Please excuse my title. Sometimes I think I’m funny.
So,to be serious, the question I’m asking here is: Why did Jesus ride a donkey into town on Palm Sunday?
This has always interested me, because all I’ve ever known about it is that he did it because it was prophesied that he would. Well, okay. That’s a great Sunday School answer, but I want more. What is Palm Sunday? What was the significance of a donkey in Jesus’ time? Why wouldn’t he, the Son of God, come riding in on a stallion to announce his greatness and draw attention to the fact that he was the Messiah? And what exactly did those prophesies say about him riding that donkey?
Let’s look at the text that tells us this story first: Matthew 21:1-11
“Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.” 4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying,
6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. 8 Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” 10 And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” 11 And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.”
If we follow verse 5 back to the original text in the Old Testament, we find ourselves in the book of Zechariah, chapter 9.
Verse 9 says:
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.“
This is where we first see an indication that Jesus will ride a donkey into Jerusalem. The first thing that jumps out at me in this passage is, of course, the blatant statement that Jerusalem’s king will come riding in on a donkey. This makes what Jesus did huge! Not only is he fulfilling a 500-year-old prophecy, but he is also making a grand statement. He enters Jerusalem- the city that would later betray him and have him killed- in the exact manner that the Messiah- the savior of the whole world- was supposed to enter. Let’s dissect this.
The best I can tell, Palm Sunday began centuries after the day it actually occurred. I was convinced for a while that it had some other significance, that it was an ongoing celebration that Jesus just waltzed into with his grand gesture, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. The closest thing I found to an explanation for why they would have had palm leaves already sown together is because they saw him coming from far off and were celebrating his return. I guess in their time, Jesus was the closest thing to a celebrity you could get without being a major ruler or a Pharisee. I wish I had a more elaborate answer for this question, but there doesn’t seem to be one.
“Hey, look at me!”
This is basically what Jesus was saying without saying anything at all. Entering the city on a donkey was a huge slap in the face to the scribes and Pharisees, and anyone else who doubted him. See, here’s the thing: Jesus only ever claims to be the Messiah twice that I have found, and neither time does he come right out and say, “I am the Son of God.” The first time is this one- the donkey incident. The other is when Caiaphas (the High Priest) asks him in Matthew 26 if he is the Christ, the Son of God. His reply then doesn’t even lend itself to a straightforward “Yes” or “No”. All he says is “You have said it is so.” This event- the riding in on a donkey with the people shouting praises- is the most blatant way Jesus could have come out and said it without ever actually blaspheming.
But the thing that still bothers me… Why a donkey?
This excerpt from a wikipedia post on donkeys basically sums up what I’ve seen in my research on this topic so far: “They are portrayed as work animals, used for agricultural purposes, transport and as beasts of burden…” From this phrase, we see that donkeys are not really what would be considered a “fancy” or “royal” animal. They were used for menial tasks, as well as transportation. Here is the interesting part…
“The donkey is used as a symbol of peace times. The horse has usually symbolized times of war, but the donkey, times of peace. In Old Testament times this was especially true from the days of King Solomon.”
Even kings rode donkeys. When they just wanted to get around or when they were entering a place they were traveling to, a donkey was the thing to have. We can see from this text (and other scriptures) that you would never ride a horse to your neighbor’s house to ask to borrow some sugar. A horse was a big deal! They are only ever mentioned in the Bible as creatures of war, magnificent and threatening. You ride a horse into the next town, and you apparently mean business.
So why didn’t Jesus ride a horse?
We’re talking about the Son of God, here. If anyone meant business, it was him! In our journey through the book of Matthew, we have seen Jesus perform miracles and rebuke the Pharisees and even forgive sins. This guy was shattering all kinds of customs and traditions, moving mountains to show that he was who they thought he was. I mean, he was here to end evil’s reign in this world, to save everyone, to defeat hell once and for all. If anything calls for “magnificent and threatening,” this is probably the situation of all situations.. Yet, here we have his triumphant entry into Jerusalem and he’s riding… a donkey.
I think, ultimately, this shows his true character. And I don’t mean that in the “Holy Trinity, He’s part God” way. If we look at this from purely a human perspective, Jesus shows his true colors right here. He is proud of who he is, but not boastful. He is humble, lowly, submissive. He doesn’t expect to be adored when he goes places, He doesn’t wish to be treated as a king. He also shows that he came in peace. He knew what was going to happen to him if he went into that city. He knew what the Pharisees were plotting. He knew it all. And yet, he rides in, head held high, because he is a man of peace; a man of honor; a man of his word.
Whether or not you believe that he truly was the savior of all, one thing is evident in this passage of scripture: Jesus wasn’t a man of destruction. He wasn’t a war hero. He was a humble carpenter; a regular guy like you and me.