Wager

Luke 19:28-40 (NRSV)

After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

             You could probably hear the hosannas and the rustle of the palm branches waiving in the air as Jesus rode by in this passage we’ve just heard. Only, there were no shouts of “hosanna” and not one single palm branch in this passage. These details are in the other Gospels account of Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, but not in Luke – not one palm or hosanna whatsoever in Luke’s Gospel. The first several times I read the text, I didn’t even notice their absence.

Here in Luke’s account, we have Jesus making the last leg of a long journey toward Jerusalem that has taken him nearly ten chapters in the Gospel to make. He stops in every little city and town and hamlet from Galilee to the holy city. And when he gets on that colt and rides into the Jerusalem, the people spread their cloaks on the road before him. To remind us of the social status of Jesus’ followers, Alan Culpepper says, “The cloaks thrown on the road that day were not expensive garments but tattered shawls and dusty, sweat-stained rags.”[1] And the whole “multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice…saying, ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven.’”

Even without the palms and the shouts of “hosanna,” it’s a festive occasion in the Gospel of Luke. But what really strikes me about this passage is that while we can manage to see palms and hear “hosannas” in a text that doesn’t even have palms and “hosannas,” simply because we’re used to those elements as a part of the yearly Palm Sunday celebration, we may quite easily overlook the very thing that the Gospel writer spends the most time describing in this little passage as if it is of no consequence whatsoever. And maybe it is of no consequence. But the writer of Luke’s Gospel spends almost half of this passage – a full six verses – describing in great detail how Jesus and the disciples procured a donkey for this procession of praise adorned with tattered shawls and dusty, sweat-stained rags.

            Now, presumably, this detail makes it into this story in the first place because it is indicative of a fulfillment of the prophet Zachariah’s words (9:9) when he said,

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.

But, really, if the Gospel writer is simply trying to picture Jesus as fulfilling a prophetic indicator of messianic status, there are ways of doing so with greater economy of words. For example, John – who is usually quite verbose about anything that elevates Jesus’ divine status in readers’ minds – simply says, “Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it.” That does the trick, don’t you think?

And if the writer just wanted to drive home the point of Jesus’ status as the messiah of God, think of all the ways this story could have been written to emphasize Jesus’ prophetic knowledge or divine power: Jesus could gone around the corner and stumbled across a donkey who just died there and bring him to life again before all of the disciples and ride the resurrected colt into Jerusalem.

Luke could have had Jesus produce a donkey out of thin air or turn an armadillo into a colt, just like the water into wine.

Or perhaps the donkey could come just like the palms and garments spread before him in John, someone in the crowd notices he needs an animal to ride because he’s too important to just walk into the city, and just like the tattered shawls and dusty, sweat-stained rags of the poor, someone brings a lowly donkey out to him as a sign of respect and admiration. Lot’s of ways this story could go.

But, instead, Luke spends six verses out of the thirteen comprising this short vignette explaining how Jesus told them to go ahead of the crowd to get this donkey from the donkey’s owners. And even Luke’s account of that story is different in some interesting ways from the stories the other Gospel writers tell.

Matthew renders Jesus’ instructions similarly to Luke with the addition of a colt and an adult donkey. “You’ll find the donkey tied up, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them and if anyone asks you why you’re untying them, tell them, ‘The Lord needs them.’” Only in Matthew’s rendition, no one asks them why they are untying the donkey and its colt. The disciples just find them, as Jesus said they would, and they bring them both to him.

In Mark’s version it’s the same instructions but just the colt again, no donkey. And the disciples are questioned about what they are doing, but the questioning comes from the bystanders who see them untying the colt – not from the colt’s owners

            So what do we make of this six-verse passage, so central to Luke’s telling of the “Palm-Sunday-sans-the-palms” story when he says,

[Jesus] sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it.

Why did the donkey’s owners hand over their colt to these strangers who were already helping themselves to the animal when they caught them? Why was the four word explanation, “The Lord needs it,” a sufficient reason?

Some people explain the passage by saying that Jesus pre-arranged the procurement of the donkey with the owners. But that over-explanation of the story seems to subvert the power of what Luke is doing here unique in the four Gospel accounts. Look at what Luke says:

Jesus tells two disciples to go into the village just up ahead where they’ll find a colt. Untie it and bring it to me, he says. If anyone asks you why you’re untying it, tell them, “The Lord needs it.” So the two went and found the colt and start untying it and when they are midway through the owners come out and see what they are doing and ask them why they are untying it and, like Jesus told them, they reply simply, “The Lord needs it.” Then they’re off with the colt to present it to Jesus.

“The Lord needs it.”

Do you see what I mean here? Why would you tell a story this way? If no one sees you untying it like in Matthew’s Gospel, fine. If it’s a group of bystanders who see some strangers untying a donkey and ask them what’s going on and are willing to take a crazy response as legitimate like in Mark’s account, fine – the bystanders have no stake in the donkey’s future. But the owners (not just one, but presumably two)…

Culpepper says that the account of the triumphal entry on Palm Sunday is “an acted-out parable.”[2] There are many parabolic ways of understanding the procession into Jerusalem.

Marcus Borg says that at the same time Jesus is riding into Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt, “A Roman imperial procession was also entering Jerusalem for Passover from the other side of the city. It happened every year: the Roman governor of Judea, whose residence was in Caesarea on the coast, rode up to Jerusalem in order to be present in the city in case there were riots at Passover, the most politically volatile of the annual Jewish festivals. With him came soldiers and cavalry to reinforce the imperial garrison in Jerusalem.”[3]

Without an army or an official post of sovereignty or any threat of force whatsoever, Jesus riding into the city on a lowly donkey – not a warhorse – to shouts from the crowd of, “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!,” as they spread their tattered shawls and dusty, sweat-stained rags before him. It all sounds like a acted-out parable to me – subverting the sensical and the status quo with the nonsensical and the out of place.

            But for the owners, none of this was known. For all we know, they hadn’t met Jesus or heard him teach a day in their lives. They hadn’t seen the crowds following him through the towns and villages on his way to Jerusalem, because the procession hadn’t even reached their village yet.

            From the owner’s perspective, this is what happens: they walk outside their home and two men they had never seen before are untying their young donkey. They asked these men, “Why are you untying our donkey?” To which the men reply, “The Lord needs it.” And they let the donkey go with the two strangers.

            To me, whatever takes place in the minds of this donkey’s owners after the two strangers say, “The Lord needs it,” makes this a parable of divine imagination. Because what they saw taking place before them – two strange men trying to abscond with their colt – wasn’t what they let themselves believe was taking place. And though we have no reason to think that the donkey’s owners knew who Jesus was or would have known they were speak of Jesus when the strangers referred to “the Lord,” something about this reply made their eyebrows raise a bit, caused them to become momentarily speechless, led to a curious look shared between them and, ultimately, inspired them to let the donkey go with two men they’d never seen who could very well have been stealing their donkey. 

“Why are you untying the colt?”

“The Lord needs it.”

Richard Kearney says, acts of hospitality in the face of the stranger – the other – do “not come naturally. It requires imagination and trust,” and that one of the liberating messages of the Bible is that of “radical attentiveness to the stranger as portal to the sacred.”[4] When, in the presence of the stranger, you must wonder if the stranger’s presence brings you threat or blessing, whether your response should be one of hostility or hospitality, Kearney says the first ingredient of a wager that takes place in the face of a stranger is imagination. Whitney A. Bauman adds that, "Imagination is what goes beyond the edges of certainty, which is technically the opposite of faith."[5]

“Why are you untying the colt?”

“The Lord needs it.”

            The response surely didn’t come naturally, it required imagination – the possibility that these strangers untying their donkey may just be portals to the sacred. In a momentary wager in the face of two strangers, the owners slip beyond the edges of certainty. “The Lord needs it.” And their eyebrows raise a bit, and they become momentarily speechless, and they share between them a curious look of possibility for what might be. And they let the donkey go with two strangers they’d never seen who could very well have been stealing their donkey.

“Why are you untying the colt?”

“The Lord needs it.”

At a time with our national political rhetoric is turning increasingly toward hostility toward the stranger – hostility even toward those who aren’t necessarily even strangers, but who are simply not “us” – whatever we mean by “us” – this is the message of the acted-out parable of Palm Sunday – at least as Luke tells it: imagination to see the stranger as a portal to the sacred, helping us see the stranger’s presence not as threat but as blessing, moving us from hostility to hospitality, or at least somewhere in between.

Each one of us makes that wager in the face of the stranger in big ways and in small. Our eyebrows raise a bit, and we become momentarily speechless, and we share between a curious look of possibility. It is the very substance of the life of faith: “radical attentiveness to the stranger as portal to the sacred.”[6] As Kearney says, “The act of faith—as belief in the possibility of the impossible, of a possibility beyond the possible—would be inconceivable without this instantaneous response of imagination…If we have no imagination, we cannot open our eyes and ears to the Stranger who comes.”[7]

“Why are you untying the colt?”

“The Lord needs it.”



[1] R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections.” in The New Interpreters Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, vol. IX, ed. Leander E. Keck, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 370.



[2] Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” 370.



[3] Marcus Borg, “Holy Week: Palm Sunday,” Day1, online: http://day1.org/5782-marcus_borg_holy_week_palm_sunday.



[4] Richard Kearney, Anatheism: Returning to God After God (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 22-23.



[5] Whitney A. Bauman, Religion and Ecology: Developing a Planetary Ethic (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 82.



[6] Kearney, Anatheism, 23.



[7] Kearney, Anatheism, 41.
  • The Rev. Cody J. Sanders
  • March 20, 2016