Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday – Mark 11:1-11
Today’s liturgy places Jesus’ passion front and center. It’s a long reading. It’s hard to listen to; the betrayal, the pain, the death. The hosannas of the triumphal entry now seem but an echo in our memory but that’s where I want us to go. I want us to go back to that first gospel reading, Mark 11:1-11, to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, and I want us to think about this question. Why did Jesus leave the temple and go to Bethany?
That question sounds a lot like one of those why did the chicken cross the road kind of jokes. But my question isn’t a joke. I think the answer to that question and the implications of that answer hold the key to our Holy Week this year.
You remember what happened, right? Jesus is in a parade. He’s riding a borrowed colt. It’s a march, a movement. We call it the triumphal entry. People are in front of and behind Jesus. They are shouting their hosannas. They are throwing down palms and their cloaks for him to ride on. They are rolling out the red carpet. There’s excitement and anticipation. This Jesus thing is really going somewhere. Something big is happening.
Jesus rides into Jerusalem.
He enters the temple.
He looks around at everything.
And he leaves.
He does nothing. He says nothing. He just leaves. He goes to Bethany. It’s a strange and anticlimactic ending to the triumphal entry. It sounds like Jesus is retreating, getting out of town. What’s that all about?
Did Jesus have somewhere else he needed to be? I wonder if he was scared. Holy Week is a scary week. We just heard everything that’s going to happen. I wonder if he was wavering a bit, not as sure as when he started this ride. Maybe he was having some doubts, some questions, and just wanted to get away. Perhaps he needed to regroup, make another start. We’ve all done that, right? Haven’t you had to face really difficult conversations or situations? They are painful and scary. We make a start but don’t finish. We back up and try again. Could that be what his leaving the temple is about?
This is such a strange and anticlimactic ending to the triumphal entry that it makes me think there has to be something significant here. And it’s unique. Mark’s is the only one of the four gospels to describe this.
In Matthew (21:10-13) the whole city is in turmoil when Jesus enters. He goes to the temple and drives out those who are buying and selling. He overturns tables and chairs. In Luke (19:40-46) Jesus weeps over Jerusalem and then enters the temple where he drives out those who were buying and selling. And in John’s account (12:12-33) Jesus does not even go to the temple. He cleansed it at the beginning of the gospel. Instead, he enters the city and begins teaching what, last Sunday, I called the secret to life.
Mark’s is the only gospel that says Jesus entered the temple, looked around, and left. So why did Jesus leave the temple and go to Bethany? The gospel tells us why. Jesus left the temple “as it was already late” (Mark 11:11). So that got me to wondering. What if this is about something more than just the time of day? What if Jesus is late getting somewhere or doing something?
What might Jesus be late for? I have an idea about that but I need to you hang with me for a minute. I think Jesus was late getting the colt back to its owner. Here’s why I say that. There’s another unique aspect about Mark’s account of the triumphal entry. He is the only one to say that Jesus promised to return the colt to its owner. They all agree that the colt was either borrowed from its owner (Matthew 21:1-3; Mark 11:1-7; Luke 19:29-34) or found (John 12:19). But only Mark speaks about Jesus returning the colt.
Jesus sent two disciples to borrow this colt and told them if anyone asked why they were taking the colt they were to say, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately” (Mark 11:3). And that’s what they did.
So what if that’s why Jesus left the temple? Maybe he left so he could keep his promise and follow through on what he said he would do. Maybe this is about Jesus being true to himself and keeping his word. What if this is about Jesus staying centered within himself despite what the week holds for him? What if returning the colt is a metaphor for us as we enter into and walk though this Holy Week?
What might returning the colt mean for us throughout this week? It’s an image or metaphor to ponder and it raises a couple of questions. First, what do you need to return this week? What do you need to release or let go of? We all have stuff that we’ve carried around with us for far too long. It’s no longer able to take us anywhere or give us life. It’s just baggage we carry that continues to weigh us down. It impoverishes life. It corrupts our heart.
What do you need to let go of, release, and return this week? Is it a grudge or resentment? Anger? Fear? Disappointment and regret? Guilt? Envy? Maybe you need to return being in control, having to be right, a need for approval, perfectionism. I don’t know what it is for you but I am convinced that we all have our stuff. Maybe Holy Week is the time to return and release it all to God, trusting that God can do something with this stuff when we were never able to.
And what if returning and releasing this stuff is also about returning to ourselves? What if it’s about returning to our center? What if it’s about reclaiming our truest self? That means we could then move forward, not from the same old place, but from the newly recovered centered. That’s what Jesus did. He stayed true to himself through this week, and so must we. So maybe returning the colt is ultimately about returning to our original self, that self of beauty and goodness, that God created in and has loved from the beginning?
What if those are the two movements throughout this week? Returning, releasing, and letting go. And returning to and reclaiming those parts of ourselves that have been lost, ignored, forgotten, or denied. Even as we carry around that stuff that needs to be returned, so also there are parts of ourselves and our life to which we need to return.
What if this week we returned to ourselves? And here’s my second question. What do you need to return to? What if we returned to joy, hope, beauty, truth and honesty? What if we came back to justice, mercy, forgiveness? What if we reclaimed the dignity and holiness of each human life? What if we recenter ourselves in peace and courage? What if we returned to love of neighbor, self, and enemy? Coming back to ourselves would be like a new life, wouldn’t it?
So we begin this week by returning the colt. What do you need to return and to what do you need to return? Those are the two questions. To answer them we must look around at everything. That’s what Jesus did. It’s not so much just looking around at everything outside us but looking around at everything within us. Look at what’s there. Look at what’s missing. Look at what you need, what you feel, who you truly are, and who you want to be. And then return the colt.
Take that image of returning the colt with you this week. Take it wherever you go. Bring it to whatever you do. Hold it as you pray the liturgies of this week. Let it be present as you live your life and as you engage people in relationships whether in your family, at work, at school, at the grocery store.
Returning the colt is how Holy Week begins. Returning to God and ourselves is the promise of how this week will end. Look around at everything and then go return the colt.