April 12: Nonviolence on a Donkey

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
   Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
   triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
   on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
   and the war-horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
   and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
   and from the River to the ends of the earth.
Zechariah 9:9-10

This passage should sound familiar; it is the basis of Palm Sunday. It is the scripture which Jesus fulfills when he enters Jerusalem.

You can understand why there was so much excitement. The people of Israel were familiar with this text. They eagerly looked forward to this moment. They couldn’t wait to watch their Messiah King enter Jerusalem, bringing peace as he wielded his mighty sword against the Romans.

Sure enough, when Jesus approached the city, he rode on the back of a donkey, just like Zechariah said.

However, where was the sword? How did Jesus “cut off the chariot” or the war-horse or battle bow? Exactly in what sense did Jesus “command peace to the nations”?

If we follow the history of Jerusalem, we discover that only thirty-something years after this procession, Jerusalem is sacked by Rome after a brief uprising. The walls were torn down, the Temple destroyed, the hopes of the people dashed. Rome won.

So how can we justify using this Scripture as “proof” that Jesus was the Messiah?

Part of the answer has to do with the fact that Jesus has come to teach us a new way to peace. The world, up to this point in history, only knows peace as a result of war. The Romans themselves believed in the “Pax Romana,” the Roman peace which was ushered in by complete military domination. “Peace through strength” was the dogma which early civilizations believed in.

Citizens of the United States of America in the late 20th and early 21st century also have the luxury of thinking of peace in this way. We experience the absence of armed conflict within our borders because we are the strongest military force in the world. When we send our troops overseas, we are able to impose our way, seemingly at will.

The arrival of Jesus on the scene, unarmed and riding on a humble donkey, marked a new era. Jesus and his followers didn’t come to violently establish God’s kingdom; instead, they came to live out the ideals of that kingdom. The reign of God is built on justice and truth, on the law of love, on compassion for the vulnerable, and liberty for those who are oppressed.

This may be the most difficult part of the Jesus story for us to accept. We must recognize that the way of Jesus calls us to non violence. This is the new norm for those who would follow him; this is the kind of peace that he commands to the nations.

In these days of sabre-rattling with North Korea and missile strikes in Syria, it would be wise to ponder what kind of strength and power we need ...

Prayer: God, teach all of us peace, especially the nations. Draw us back from the brink of war with North Korea and Russia in the coming weeks. And give us that inward peace that passes understanding. Amen.

Justice Challenge: The two giants of nonviolence were Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. Read this fascinating Palm Sunday sermon by MLK, in which he recounts the life of Gandhi, and weaves it into the story of Jesus, preached on March 22, 1959.