A rental donkey and a visit to the optometrist (Mark 11:1-11, 8:22-26)

All week we’ve been looking at Mark’s Gospel (chapters 6-11) trying to make sense of the strange two-stage healing in Mark 8:22-26. We’ve seen some blind disciples finally “see” who Jesus is – yet not all that clearly. They’re still thinking in human terms. Jesus tries to tell them that he’s about servanthood, not the exercise of power, but they remain stubbornly blind. In the next chapter (Mark 11), Jesus tries to enlighten them further – and not only them, but all of Jerusalem.

A Peaceful Messiah

It’s the famous scene where Jesus turns up in Jerusalem. It’s a busy time in the Jewish calendar. The busiest: Passover week, Jews arriving from all over Israel, all over the Mediterranean – ready to celebrate Passover. And then Jesus quite deliberately stages a photo-op that sends everyone into a spin.

Except it’s far more profound than whoever’s Premier of NSW this week whacking on a hard-hat and announcing plans for a half-baked transport link that’ll never see the light of day. Jesus’ media-moment is announcing something of tremendous historical significance. Eternal significance. He announces to the city that God’s rescue of his people is at hand; that his kingdom is at long last about to arrive. And he does this by… by turning up on a rental-donkey.

Not the most spectacular of publicity stunts, was it? I mean, if Richard Branson were the Messiah – and he probably thinks he is… If it were Richard Branson, the donkey would have at least been spray-painted red and parachuted into Jerusalem from a plane. Which would then go on to sky-write, ‘Virgin Birth’.

But no. Jesus just turns up riding a donkey. Yet in first century Israel, that’s a powerful, symbolic act. Isn’t it? Well it is if you’re familiar with the prophet Zechariah.

You see, when Mark tells the story, he’s careful to use the same word for ‘young donkey’ that appears in the Greek of Zechariah. And when Matthew tells it, he even quotes the prophet Zechariah. And if you could be bothered looking up the quote from Zechariah chapter 9, you’ll see the wider context:

Zech 9:9-10 Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 10 I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.

In other words, Jesus is announcing to Jerusalem that he’s the one they’ve been waiting for. The Messiah, God’s anointed one. The one the Jews thought would throw off the yoke of their oppressors; who’d restore the kingdom of Israel to its former glory under David and his son Solomon. The new Son of David who’d rescue them from Roman rule & establish a new kingdom by military force.

Or at least, that’s how they understood the promises of restoration found in the Old Testament. Although Jesus’ act might be a little subtle for our day, the crowds certainly got the point. Have a listen to their reaction:

Mk 11:8-10 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted, “Hosanna!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” “Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

By entering into Jerusalem this way, Jesus deliberately brought to everyone’s mind the prophecy of Zechariah chapter 9. By entering this way, Jesus threw out a challenge to everyone: I’m the Messiah – so what are you going to do about it?

The problem was, the answer they came up with missed the mark. Not by much. But enough. You see, they were thinking in military terms. In political terms. For the past few centuries they’d lived under foreign rule: first the Persians, then the Greeks. And now it was the Romans. And every so often, a Messiah-type figure had come along and tried to fight for political independence. Without much success, it must be said. Yet the people kept looking for this kind of hero. A military rescuer.

But of all the pointers to the Messiah in the Old Testament, Jesus chose Zechariah 9 carefully. Because if you pay attention, you’ll see that the king is one who comes in peace. After all, he’s riding a donkey! It’s not an animal on which you’d charge off to war, is it? I mean, you’ve heard of a war-horse, but never a war-donkey, and for good reason. It’s an animal royalty would ride in peace. It’s not the tank you’d ride out to battle in; it’s the Rolls Royce from which you’d wave to the crowd with your white-gloved hand.

Furthermore, the king’s described as being gentle; humble. Out of all the Old Testament pointers to a Messiah, Jesus chose one with overtones of peace. Which fitted well with some of the other Old Testament passages about God’s chosen one being a servant. A suffering servant. One who would give his life for his people.

So Jesus is not just saying: I’m the Messiah. He’s also saying: I’m not going to be the kind of Messiah you’re all expecting. I will bring deliverance for my people. But it won’t be at the point of a sword. It will bring about a kingdom. But it won’t be through violence. Except for the violence that’ll be done to me. And my kingdom won’t be an earthly kingdom, with physical boundaries. But a spiritual kingdom, made up of all those who will follow me voluntarily.

But the crowds didn’t get that. The Jewish leaders didn’t get that. Even Jesus’ own disciples – they struggled to comprehend it.

Back to the healing story

So how does all this help us to on our quest this week – to understand the story of the two-stage healing, that’s unique to Mark’s Gospel, and strategically placed at the half-way mark?

I think it’s there because it describes the disciples’ journey to faith in Jesus. It’s a metaphor for their imperfect understanding of him as ‘Messiah’. Before the Caesarea-Philippi declaration, they are blind to who Jesus is. But after they see the miracles, their eyes are opened. To a point. Peter declares that Jesus is indeed the Messiah. But his vision is still blurred. He gets who Jesus is – finally – but not the full picture of what that means. It’s not until after Jesus’ death and resurrection that their spiritual sight becomes clear.

To think about

What’s your eyesight like?

If you’re reading this, you’re probably not still “blind,” which is why you’re bothering to study the Bible. Most probably you’ve come to confess, along with Peter, that Jesus is God’s son; his anointed one.

But how clearly do you see Jesus?

Do you see Jesus as someone who can get you what you want in this life? Because some people do. Some people follow Jesus, because they think he’s the one who’ll make their dreams come true. Maybe the great Australian dream of financial security and a comfortable life. Maybe dreams of career success. Of relationship success. Of good health. Whatever it is, Jesus is my genie; my good luck charm. If I sprinkle a little bit of Jesus-dust onto my life, it’ll all turn out the way I want it.

More than that, they’ll define the benefits they want Jesus to bring in earthly terms. Just like the disciples and the crowds in the first century. They want Jesus to make their dreams come true, and those dreams are about earthly things. Whether it be freedom from Roman rule, or a house in a nice suburb with friendly neighbours we can have over for BBQs on the new hardwood decking. It’s all about getting what I want in the here and now.

Is that the way you view Jesus? As Mark Driscoll says, do you try to use Jesus as a piñata? You know, where if you hit him enough, you  get showered with goodies.

Or maybe it’s not all about the material stuff. Do you see Jesus, like James and John saw him – as a means of gaining status and significance? Again, many people do. They find their sense of identity in what they do in the church, in ministry. They follow Jesus because, like James and John, they think there’s a promotion on offer. Because it’s another arena in which they can play the status games this world is so fond of.

Or not even that – do you see Jesus simply as someone who helps you cope with the difficulties of this life. Which indeed he does. It’s just nowhere near all he does.

But those are all blurry views of Jesus. Partial sight. Because each of them fails to understand what Jesus is all about.

We need to get what kind of Messiah he is: one who doesn’t come as a conquering king, but a peaceful servant. We need to get what his kingdom is like: one that doesn’t involve the status-chasing games everyone else plays, but that seeks to put others ahead of ourselves.

Jesus wants followers who will embrace his agenda rather than trying to use Jesus for their own agenda. He wants followers who will embrace servanthood rather than status; who follow him not out of a desire to be made comfortable in this life, but out of a desire to bring comfort to those in this life who are suffering. All while keeping their eyes firmly fixed on the next life, which is where our hopes for peace, comfort, and security will be fully met. When Jesus’ kingdom does come in all its fullness – a recreated heaven-and-earth – and we will see him clearly.

3 thoughts on “A rental donkey and a visit to the optometrist (Mark 11:1-11, 8:22-26)

  1. Jim Wilson says:

    Just can’t thank you enough, I start my day with you every morning. Coffeewiththeking.org has reinvigorated my spiritual life.

  2. Bob says:

    Thank you Tim so much for this excellent resource! I now do personal bible study more often because of this. never let this die!

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