When Jesus and his followers approached Jerusalem, they came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives. Jesus gave two disciples a task, saying to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter it, you will find tied up there a colt that no one has ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘Its master needs it, and he will send it back right away.’”
They went and found a colt tied to a gate outside on the street, and they untied it. Some people standing around said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them just what Jesus said, and they left them alone. They brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes upon it, and he sat on it. Many people spread out their clothes on the road while others spread branches cut from the fields. Those in front of him and those following were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessings on the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!” Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. After he looked around at everything, because it was already late in the evening, he returned to Bethany with the Twelve.
- Mark 11:1-11, Common English Bible
We’ve heard from all the characters in the Palm Sunday story: Jesus, riding into the city; his followers, sent to make the arrangements for his entrance; the onlookers, who ask what these people are up to; the crowds who shout Hosanna and lay branches and clothes on the road in front of Jesus. Well, we haven’t heard from one, the character no one wanted to play when we looked at the story in confirmation class: the donkey. But how much of a story would there be without the donkey?
There is actually a talking donkey in the Bible, back near the beginning in the book of Numbers. Whenever I read that story, I think of the donkey speaking in Eddie Murphy’s voice from Shrek. But a talking donkey still doesn’t get respect. Even his friend Shrek calls Donkey useless, pathetic and annoying. And Donkey says to Shrek, “You don’t know what it’s like to be treated as a freak! Well, maybe you do.”
So there’s a point here for any of us who ever feel left out, useless, looked down upon, laughed at, freakish, because of our appearance or disability or other circumstances – the Palm Sunday story doesn’t work without the donkey. G.K. Chesterton, who was an English writer, wrote a poem about this, told from the donkey’s point of view, and part of the poem goes:
With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings
The devil’s walking parody
Of all four-footed things.
The tatter’d outlaw of the earth
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me, I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.
Fools! For I also had my hour,
One far fierce hour and sweet;
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.
Today the donkey is the object of contempt. But in the time of Jesus it was the beast of kings. In the first Shrek movie Donkey gets excited when the princess calls him a noble steed, but 20 centuries ago the donkey was noble. A king rode to war on a horse, but when he came in peace he rode on a donkey. The prophet Zechariah says in the Bible, “Your king comes to you, riding on a donkey.”
Jesus is acting out this prophecy, and he needs the donkey to do it. He doesn’t walk into the city like the other pilgrims coming for the festival. The story really doesn’t work without the donkey, to show that Jesus is the king who comes in peace. And he is greeted as a king, with the crowd laying branches and cloaks on the road, and shouting Hosanna, save us.
Jesus is not claiming to be the kind of ruler people expected, who would smash the Roman legions and free Palestine from foreign occupation, then go on to shatter all of the world’s empires. He is indeed a king, but not one who relies on political and military power. He is not a ruler like the Roman governor, who is having his own parade as he leads his troops on his horse, marching into the city to beef up the garrison and keep order.
No, Jesus is a king who comes in peace, on a donkey. He is a king who reaches out to all who are despised and put down and rejected. He is a king who is despised and put down and rejected himself: betrayed by one of his friends, abandoned by the rest of his friends, convicted at his trial through false testimony, mocked by his guards and then by the crowd, beaten then executed in the most painful and shameful way the empire knew, and buried instead of his corpse being tossed into the city dump only through the intervention of one of his supporters. He is a king who is humble, who does not use his power to save himself, who asks forgiveness for those who are torturing him. He is a king wearing a crown of thorns, and with a sign on his cross, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, put up by the authorities intending to make fun of him, not knowing how true these words are.
Jesus is a king, a different kind of king because of all this. And at Easter he will be raised from death, putting the world’s empires on notice that their might is no match for a king who comes humbly, riding on a donkey.