Did you know that donkeys have an incredible memory, studies have shown that they can recognize areas and other donkeys they were with up to 25 years a part. Donkeys were, and in some places still are, the preferred mode of transportation across harsh land. It is said that Egypt became the wealthy nation it was because of the precious metals carried from around Africa on the backs of donkeys. But one of the more intriguing facts about donkeys is that they have a reputation of being rather stubborn but it turns out that this is due to 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 or safety. This is perhaps one of the reasons why donkeys can live for over 50 years. This is also why training a donkey relies on building a relationship with them. Truly, trainers must show through words and actions that they will protect the donkey before a donkey will follow instructions. Training a donkey can take years and takes a great amount of effort with each new owner. It is this fact that connects us to the familiar story of palm Sunday and should cause us to look at this familiar story in a new way.
In Mark’s version of events, as Jesus and his disciples are approaching Jerusalem he sends two of his disciples to get a colt, a young male donkey. The term colt is often used to mean an un-castrated male donkey or horse, which implies it has a bit of a wild side. But did you notice anything about the instructions? Jesus says, “Go into the village ahead of you and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt.” Then if the disciples are questioned they are to say, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.” Remember, Mark loves that word. There is an immediacy to this story- and this immediacy points to God’s reign breaking in through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Things are about to go down!
But then with all this immediate language why does Jesus spend so much time explaining to the disciples where and how they should get the colt, the foal of a donkey. Why does Mark, who is known for being abrupt in his writing, really getting to the point quickly, spend so much time detailing what happens when the disciples go to pick up the colt. And what is with the little detail that the “colt has never been ridden”? Mark spends more than half of these eleven verses talking about this donkey. Why?
Many commentators have suggested that one of the reasons Mark spends so much time emphasizing the details around procuring the colt is to give his readers time to remember the prophecy found in Zechariah. It is found in chapter 9:9 and says, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” This is to signal that Jesus is the one who they have been waiting for. The one who will nonviolently bring peace. Although I would argue that crucifixion is a pretty violent death. If you know other versions of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, you know that Matthew is really clear and states that Jesus riding on the donkey, “took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet.” Ok, so some of this detail is to link Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem with a prophecy. But why so much detail and why this mention that the colt has never been ridden before.
Jesus is turning the understanding of power and kingship on its head. You see, regardless of what is written in Zechariah, already, having a king ride on a colt rather than in a chariot with weapons-a-blazing, is flipping the image of kingship on its head. Jesus comes in peaceful and relatively quiet way. Likely Jesus knew about the verse in Zechariah but Jesus also lived under military occupation. In fact, in 332 BCE Alexander the Great, having conquered “Tyre and Gaza after terrible sieges…Jerusalem opened its gates to him without a fight.” And we can imagine how Alexander would have paraded about showing his might and force. Pilate, who is clearly in town for the festival of the passover, would have entered in a similar fashion. May even be entering the city on the same day at the same time as Jesus. Jesus riding a donkey points to the humility of Christ but it also demonstrates that while Jesus’ entry is nonviolent it was still an act that put him in danger. This is a risky act that will indeed push both political and religious leaders to decide that his actions must be stopped. While Jesus riding on a colt is a humble act, it did enough damage to the idea of kingship that the authorities saw it as a threat.
But before we think that Jesus is being demure or subservient by choosing a colt, we come back to this idea that the colt has never been ridden before. This is a significant fact. First, for any animal it would be unusual for it to allow anyone to ride it, if it had never been ridden before, but based on what we know about donkeys this is particularly true. Donkeys require trust, let alone being “broken in.” Jesus, however, has great authority and power so much so that the natural world can come under his influence. Jesus has a kind of power and authority that is not about kingship or political leadership but a power that is even greater than any earthly conception of power. And here Jesus demonstrates that power by riding an unbroken colt. Here Jesus’ reconciling power over all creation is played out.
The people who are witnesses to this event do know that something special is taking place. While they may not know that Jesus subdued a colt they do recognize the symbolism of Jesus riding in on a donkey. Many people turn the dusty land into a red carpet entrance by throwing their own cloaks upon the ground. The fanfare takes shape in earnest as they begin to spread leafy branches on the ground and wave them with shouts of hosanna! There is excitement and exaltation in the air. They have their hands in the air and they are exclaiming, “Hurray! Jesus is number 1!
But it is important for us to remember that this act of peaceful nonviolence, this act of riding in on an unbroken donkey, this triumphal entry into Jerusalem means that the shouts of “Hosanna!” and “Jesus is number 1”! Will be replaced with “Crucify” in less than a week. It’s a tough transition- palms to passion to paschal mystery, but Jesus’ relationship with God is such that Jesus trusts the process, loves the people, wants to show the depths of God’s protection. And he does it all by riding in on a colt, the foal of a donkey, that has never been ridden before. Amen