Who are your favorite minor characters in the Bible? The gospels, in particular, introduce a number of intriguing people we never hear much more about. This weekend, at the beginning of the Palm Sunday liturgy, we will be hearing from one of my favorite minor characters. He isn’t named, and you might miss him altogether if you’re not paying attention. But he’s an interesting guy, and I’ve learned some important lessons from him. Can you spot him?
Jesus proceeded on his journey up to Jerusalem.
As he drew near to Bethphage and Bethany
at the place called the Mount of Olives,
he sent two of his disciples.
He said, “Go into the village opposite you,
and as you enter it you will find a colt tethered
on which no one has ever sat.
Untie it and bring it here.
And if anyone should ask you,
‘Why are you untying it?’
you will answer,
‘The Master has need of it.’”
So those who had been sent went off
and found everything just as he had told them.
And as they were untying the colt, its owners said to them,
“Why are you untying this colt?”
“The Master has need of it.”
So they brought it to Jesus,
threw their cloaks over the colt,
and helped Jesus to mount.
As he rode along,
the people were spreading their cloaks on the road;
and now as he was approaching the slope of the Mount of Olives,
the whole multitude of his disciples
began to praise God aloud with joy
for all the mighty deeds they had seen.
“Blessed is the king who comes
in the name of the Lord.
Peace in heaven
and glory in the highest.”
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him,
“Teacher, rebuke your disciples.”
He said in reply,
“I tell you, if they keep silent,
the stones will cry out!”
— Luke 19: 28-40
Amidst all the action of the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, it’s easy to miss one of the people who made the event possible: the owner of the colt. We may even wonder why St. Luke bothered to include the owner of the colt. How is this small detail important to the Palm Sunday events?
I think it’s a good reminder that Jesus doesn’t usually act, or even work miracles, using thin air. He often requires others to supply the raw material that he will work with or transform. Think about the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes; without the boy who voluntarily gives up his lunch, the miracle doesn’t happen. Likewise the the wedding at Cana; the servers have to fill the stone jars with water before Jesus turns it into wine. He doesn’t wave his hand and summon the wine from nothing. If the servers don’t follow Mary’s admonition to “do whatever he tells you,” there is no wine. We have to do our part, and contribute our portion. He takes that little offering, and uses it as the basis for his miracle.
Which brings us back to the owner of the colt. It seems he must’ve been familiar with Jesus, and supportive of his ministry, because he lets the colt go without further questioning the disciples. What I find most interesting, though, is the way the request is framed. It’s not really even a request. It’s a statement of fact: “The master has need of it.” Jesus Christ, omnipotent God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, has need of something. He can’t — or doesn’t want — to do everything himself. He counts on our cooperation. Otherwise there is no wine at Cana, no loaves and fishes for the crowd, and no triumphant entry to Jerusalem.
I wonder if what Jesus has most “need” of isn’t so much the physical material itself, but rather our generous giving up of that physical material? And our willingness to deprive ourselves of the use of that physical material, along with our faith that he will do something even better with it?
Lent is an especially good time to think about the physical goods from which we can sever our disordered attachments. For us to reach our full potential of holiness, Jesus “has need” that we detach ourselves from certain physical goods. It might be the selfish use of our free time, or excessive time spent with television, or too much casual use of some treat like alcohol or candy, or something else. Whatever we’ve chosen to give up this Lent, as we enter Holy Week we can renew and further super-naturalize our motives for giving it up.
Looking elsewhere in the New Testament, it seems that the voluntary giving up of material goods isn’t the only thing Jesus “needs,” especially after his death and resurrection. St. Paul tells us, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” (Col. 1:24). Christ’s physical redemptive suffering took place at one particular time; what is “lacking” is the extension of his redemptive suffering beyond that particular time. That’s where you and I come in. Following Paul’s example, each of us can offer up his or her own sufferings for the good of the church and others in our own time.
Thus, with this openness to every human suffering, Christ has accomplished the world’s Redemption through his own suffering. For, at the same time, this Redemption, even though it was completely achieved by Christ’s suffering, lives on and in its own special way develops in the history of man. It lives and develops as the body of Christ, the Church, and in this dimension every human suffering, by reason of the loving union with Christ, completes the suffering of Christ. It completes that suffering just as the Church completes the redemptive work of Christ. The mystery of the Church—that body which completes in itself also Christ’s crucified and risen body—indicates at the same time the space or context in which human sufferings complete the sufferings of Christ. Only within this radius and dimension of the Church as the Body of Christ, which continually develops in space and time, can one think and speak of “what is lacking” in the sufferings of Christ. The Apostle, in fact, makes this clear when he writes of “completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church”.
— John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris, #24
When I encounter some kind of setback, or life throws an unexpected curve ball or suffering my way, I like to think: the master has need of it. His church, which is his body living on today, has need of it. Whatever this difficulty is, I can offer it up as a sacrifice along with my prayers. This suffering, this affliction, this difficulty … the master has need for me to offer it for the building up of the church.
I may not own a colt, but I can still profit from and follow the example of one man who — many years ago — did own one, but gave it up because the master had need of it.