Who needs an Antihero?
Whose needs an antihero? Bonnie Tyler sure didn't sing that in 1984. No, she sang, "I need a hero/ I'm holding out for a hero 'til the end of the night." Not an antihero. That word was first used in 1714 at the dawn of the Enlightenment but the concept of a hero lacking the usual qualities of one goes back past Homer and the Greeks to Jephthah and Samson before them in the OT. But the word antihero was dormant for almost 250 years. Then from 1950 on its use escalated till it peaked circa 2000. Dirty Harry and Rambo were grudgingly popular antiheros; then the Dark Knight, House, and Dexter became mainstream.
Well then, Mark should be the Gospel for today. It's the antihero Gospel. Mark 8 has the only case of the all powerful Jesus, very God of very God, not healing a person in one shot. Hear it for yourself. "Jesus took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When He had spit on the man's eyes and put His hands on him, Jesus asked, Do you see anything?' He looked up and said, I see people; they look like trees walking around.' Once more Jesus put His hands on the man's eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly" (23-25). Also, our text stops at Mark 11:10. Listen to verse 11: "Jesus entered Jerusalem and went to the temple. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, He went out to Bethany with the Twelve." This is an anticlimax befitting an antihero. It wouldn't be more so if the Holy Spirit said, "Jesus looked around at everything and said, "Meh." And Mark is the only Gospel who tells you of one disciple in Gethsemane so afraid to be caught with Jesus, he would rather flee naked into the night.
Mark is the Gospel of the antihero, but Jesus, is a hero. You heard the text. Jesus orders people and animals around as Lord of all creation. This is the only time we read of Jesus riding a donkey. He's making an entrance fit for a king. He commissions 2 of His disciples as if they were ambassadors to requisition a donkey. They didn't ask to have the donkey colt; they took the colt and when asked to explain why there were doing this just think how rare an unridden, unused, donkey colt would be in those days Jesus just tells them to answer, "The Lord of the donkey needs it." And like "open Sesame" Jesus' words were enough. The words of a king usually are. The words of the King of kings who knew without being told where this donkey colt was tied showed Him to be the Lord who created all and therefore owns all.
Jesus is purposely flipping all the hero switches, pushing all the conquering Messiah buttons, giving them the Christ they expected. When David wanted to prove Solomon and not another son was his choice to be king he summoned the high priest, the king's prophet, and general and said, "'Take your lord's servants with you and set Solomon my son on my own mule and take him down to Gihon. '" (1 Kin. 1:33)! And when the son who wanted to usurp the throne is told that Solomon is David's choice, the messenger emphasizes, "and they have put him on the king's mule" (44). And Zechariah could not be more clear how the Messianic, final King in David's line, would come to Jerusalem: "Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding...on a colt, the foal of a donkey" (9:9).
The people get the message. Only John tells you they used palm branches, but we know that palm branches were used in rededicating the temple in 164 BC (2 Macc. 10:7). In 141 BC Simon Maccabeus made a triumphal entry into Jerusalem with palms being used as a national symbol of victory (1 Mac. 13:51). Even after the Ascension, in 66-70 and again 132-35 AD palms were used as a national symbol on Jewish coins during revolts against Rome (Kiehl, Passion, 28-29). Furthermore, Jesus allows them to strew their cloaks Sir Walter Raleigh like and sacrifice them like St. Martin of Tours did. In an age when you might have just one, this also expressed His kingship and lordship. And from 3 years of keeping the Messianic secret from all but His disciples, with one exception, (Jn. 4), we go to this? Them shouting, "Save Now". Them singing what the church has been singing since the first century in the Communion Liturgy " (1 Clem. 34: 5-8, in Sasse, The Lonely Way, II, 167), "Hosana, blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest", and Jesus accepts it? He can only do this because it's all true. He is the Lord, their King, and He is going save right now. But once more the image of an antihero comes into view.
Mark is the Gospel of the antihero. However, being not only True Man born of the Virgin Mary but True God begotten from eternity, Jesus is also Lord, and King, and Hero, but He saves by being an antihero. He does this by humiliating Himself. Here I do make reference to the theological technical term of Jesus' Humiliation. Where He didn't fully use His Divine Powers as a Man, to live in a humble way on this earth in place of sinners, living, suffering, and dying to redeem us. I do reference the part of the Apostles' Creed where it's fitting to bow: conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered, crucified, dead, buried. I do reference this technical theological state, but I also want you to see Jesus humiliates Himself. He does things that make His face turn red. He endures things that we have nightmares about.
Yes, He is Lord of that donkey, but He actually says, "The Lord of it a need has." A needy Lord? Isn't that an oxymoron? Hero's don't have needs. Antihero's do. And the point is made that this is small donkey, a colt. I could've used that image for the bulletin cover, but it is too laughable. Most of us wouldn't let us be photographed on a colt so small our feet dragged the ground. Certainly, what hero would? And make no mistakes this image has dogged the Church. The Romans called Christians asinarii ass drivers' (Wenzel, 570)? Already in the 3rd century Christians were depicted worshipping a crucified man with an ass's head (Evangelism in the Early Church, 174). Up till the 19th century Christians in some Muslim countries were only allowed to ride asses so as to humiliate them (Keil- Delitzsch, Zechariah, 335). And you get a whiff of this humiliation in the fact that where originally hymns and carols had the word "ass" in them, moderns have changed it to "donkey" or even another animal. But the ass points out what kind of Messiah and King Jesus is, not heroic but antiheroic.
A 1943 Lutheran commentary has this observation: A common saying from the Orient is "'The ass, the camel, and the woman are the burden bearers'" (Lenski, Matthew, 805). The burden Jesus carried was identified in John's Baptism: the sins of the world. But that wasn't enough: He calls to Himself all those who were burdened and heavy laden. And through the pen of St. Peter Jesus calls on us to "Cast all your anxieties on Him." That's not just sins, not just definable problems, but those undefined worries that take shape then vanish before you really know what they are; those cares that are like the dull ach of wisdom teeth. Not enough to make you cry out, just hurt. Well, Jesus rides into town on a small colt to let you know you don't have to cast your cares far to get them on His back.
And our Antihero, Jesus comes to town to make war with our real enemies: the devil, the world, and our own flesh. But rather than make them suffer and die as any hero would, He will suffer and die at their hands. And He does this not for His friends, not for the godly, but as Paul says in Romans 5, Jesus does this for the ungodly and His enemies. How relatively easy it is for us to suffer for someone who's sorry. And it is Christian to suffer at the hands of the not sorry, but Christ suffers and dies for enemies who are still laughing at Him. Dirty Harry, the antihero, shoots the evil, murderous man as he laughs about Harry having to arrest him alive. Now, that feels right; that's a satisfying ending. But Jesus bows His head and gives up His Spirit having suffered under Pontius Pilate, been crucified, now dead, and soon to be buried. All this Jesus sees, knows, and bears as people shout their prayers and praises, give their love and adoration.
What if starting today everything went quiet. No trade was conducted; no labor was done; the courts were closed? O wait that happened 3 weeks ago when Covid-19 impacted American unbelief in a way 47 years of killing the unborn, 60 years of sexual revolution, and 5 years of bathing the White House in the rainbow flag of Sodom and Gomorrah had not been able to. Finally, unbelieving America at last woke to the fact that there are some problems too big for her and worthy of fear.
That is not you who are in Christ, baptized into Him, absolved by Him, bodied and blooded to Him and one another in Holy Communion. You've always known your sins, let alone the sins of the world, were too big for you. You've always known that the only proper object of fear is the True God. The Early Church knew these things too. So as early as the 4th Century all things were shut-down at the beginning of Holy Week, today. It was called the "Week of Silence" (Strodach, Church Year, 130). It set off the great events in Jesus' life that were for us and our salvation. Here begins the great suffering, sighing, bleeding, damning and dying that Jesus underwent to rescue you, save you, forgive you of all your sins, and relieve you of all your fears.
I admit my government telling me I'm to be in lock-down or to shelter-in-place for my benefit, feels like being in the Army's Survival, Escape, Resistance and Evasion training. I was enclosed locked wooden box in a kneeling position with my head on the floor. My captors beat the box, shook the box, turned it end over end and said I should be grateful. They were saving me from an air raid. If only, like the Early Church, I would use this Week of Silence imposed by an unbelieving government to focus not on the extraordinary times I'm living in now, but on the extraordinary things Jesus did in the past. Then my heart might indeed sing, "I need an Antihero." Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Palm Sunday (20200405); Mark 11: 1-10