Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Best Things In Life Are ... Borrowed?

The Best Things In Life Are...Borrowed?
© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder
Palm Sunday: March 16, 2008

Matthew 21:1-11

Today’s gospel brings back a specific memory to me. From our time in Israel, I remember the narrow, winding path from the Mount of Olives down toward Jerusalem which is the traditional trail along which generations of Jews made processions into the city and Temple courtyard on great feast days. The gate through which they passed on their way into the city — the Golden Gate — is now bricked up and permanently closed, but it is easy enough to see which way the procession used to go into the area of the Temple courtyard. On our way down that little narrow road we saw one feature that I suspect every tourist sees there: Men seated on donkeys along the way, eyeballing the passing tourists. Some unsuspecting travelers will immediately snap a picture, only to find that donkey-sitting is, for some, a career, not a hobby. Posing for pictures for tourists is a cottage industry all its own. It is done for money. By offering enough money, the tourists themselves can be photographed sitting on one of those donkeys. But if you go, don’t try to click off a picture without offering to pay a little something. These donkeys aren’t part of the scenery, they are part of a family’s annual income.

Recall with me for a minute the items in our Palm Sunday reading which were borrowed. First of all, Jesus instructed his disciples to borrow a donkey on the Mount of Olives, where they were to offer the rather limp explanation to anyone who objected that “the Lord has need of it.” I’d hate to be told to try that line if I was preparing to borrow one of those modern-day Mount of Olives donkeys, much less the first century version of someone’s automobile. Of course, for the disciples, the explanation worked.

But a donkey is not the only thing borrowed by Jesus for the occasion. He also borrowed the words of the Old Testament prophets as an explanation for the reason he needed a donkey: “This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, ‘Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey...’” He borrowed the cloaks of the crowd on which to ride, he borrowed the hosanna songs which belonged to the original Messiah — king David — whose title he also borrowed for the occasion and ever after. Then, he borrowed the crowds to announce his arrival in town, those who answered the questions of the city dwellers about the man who came to town on a donkey by saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” When he went to eat his last supper with his disciples, it was in a borrowed room. Finally, he was crucified under the borrowed title “King of the Jews,” a title that did — as it turned out — truly belong to him more than to any other human being, but which expressed far too little about him. Even so, his borrowed title was good enough to sustain a trumped-up charge justifying his execution, but far too little to describe who he really was and is.

It has been said that the best things in life are free. I think Jesus demonstrated that some of the critical things in his ministry were borrowed, and none of them were free at all. The donkey was someone else’s cherished possession; the borrowed words of Old Testament prophets were spoken by the prophets at great personal cost, and remembered by Israel also at great cost; the cloaks belonging to folks in the crowd may have been the only outer clothing they owned; the first man called “messiah,” King David, in his time had been the apple of God’s eye, but his messiahship came at tremendous personal cost. No, these things were borrowed, but they were far from free. They came at great cost.

Ultimately, Jesus’ own use of these symbols of his messiahship was anything but cost-free. He paid for his calling with his life, and that life turned out to be the purchase price of salvation for all of us. In the beginning of his life, he was laid in a borrowed manger, and at the end he would occupy a borrowed tomb. In between he said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,”1 as he spent his ministry relying on borrowed quarters, borrowed beds, borrowed food. Clearly, Jesus chose to own little or nothing of the world in order to carry out his God-given mission without distraction. That was certainly the case on Palm Sunday.

One person has written, “When the crowds cry, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’ and ‘This is the prophet,’ they use the right words, but they still miss the point. They have all the notes and none of the music. They have the theology straight, but they still end up rejecting Jesus and calling for his death.”2

Knowing the truth and doing the truth are clearly two different things. Some only borrow the truth they need for the time they need it, abandoning it once it becomes too costly or makes too many claims on them. Though Jesus borrowed the things he needed to sustain himself and his ministry materially, he never abandoned those things which he owned: his sense of calling, his determination to carry out his ministry, his love for those he met, his perfect obedience, even when that obedience called for the sacrifice of his life. These things he did not borrow, and these things he owned in every sense of the word.

If it is true that when we look at Jesus we will see the face of God that human beings are permitted to see, we will recognize from Jesus’ own lifestyle that “[he] manifests a God whose very being is not acquisitive, but is self-giving...[that] the ultimate power is the power to renounce power.”3

We may be given to the sort of thinking that goes: “If only I had control over my life, my education, my family, my employees, my boss, my situation, my mortgage, my possessions, my career, if only I were in charge of a few more aspects of my life, then things would be perfect, or if not perfect, at least better. But then we see the example of Jesus, who owned no bed, no donkey, no title, no educational credentials, who did not control his disciples in any sort of external way or with any compulsion, who had to be born in borrowed quarters and be buried in a borrowed cave. We see Jesus owned nothing, borrowed only what he really needed, and since he came along, nothing on earth has ever been the same. What use, then, is our compulsive, endless need to be in control?

This sort of reflection may serve to remind us that it may be a mistake to memorialize the parade held in Jesus’ honor on Palm Sunday, inasmuch as it paid homage to someone who strikes us as the antithesis of the American dream. On this big day, he wore something borrowed, rode something borrowed, received a borrowed title, and went to a borrowed room. It may also serve to remind us that at times when our lives are clearly out of our control, when we seem to have lost the rudder by which we thought we had been steering our own existence, when our borrowed lives are nearing their end, when we recognize at long last that our possessions — which we had begun to believe were ours — have never truly belonged to us but only been at our disposal for a time — borrowed, as it were — just when we are filled with the dread feeling that life is reeling out of our control, then we are close to Jesus, so very close that we know what it is to let go and live as he lived. We may at long last recognize that we are dependent creatures, and that it is OK, that God can be trusted to have plans bigger than our abilities to control them.

The best things in life may not be free after all. But at best, it appears, they are borrowed. Borrow this and make it your own: Jesus went into Jerusalem during that week of weeks and died for you and for me. More than that, he went there to give glory to God, and as it turns out, God gave glory to him for his trouble.

May our own praise of God be so productive! Hosanna to the Kings of kings!

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder,all rights reserved

1 Matthew 8:20.
2 The New Interpreter’s Bible: Volume VIII, Eugene Boring, Abingdon: 1995, p. 404.
3 The Death of Jesus, by Raymond Brown, p. 27.