These readings present a series of paradoxes. A servant enjoys direct access to his master’s God. A man on a donkey overcomes chariots and warhorses. That donkey man turns out to be a king who conquers by dismantling, not enlarging, his army. St. Paul desires to do right, but a stronger, sinful will cohabitates within him. Abstinent John has a demon but joyful Jesus is accused of gluttony. The truths of God hide from the wise but are revealed to babes. A burden is not a burden but a refreshment.
A paradox seems absurd but, upon investigation, proves true. How do these paradoxes turn out to be true upon closer examination?
The servant of Abraham successfully approaches God in part because his master believes. The benefits of belief apply to the whole household. But more profoundly, Yahweh is everyone’s God: servant or master, slave or free, male or female, Jew or Greek. And he delights to reveal himself to those who seek him.
The donkey conquers horse and chariot not by physical strength or beauty but by faithful service to the one who rules. The values of the kingdom of heaven confound those of the world: “His delight is not in the strength of the horse … but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love” (Ps. 147:10a, 11 ESV).
The king wins his kingdom, but not by worldly means. In this passage, nothing other than the king’s command is mentioned as the means by which he wins the kingdom. Authority inheres in this royal person, when seen as Christ, in a way with which modern democratic cultures are quite uncomfortable. The spoken word, when spoken from such a one, requires no military threat or diplomatic deal to accomplish his purpose. This one coming on the donkey does not merely serve as king: he is King. Ruling is his essence.
St. Paul’s good self is held captive by his sinful will, which has embedded itself like an unwelcome guest in his soul. Many comedic movies have used the trope of the annoying guest whose will is stronger than that of the host, but in our souls the situation takes on deadly earnestness. A willing host of sin soon becomes the unwilling slave of sin, and only a higher power can set things right.
Jesus’ frustration is palpable: to those for whom his self-revelation is unwelcome, nothing is good enough. Thus the wise, whose conversion might win thousands, are bypassed, and the revelation of the Father comes to babes not yet able even to speak the revelation to others. It is far better for us to receive the word of God thus innocently and to grow into the practice of it than as a spiritual celebrity never to be touched in one’s innermost self with the saving knowledge of Christ.
Jesus calls each of us to ministry, but not because he needs our competence. As a young ox hitched with an older, more experienced one learns the business of plowing, so also the yoke of kingdom work shared with Jesus becomes a light one, even a refreshment, because the competence belongs entirely to him.
Look It Up
How might St. Paul’s dilemma be illustrated in your favorite movie scene about an unwelcome guest?
Think About It
Jesus’ paradoxes reveal that motivation is more powerful than evidence for his hearers. How is this true both within and outside of the Church today?