A GLORIOUS MISUNDERSTANDING
Isaiah 50:4-9, Psalm 31, Matthew 21:1-11
March 28, 1999 by Tad Mitsui
It was fun watching the Academy Awards last Sunday night. I was happy for those people who received the awards. To a large extent, I thought they deserved the honour. But I felt bad for those people who were nominated and, in my opinion, deserved them, just as much as those who won, but didn”t. Commentators keep saying that it is an honour to be nominated as much as receiving awards. They say that to think winning is everything is a misunderstanding of the purpose of the Academy Awards. But the fact is that it is all about receiving awards. So those equally deserving excellent artists, who don”t win those silly statues, think that they are losers. It is a cruel fact of life that such a misunderstanding makes losers out of those talented people who have made tremendous achievements.
Palm Sunday is also about misunderstanding. Thousands of people cheered Jesus, as he entered a gate of Jerusalem, because they thought Jesus was somebody else. He made it clear who he was by riding a donkey. But they didn”t see the point, because they didn”t want to see it. If he was a king, as people had expected the Messiah to be, he would have been on a chariot, or at least on a horse like a general. It was like riding a beat-up old rusty pick up truck, instead of a chauffeur driven Rolls Royce. But it didn”t matter. Once people misunderstand something, they don”t see contradictions in details, and they don”t realize what a big mistake they are making. It was a misunderstanding. They believed that the Messiah would be a powerful king, like the one they remembered – like the King David. They thought that, with a mighty army, the king would lead them into a victory over the Roman Empire and re-establish a powerful Jewish Kingdom. It was a glorious misunderstanding.
So when they discovered that Jesus was not such a king, their expectation turned to anger. The same crowd who had cheered him in the beginning of the week, turned into a crowd who cried "Crucify him! Kill him." They decided that Jesus betrayed them. They didn”t think that it was their misunderstanding. Jesus made it quite clear about his mission. He was riding a donkey – an animal that carried the kind of stuff we load our pick up truck with. It”s low, so is easy to load and unload. So a pregnant woman rode it when she was too big and heavy to walk. Children rode the donkey too. It was not an animal of prestige. It was not good looking but it was tough. You don”t park a pick-up with a load of hay in front of the Ritz Carlton Hotel nor drive it to a state dinner at the Rideau Hall. Jesus wanted to demonstrate that the real Messiah was humble, was like any ordinary person. He wanted to show that such humility was a sign of God”s love. God does not seek glory. That”s why Jesus chose a donkey to ride into Jerusalem.
What a misunderstanding! The disciples enjoyed their master”s popularity as people cheered him. They just loved it. That meant they didn”t understand Jesus either. They thought that their leader was finally recognized and going to be declared a king. He would rule the whole country. No more wandering around country side like a band of outcasts, no more being thrown out of town; no more eating whatever was offered like beggars. The disciples expected that people would admire them: They would wear fine clothes and live in luxury. They completely misunderstood Jesus. This is why they ran away when Jesus was arrested, tried, and crucified. That was the time when Jesus needed the show of love and faithfulness more than any other time from his disciples. They did not understand that the purpose of the ministry of Jesus was to demonstrate humility and the love of God. They had in mind majesty and power, fame and popularity. They were pole apart from the path of humility, love, and sacrifice on which Jesus was treading. They just didn”t understand.
We suffer from the similar misunderstanding today. Our misunderstanding is called Christendom. It was a misunderstanding from the fourth century. It was a glorious experience. The church enjoyed it enormously just like the disciples did when Jesus was welcomed with cheers by people. In Christendom, everybody went to church. Remember those days? The church was powerful and wealthy. Many fine buildings were dedicated for the work of the church. The church leaders were respected and feared. They were powerful. Those were the good old days. Many of us still remember those days and are nostalgic about them.
Christendom began during the fourth century when the Roman Empire made Christianity an official state religion. The church dominated Europe for sixteen centuries, expanding its influence sometimes even by force. It did a lot of good work, for sure. The church spread the spirit of love around the globe. But expansion and increasing its power still was a more important goal than creation of the caring community. Consequently the church caused many conflicts and deaths as it tried to expand. Such conflicts still continue in some parts of the world. In many ways, the current conflict in Balkans stem from the old religious rivalries. The church misunderstood its mission just like the disciples did Christ”s mission at the gate of Jerusalem.
The church is going through a difficult period of time. But I am not disappointed. We are going through the same experience as the disciples did when they watched their master crucified. But let us not run away like the disciples did. We know that the mission of the church is the same as Christ”s mission; that is to love and to be humble for the sake of love. Let us not misunderstand our mission ever again. Our mission is not to be big and wealthy. It is not to become influential and powerful. Our mission is to be humble, riding on a donkey, in order to love others as we love ourselves.