By Dr. Keith Wagner
There is no other symbol in our society that has more meaning that the US flag. It is highly cherished and respected and those who show disrespect for the flag are considered unpatriotic. In reality the flag is just a piece of cloth with red and white stripes and a blue field with white stars. But it’s what the flag symbolizes that truly gives it significance. For some the flag is a symbol of freedom. Others see it as a symbol of sacrifice. Regardless, it is a powerful symbol to the American people.
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Our faith has many symbols too. For example, the cross represents the death and resurrection of Christ. In Jesus’ time there were symbols that were important to the faith community. Water was symbolic of baptism and the number seven was symbolic of perfection. The rainbow was symbolic of the covenant God made to Noah and his descendents that God would never again flood the earth.
In today’s world we have many symbols. Most prominent are company logos like the “golden arches” of MacDonald’s, the multicolored logo of Google or the red, green, blue and yellow flags of Microsoft. There is Santa Claus for Christmas and the Easter Bunny for Easter. Symbols are a part of our culture and each of them means something.
In his book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Thomas L. Friedman proposed “The Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention,” observing that no two countries with a McDonald’s franchise had ever gone to war with one another, a version of the democratic peace theory. The golden arches which normally symbolize the ultimate in fast food also symbolize peace.
Today’s teenagers often use the expression, “So and so rules!” That means there favorite personality or favorite rock group is at the top of the charts. A young teen would say, “Hannah Montana rules!” An older teen might say, “Usher rules!” Humility however is not an attribute. It’s all about the beat, the music and the charisma of the star. Today’s teens wouldn’t show loyalty to their favorite group by waving palm branches. Instead they would shout, jump up and down and dance.
Jesus didn’t appear on a stage. He did, however win the hearts of the people. Matthew tells us that Jesus actually arrived with two donkeys. One was a mare and the other was a colt. The other gospels talk about a single donkey. Matthew however says there were two. Most likely Jesus arrived in Jerusalem on a female donkey with her colt by her side. Perhaps Matthew wanted to give us a double dose of humility. On the other hand, maybe Matthew intended the two donkeys to symbol togetherness. Peace abides when God’s people are together and live in harmony.
Donkeys were first domesticated around 4000 BCE, approximately the same time as the horse, and have spread around the world. They continue to fill important roles in many places today and domesticated species are increasing in numbers. As “beasts of burden” and companions, donkeys have worked together with humans for centuries.
Donkeys have a reputation for stubbornness, but this is due to some handlers’ misinterpretation of their highly-developed sense of self-preservation. It is difficult to force or frighten a donkey into doing something it sees as contrary to its own best interest. Although formal studies of their behavior and cognition are rather limited, donkeys appear to be quite intelligent, cautious, friendly, playful, and eager to learn.
It was no accident that Jesus chose to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey. Matthew made reference to the time that the prophet, Zechariah, proclaimed that “a king would come to you, triumphant and victorious, humble and riding on a donkey.” The donkey was symbolic of humility and peace. By making his entry into Jerusalem Jesus wanted the masses to understand that he was a person of humility and peace. Those who were knowledgeable of scriptures would have understood his intentions. Some did not agree with Jesus’ symbol of humility and others were not willing to make the connection. But for Jesus it was the best way to make a statement that as “king of the Jews” he stood for humility and peace.
In our society we are conditioned and influenced to be successful, self-sustaining and independent. Humility is not an attribute that would be on anyone’s top-ten list for popular characteristics. Humility is the quality of being humble. Or, a person has a modest sense of their significance. Jesus’ did not present himself as a hero, riding along in a limo, as a champion in a ticker tape parade. He entered on the back of a donkey, as a humble servant of God.
One time there was a little Swiss watch that had been made with the finest skill and precision. But, the little watch was dissatisfied with its restricted sphere of influence on a lady’s wrist. The watch envied the lofty position of the great clock on the tower of City Hall. One day the little watch and its owner passed City Hall and the tiny watch exclaimed, “I sure wish I could be way up there. I could serve many people instead of just one.” The watch’s owner looked down and said, “I know someone who has a key to the tower. Little watch, you shall have your opportunity.” The next day the little watch was placed at the very top of tower. At that moment the little watch said, “Oh my, I am too small for anyone to see me. My elevation has resulted in my annihilation.”
When we aspire for lofty places to achieve greatness we lose sight of those we influence who are within our reach. In other words, humility rules!
The humility of Jesus put him in direct conflict with those who were proud and hostile. Appearing on a donkey made him at total odds with those in authority and power. The crowd wanted a hero, someone to save them. They failed however to understand the symbolism of the donkey that the way to salvation is the path of humility.
One Sunday morning I turned on the television to check the weather. Out of habit I started flipping channels and I happened to turn to Joel Osteen, in Texas. He preaches in a massive sanctuary, as large as a stadium. He appears on a giant screen and in the background a globe is slowing spinning. He wears a double-breasted suit. He is young, good looking with curly hair. I was impressed with the multitudes that filled the sanctuary. His message was fine but he didn’t seem to be saying anything different than what I preach. He preached without notes and I thought to myself, “What’s the big deal, I do that every Sunday.” Nevertheless I was envious of the massive crowd and the enormous size of the sanctuary.
Several years ago there was a newspaper cartoon that showed two fields separated by a fence. Each field was the same size and each had plenty of lush green grass. In each field there was a mule whose head stuck through the wire, eating grass from the pasture on the other side, even though it was hard to reach. In the process the mules’ heads became caught in the fence. They panicked and brayed uncontrollably at being unable to free themselves. The cartoonist wisely described the situation with one word: “Discontent.”
Like the mules, when we focus on what we don’t have we become blinded to the blessings that surround us. There is nothing wrong with desiring something, but to think that life is greater in someone else’s pasture may result in our being trapped. We have new life when we live with humility. Later in the gospel of Matthew Jesus said, “The greatest among you must be a servant. But those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Matt. 23:11-12) Once again, humility rules.