The Markan Jesus does not seem interested in drawing attention to himself. We note the beginning of Jesus ministry, according to Mark, is the greatest kairos moment in history. The ultimate in God’s time is declared in the presence of Jesus on the world’s stage. Jesus appears saying: ‘Repent and believe,’ not because Jesus is here, but because the Kingdom of God is at hand;’ it is all about the kingdom. Repent – to change one’s mind, to open your mind to new possibilities under God’s reign.
There is what is described by some theologians, in Mark, a Messianic secret. That is, Jesus does not give people or demonic spirits permission to speak about him or even name him. Jesus, in Mark, does not see himself, perhaps, as the focus of what he is doing. It is all about the kingdom of God.
The Markan entry of Jesus into Jerusalem does not seem to contradict this idea. Unlike Matthew, Luke and John’s accounts of the entry, Jesus is identified as the son of King David or directly as King of Israel. Mark, however, even in this opening to the concluding act of Jesus’ earthly ministry, the Kingdom of God, not Jesus, appears to be the focus, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!”
This realisation, then, asks questions concerning the purpose for Mark of Jesus riding a Donkey into Jerusalem. Matthew is not specific about the instructions concerning questions to the disciples if they are caught taking the donkey. Luke is directly concerned about the disciples being caught untying the donkey. John has Jesus, himself, finding the donkey. Mark, however, has Jesus providing instructions for what appears a more general question, ‘Why are you doing this?’
Interestingly, unlike Luke where the question the disciples are going to be asked is known in advanced and is asked, word for word, when the disciples are discovered, in Mark, the question that the disciples are asked is not, ‘Why are you doing this?’ but, ‘What are you doing, untying that colt?’ I may be splitting hairs, but I can’t help wondering whether this is an attempt to remove the sense of Messianic miraculous from this event. It is more than likely that Jesus did have friends and supporters in the neighbouring towns and the owner of the donkey was prepared that the disciples would come seeking the donkey on Jesus behalf at some time. Mark’s point, however, is to remove he focus from the miraculous and messianic Jesus – keeping Jesus of lesser importance than what he represents.
When the disciples are sent to fetch the donkey, the question they are going to be asked is, ‘Why are you doing this?’ It doesn’t matter the actual content of the question, ‘Why are you untying the donkey?’, but why, why are doing whatever it is you are doing? The question is a fundamental question of the kingdom of God – not that we are obliged to do anything, not that we are bound by God’s law to do anything, simply, what is our motivation for doing whatever we are doing; why do we do the things that we do.
So, when the disciples go to fetch the donkey, they are confronted by some locals, who may know the donkey’s owner. They are asked what they are doing and they tell them what Jesus has told them to tell them. Mark does not think that we are so stupid that we need to be told what they said, simply that they said what Jesus said. This is enough, apparently, and the bystanders ‘allow them to take the donkey’. Acting out of honest motivation, it appears, is a fruit of the kingdom, and is a fruit that breeds trust in others.
The entry into Jerusalem is confrontational, but it is not a confrontation concerning the acceptance or rejection of the identity of Jesus as Messiah, but a confrontation concerning the presence of the kingdom of God and the presence or lack of the fruit of the kingdom in those who profess to be in the Kingdom. The confrontation is a test, not just with the Pharisees and Jewish religious authorities, but also with those who would accept themselves as being described as disciples of Jesus; including us modern Christians.
It seems fitting that Mark’s account of the final stage of Jesus’ earthly ministry stands as the conclusion to the reading from Matthew which we begin Lent, on Ash Wednesdays,
Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them… whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others…. whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others… and whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.
Those who gather as Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, waving their leafy branches and throwing their cloaks on the road, also fail the test, because it will not be long before those that hailed the coming of God’s kingdom cry out for the death of the one who was making the nature of that kingdom known.
It is appropriate that Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is at the time of the festival celebration of the cleansing of the temple by the Maccabeans. Significantly, Jesus physically enacts this historical remembrance by cleansing the temple again, perhaps, this time, a call for the cleansing of those who would want to be a part of the kingdom and asking ourselves what is our motivation for doing what we are doing.
As we Easter and the passion of Jesus, we need to, once again, perhaps for the first time, begin to ask questions about what our real motivations are for all that we do. As the writer of the letter to the Philippians put it,
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
That mind and likeness is the establishment of the kingdom of God and our motivation for all that we do ought to be as people who are changing our minds, being open to the possibilities, that the revelation of the kingdom of God has for us.