Jesus gained celebrity during the three years he traveled on foot teaching his chosen disciples and people he encountered. Some of the masses came to him for healing after hearing of similar miracles, some probably came just to see what all the fuss was about, some came armed with questions with the intent to entrap him, and others because they believed him to be the long-awaited Messiah prophesied to free them from generations of occupation and oppression.
They didn’t know what to expect, but they expected something big.
Jesus’ words and massive following were compelling enough not only to worry the religious leaders and cause them to plot for his death, but some of those he had healed, too. If you’re shaking up a corrupt power structure, you’re probably doing something right.
It’s strange that someone so gentle (other than knocking over tables of people making money in the temple, it seems Jesus was completely nonviolent) would cause such a stir – both among his massive following and those threatened by him.
What is humility?
I awakened early this morning thinking of the Palm Sunday donkey and humility.
One of the reasons I became aware that my Evangelical upbringing had some faults was the recognition of crippling guilt I’ve carried for years, despite knowing such shame is contrary to the life-giving teachings of Jesus. I remember it from the time I was small – severely scolding myself when I recognized even a hint of arrogant or selfish thoughts. I have since learned this is not unique to Evangelicalism, but many from other Protestant denominations and Catholics (current and former) also report living with nagging guilt.
I wholly embraced the notion of original sin, believed it tainted every aspect of my life, and doubted even my good and helpful intentions toward others from childhood. It is intrinsically rewarding to help others, so is the good feeling – or some internal gold star – the motivation? I believed I couldn’t trust my own thoughts and assumed they were rooted in vanity or some other base cause. I considered others better than myself, which is vaguely scriptural, but I applied it to a fault.
I tried to embody humility from thoughts, to behaviors, to how I modestly dressed, and even how I held myself. I had a pretty happy childhood, but those obsessed-with-perfection parts were miserable.
Self-flagellation is obviously unhealthy, and is not God’s intention for a life of wholeness, freedom, and deep joy – the kind of joy and hope that’s possible even in times of loss or sorrow. It’s hard to live a powerful life of conviction and love when filled with doubt and thinly veiled self-hatred.
It’s ironic how trying to live perfectly according to the rules of religion, including spoken and unspoken rules of church culture, can backfire. Such attempts at humility not only carry the consequences of misery at the time, but they are in vain. There’s no such thing as bootstrapping Christianity.
A byproduct of habitual attempts at perfection is an undercurrent of anger and entitlement. It’s not how we were created to live – constantly scolding ourselves to keep our thoughts and actions in line with a strict list of regulations – so naturally our God-like inner selves rebel against it. We’re trying to judge ourselves preemptively so none of our peers can judge us, and we can somehow prove our worth to God.
The longer we keep up the act, the further we stray from the teachings of Jesus, and it becomes fertile ground for all kinds of hatefulness and judgment against others who do and do not claim to be Christians. The thought that God might be loving other people and extending grace beyond human rules is frustrating if you’ve put your whole life’s effort into heroically living by those rules.
It starts to sound a lot like how the rules-following Pharisees hated Jesus.
Many of Jesus’ followers believed he was the long-awaited King who would save Jewish people from earthly oppression. They were justifiably angry. Their political situation was unjust: they were being taxed by a greedy emperor who whose armed forces were occupying their land, preventing them from living in freedom and prosperity, and only tolerated their religion to prevent an uprising. The taxes they paid didn’t include any social safety net benefits for them; only enriched their occupiers and paid the salaries of soldiers, tax collectors, and local rulers who carried out the oppression.
Jesus was not ignorant of the anger nor the injustice of these people he loved, but he only addressed these responsively, not proactively. His harsh words were instead reserved for corruption and abuses carried out in God’s name and in God’s place of worship. He did not instruct his followers to avoid politics, but he said “My kingdom is not of this world.”
Jesus chose to ride a humble donkey, not a war horse, for his Triumphal Entry. He confounds our notions of humility and justice, breaks all the rules, and frees our hearts.
I often pray for God to right injustices – not some time in the future, but now. I witness the hypocrisy of politicians who claim to be Christians (especially if a megachurch invites them to meet the congregation around election time) but speak lies and enact policies that perpetuate injustices impacting children’s health, poverty, and unequal treatment under the law. Especially if these oppressive policies benefit their campaign donors.
I am angry, and I long for justice.
Jesus commanded his followers to care for those treated unjustly, which is also the most productive use of righteous indignation. God has such love and tenderness toward children, the poor, the imprisoned, the burdened, and the hurting. If we love God and carry a spark of God’s heart in our chests, we care for these, too.
The Triumphal Entry itself was subversive – the people’s King being welcomed and honored thwarted the notion that the governmental and religious leaders were in charge. Jesus riding a donkey challenged the singing, cheering crowd’s presumptions of his kingly intentions, though it didn’t seem to dampen their enthusiasm.
This Palm Sunday, I am opening my heart to whatever culturally subversive teaching God wants to plant and grow there. It will likely be rooted in love for people, including myself (God’s pretty consistent in that regard), but I won’t limit it with my expectations or a list of traditional rules.
I will use the voice God has given me to bring heaven to earth in whatever ways I am able. I will use it to put a voice to the heart given me for such a purpose.
I will work to increase justice, love mercy and kindness, and walk humbly with my God.
As a bonus, it’s gratifying to do this work with like-minded and like-hearted others, and today I am so grateful to know so many wonderful people who are passionately working to this end. Justice might not take a form we expect, but we are doing good work. May God bless it and grant peace in the meantime.