposes you to all kinds of supporters – and foes – that you never had to face when your life was comfortably tethered back home
Had the jackass been you, would Jesus have made it down the hill on Palm Sunday, or would Jesus still be up there tugging on the rope and coaxing you on?
That young donkey became a veritable “Jackass for Jesus” that day because, when Jesus gave him a mission to fulfill, he set aside his neediness and responded from his nature. Yes, his nature.
You may think that a donkey’s nature is to be stubborn, but not according to the Alberta Donkey and Mule Club (Yes, this organization really exists, too!). According to these experts, the common jackass has gotten a bad rap by society. Jackasses are exceptionally docile and loving, actually. They love to be touched and no amount of playing or loving will spoil them for work. And if you’ve ever owned both a horse and a donkey, then any belief in the stupidity of the ass is banished. They are highly intelligent, have a definite sense of humor, can sometimes be mischievous, and a harbor great love of human company. All in all, whether you ride or drive your donkey, or just love him, according to the Alberta Donkey and Mule Club, he is “an unexcelled pet in the large animal category.”
The donkey Jesus rode on Palm Sunday surely never would have had the courage to take a step forward into the Great Unknown had his focus been on what he lacked in experience. What drew him forward was a sense of alignment between his inner nature and the task before him. To dig in his hooves and refuse to bear his cargo would have been tantamount to denying that he was an ass!
Likewise, something within us always understands what’s at stake when we hear that homing cry. To move in its direction is to say “Yes” to who we are, and whose we are. And to turn aside in fear is to say, “I’m not ready to be me yet,” and “I’m not yet ready to serve You.”
Of course, part of the reason we resist our call is because we sense that we’re going to have to finally get serious about life, and far more disciplined, if we follow it. So we fear a loss of freedom, even identity. Here again, the jackass offers guidance.
II. The jackass acted on his call by staying focused, yet flexible.
As any backcountry adventurer will tell you, if you are going to descend a high hill with a lot of debris on it while carrying a heavy load on your back, you must do two things to keep from slipping and falling: (1) stay highly focused on your task while (2) keeping your body limber and flexible, ready for any sudden surprises. If you remain focused and flexible, you can descend quite quickly and safely, actually; whereas moving more slowly but distracted or rigid will cause you to tumble head-over-heels.
To get Jesus safely down the Mount of Olives, surely the ass had to remain focused narrowly on his task amidst the clamor yet flexible and nimble enough to respond quite literally to whatever was thrown his way.
So it is with any calling that comes from God. We don’t find our calling in life. Our calling finds us, much as the ass didn’t find his calling on Palm Sunday – his calling found him. But within this distinct set of purposes that constitutes our calling is tremendous flexibility and freedom with respect to how to live out and fulfill our calling.
For instance, I know down to the depths of my soul that part of my calling is to heal broken relationships between people and God, and certain kinds of broken relationships between people from other people. I did not go looking for this calling. It very much came looking for me. And when it found me, I recognized it as a calling because when I acted on those feelings it felt like I was playing a guitar with more strings than I had previously played with. Consequently the song my life was composing felt richer, with the potential to move in directions I had scarcely thought of before.
And there’s the point. Just as playing a guitar with more strings requires greater focus and discipline, it also provides radically greater flexibility with respect to the music you are making. It allows you to be more creative and write “music” that is more distinctly your own. In this regard, a calling in life is very different than most people think it is like. Most people hear the word “calling” and assume that someone is being locked in to doing just one thing with their lives, in one particular way when, in fact, the opposite is true. You have far greater flexibility to be more distinctively you than before. And while there may be certain compositional rules you have to follow, and there may be only certain genres of music that you really resonate with and feel moved to play, from that point forward it’s like God says “Create away!” And we begin to play the song of our destiny – a destiny that God and we create together. A destiny that is both focused and flexible.
This brings us to the final piece of guidance the jackass offers us this morning:
III. The jackass fulfilled his call by getting Jesus down the hill.
This is perhaps both the most obvious, and the least obvious principle we glean from donkey’s story. It seems plain enough what his task was, and what constituted “fulfillment” of that task. But if the donkey had a mind like ours, rather than a donkey’s, things may not have seemed so clear.
If that donkey had a mind like ours, he would be aware of who it was who sat on his back: Jesus! And he may very well have had some notion of what Jesus’ purpose was in riding him: to ride into Jerusalem as its new king and Messiah! The donkey might also have harbored visions of what life might be like with Jesus established as king and Messiah: Jesus sitting on a throne of power, the masses bowing down and offering obeisance, and a new and perfect Jerusalem being established day-by-day in place of the dry, old, corroded one … just as the prophet Ezekiel had predicted centuries ago!
Yes, if that donkey had a mind like ours, his hopes probably would have been utterly dashed by the end of Holy Week when Jesus was crucified on the Hill of Golgotha. He may have assumed that all his efforts had been in vain and that one of the central callings in his life had been unfulfilled.
But we who look back on Palm Sunday, celebrating it even two thousand years later, do have more perspective than the donkey had. We know that his efforts were not in vain. We know now that all the donkey had to worry about was getting Jesus down the hill. That was it. All those other details associated with Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey’s back were for Jesus to worry about, not the donkey!
So how does this work with us and our callings? What wisdom does it shed?
Given the fact that you have been drawn to participate in the life and ministry of Countryside Community Church at this particular point in your life, and that Countryside has discerned that part of its calling is wrapped up in becoming the Christian partner in the Tri-Faith Initiative, the chances are quite high that our participation in the Tri-Faith Initiative offers not just “the church” an opportunity to fulfill part of is essential cluster of purposes in this world in the coming years but offers this opportunity to you, personally, as well. It’s not that everyone will be running around doing “Tri-Faithy” things. But the fact that God drew you here is a pretty good sign that God is offering the opportunity to use you here, too, for your own fulfillment, not simply “the church’s.” Through your involvement with this church, God is seeking to add another string to your guitar, to help you compose richer and more beautiful music that is more distinctively yours than ever before.
But how? I have no idea. And neither do you.
Frankly, there is a 99.9% chance that 100% of us will look back 10 years from now and say, “In 2016 I had little idea what turns would happen in my life in the coming years,” and we’ll also say, “I had little idea what the Tri-Faith Initiative would turn out to be, or why it would be so significant for us and the world.”
And that’s okay.
All we need to worry about is being Jackasses for Jesus in the coming years. Our central task is not to provide a role model for the world and bring peace between the three great Abrahamic faiths (though this may happen), nor is it even to bring peace to the people of faith in Omaha (though this may happen). Our task, like the donkey’s, is simply to get Jesus down the hill. We do so by responding ever and always to our nature, not our neediness, and by staying focused on our task while remaining flexible to changing conditions and responsive to our own creative inspirations. The results of our efforts is for Jesus to worry about, not us.
And whatever does result, one thing we can be certain about: When we sing our Palm Sunday Hosanna’s ten years from now, we will look back and see that we were able to sing a richer, more beautiful and distinctive song as individuals and as a community of faith, as a result of the efforts we are making now; as a result of our becoming Jackasses for Jesus!