Untying the Colt

Mark 11:1-11 – Palm Sunday – for April 1, 2012

“When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives…” (Mark 11:1)

We call it Palm Sunday now.

Palm Sunday, then or now...

But back then, on a Sunday two millennia ago, what kind of day dawned? The Jewish Sabbath had ended after Saturday’s sun set across first century Palestine. Was Sunday a day where coolness lingered in the morning, providing a brief respite from the day’s inevitable heat? Or—as women stirred to make the first trip to hoist cooking water from the wells or men grumbled while trudging toward a field to capture wandering sheep—did sweat already slick cheeks before the mean-spirited sun cleared the horizon?

*      *      *

A Roman Centurion gazed at the empty desert sky, wondering what Rome really looked like. He’d never been there.

The blacksmith stoked his fire. An order for nails today. Thick ones. Long ones. Damn Romans and their damn demands.

A Jerusalem shopkeeper squatted to shit, thinking he should raise his prices because the demand would be so great as the crowds increased around Passover.

Across town, having just comforted his crying child while his wife breast-fed their newest, a carpenter knew he’d have to leave soon. He’d ordered extra supplies to build more festival booths. Did he really have enough wood? Or too much?

Pilate awoke from another restless night. Barely shifting, for he didn’t want to disturb his wife, he glanced at her. Just enough light to trace the contours of her round face. Were her eyelids fluttering? Was she dreaming her awful dreams again? She was plagued by them, and invariably shared her nocturnal dis-ease with him. Pilate’s throat felt parched; too much wine last night . . . or not enough. How he hated this forgotten garbage dump of the Empire.

The high priest, guilt like a sword pricking his heart, paused in the courtyard’s gray shadows. His eager eyes followed two women carrying caged birds for a temple sacrifice. Yesterday the younger one, now near enough to hear the rustle of her garments as they strolled by, had gazed at him longer than was acceptable. He should’ve chastised her or turned away. But he hadn’t. Couldn’t. Like then, he kept watching. The priest grimaced while he adjusted the phylactery he’d tied too tightly on his arm. The woman looked in his direction. Could she see him?

A mother kneaded bread in the darkness of a back room. Extra loaves were required today. Because of Passover, more family would crowd into her cramped space. She didn’t know if the bloated, noisy festival pleased God, but it brought her children home. That pleased her.

As flat morning light filtered through a shuttered window, a whore finally claimed her bed for herself.

Children scampered in the streets, dirt-streaked before their first meal.

A dog, thin ribs exposed like a fence, gnawed at a discarded bone . . .


. . . At Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, the Nazarene slowed his ground-consuming gait and then, abruptly, stopped. I expected he’d say something to Simon Peter, who’d matched him stride for stride, or perhaps to John, a half step behind. But he gazed at me. And the disciple beside me.

“Go into the village ahead . . . and immediately as you enter it, you’ll find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it. Bring it.”

His words were directed only at the two of us . . . though we’d all experienced his unsettling demands or reactions. Many had first felt wrong and yet were revealed to be so right. A few loaves of bread and fishes had fed the grumbling crowd. An impure woman (and a hundred like her) who’d demanded to be healed—and was healed. The children welcomed on his lap. The soldiers standing near lepers, married women rubbing shoulders with tax collectors, all rapt as they listened to one of his stories. So many peculiar moments; so many simple truths spoken plainly. And sometimes, such odd requests.

Without questioning, we trotted ahead for the nearby village.

The Nazarene’s voice stopped us. “If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’”

We moved swiftly, puffs of dust rising from our sandals slapping the path. I wiped sweat from my brow, silent like my companion.

Moments later, we arrived at the outskirts of the village. There! To the left: a colt, solitary, a rope harness loosely encircling its thick neck. Flies buzzed around its nostrils. Anxious brown eyes tracked our movement as we approached. Breathing heavily, I tugged at the harness. The colt resisted, pupils widening. I scratched both cheeks, whispered in its ears. If the Nazarene had mentioned we’d be hunting down his ride for the final miles into Jerusalem, I would’ve saved a breakfast apricot for this beast. Still, my voice calmed him.

Then, perhaps going to the village’s well, a man with a ragged scar from cheek to jaw blocked our way.

“What are you doing, untying the colt?”

We told him what the Nazarene had said.

“Really,” Scar Face said. “I know where I can get you a fine stallion. For a little extra, a friend of mine might let you borrow a saddle. A centurion traded it for . . . favors.” Scar Face grinned like a fox waking in a chicken coop.

“The colt’s fine,” I replied.

Scar Face snorted. “For a woman or child maybe.”

We hurried to our group, both of us holding the harness, guiding it back to the Nazarene. With the beast never once complaining, he mounted and we continued toward the City of David. Our pace quicker now, I settled in behind Simon Peter, close enough to overhear any conversation between him and the Nazarene, close enough to offer more assistance if needed.

The sun rose, fading the bright blue of the cloudless sky. Already I could smell the city, over the next rise, around the next bend. What would this day hold? Where would we stay? Who would we meet? Where would we eat? Would more join us, or would we face hostility? Each day, since the Nazarene first asked me to follow him, had seemed a gift. But today felt different. Yes, it was the same sky, the familiar hard-packed dirt, the known and trusted companions, the expectation of a story with a twist or meeting a stranger with a wounded soul or troubling disease. Today—the same, and yet not.

My own home seemed like a dream barely remembered.

Jerusalem lay just ahead . . .

*     *     *

We call it Palm Sunday now.

The beginning of Holy Week? The end of innocence? There are a thousand interpretations. Is yours right? Or is mine?

In Mark, Matthew and Luke, two unnamed disciples were sent ahead to secure a colt. Apparently, with ease, their simple task was accomplished. But was it that easy? Wasn’t it part of a long list of odd, blessed moments where the ones who followed were being shown how they might soon lead? How they might soon transform the encounters into stories, and practice a faith that must be seen as new in each generation if it is to thrive as a living faith?

Every day, then or now, dawns the same. The sky above lightens. Sweat slicks the brow. A blacksmith or baker works. We make love. We cheat at a test. We forgive; or don’t. We try to forget; or can’t. A sleeping woman dreams, troubled by tomorrow’s emptiness. A waking man frets about yesterday’s sin. Children play in the streets. A dog howls.

“What are you doing, untying the colt?”

And we tell them what Jesus said, in his words and now our words, with his enduring hopes and our daily actions . . . and the journey continues. Good Friday looms. It always does. How can we possibly imagine Easter?

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      1. And you are welcome. Glad you’re having a beautiful spring morning. ‘Tis rainy here, though we need the moisture…

  1. Everyday ordinary turned into the extraordinary! Makes me feel a bit guilty, and don’t know why. Thank you yet again for making me think outside my normal box.

    1. Well, Nancy, I don’t think my intent was to create “guilt,” but once written or spoken, there’s no guarantee how a reader/listener will react to certain words. A favorite writer, Frederick Buechner, advised folks to pay attention to the times when they cried. What truly caused those tears? I suspect it’s the same with some feelings. We unexpectedly experience joy/guilt/shame/humility…maybe our inexplicable feelings are like a ripple disturbing a lake’s calm surface. Maybe, below and deeper, there’s something worth exploring that only each individual can do on their own? Or . . . I’m just prattling on!!

  2. “squatted to shit”? Aren’t you trying to hard? By all means, rely on offending middle class sensibilities! I guess that’s always been the best way to seem relevant and meaningful. And “seem” is le mot just here. (oh yes—if anglo saxonisms don’t work—you can always toss it French or Latin). Go take a good crap and think about it.

    1. Thanks for the comments, JP. Maybe I was trying too hard! But I was also trying to capture real enough images for “celebrating” Palm Sunday. And, even though I think you’re upset or offended at what you view as my poor choice of words, I hope people do get upset, unsettled, even offended by scripture and interpretations of scripture. Too often too many of us are complacent with our faith. If anything I say/write prompts a reaction (including critical ones) then maybe the person reacting has taken time to deepen their sense of faith.

      And while I won’t apologize for my “anglo saxonisms,” I think I understand your concerns.

      Take care!

      (By the way, JP, I just sent you a “thank you” email for your reading my blog . . . but you left a “bad” email and it was kicked back to me.)

      1. Thanks for being so gracious as to send a “thank you” email!!! Yes….i was offended. I’m actually not usually that offended by such language. I’m surrounded by it daily!! I guess I just never (and i mean, never) encountered it in a christian blog or similar expression. this must be what that book UnChristian was about!! As I consider my post on your blog—I’m truly sorry I was so strident. My tone was worse than your words, to be sure. I imagine we must have jarringly different sensibilities—-but I really appreciate your graciousness. And pray God blesses you in the use of your gifts. And prevents old idiots like me from discouraging you in any way! Cheers.

        1. Hey, JP, I guess we’ll have an abundance of thank yous . . . thanks for your follow-up and additional thoughts. I don’t think of you as an “old idiot.” (Or a young one for all I know!) Words can offend. Words are easily misinterpreted. And certainly words may be a “stepping stone” for one reader and a “stumbling block” for another. Blessings your way, also . . .

  3. beautiful imagery to draw one into the vignettes of life in the Middle East during Jesus time. And how that “procession” on a donkey would have been a bit unnerving and unexpected as was so much of Jesus ministry. You have helped me imagine a better sermon, thank you!

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