Donkeys or Warhorses? (Thoughts on Palm Sunday)
This past weekend we celebrated Palm Sunday. According to our church calendar, this is the Sunday one week before Easter where we reflect on Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
Most churches celebrate this event as part of holy week in one way or another, usually with palm branches and a chorus of Hosana. But a closer look at this scene in Matthew’s gospel reveals something about Jesus and his worldview. He was a messenger of peace. And we’re called to do the same.
The first part of this holy day that comes to mind are palm branches. Palm branches represented Jewish nationalism. Historically, it was believed branches were imprinted on Jewish currency as well as part of the decor of official buildings.
When Jesus comes into town, the crowds wave these branches and quote ancient songs that were sung during Passover. It’s all very exciting.
The crowds that day appear to be connecting Jesus with a super-hero political power that will, as they believed, restore Israel to her former greatness.
This will happen when Israel finds the upper body strength to defeat the tyrants of Rome and restore their kingdom.
Jesus comes into town, riding into a chorus of praise and adulation. And many in the crowd ask–“Well, who is this guy?” The answer is “He’s Jesus of Nazareth.”
But there’s something else happening in the story. Something groundbreaking and revolutionary, and perhaps, something people in the crowd noticed too.
Jesus chooses to ride into town on a donkey. This in and of itself isn’t all that interesting. Donkeys were used as transportation, especially for poor folks who couldn’t afford a nicer mode of transport. Sort of like taking the ol’ Uber versus UberBlack, I suppose.
Anyway, Jesus rides into town on a donkey, but this wasn’t random or the only animal he could acquire. He asked the disciples to bring him a donkey, with her colt by her (Matthew 21:2).
The reason, Matthew tells us, was to fulfill a prophecy in the book of Zechariah. The minor prophet with the Z, had a passage about Jerusalem welcoming the one who comes riding on a donkey. What’s unique about that is the emphasis is on a young donkey–aka something lowly.
Jesus, the Messiah, chooses to come into town on a lowly animal.
Jesus isn’t the first person of royalty to ride on a donkey. Solomon did it. So did others. But it is significant that at this time, in this place, this is the animal he chooses to ride into town on.
Kings didn’t ride donkeys during wartime. They’d ride a warhorse. But here Jesus comes as this symbol of peace, humility, and lowliness.
Further, riding a “young donkey” was an even greater degree of this sense of lowliness. By choosing this animal, you are opting to go with an animal that by no stretch of the means could be used for anything but transportation.
What’s sort of interesting in all of this, too, is that Israel used to be a nation that rode donkeys, not horses. They weren’t war people, not before they cried out to God to give them a king.
Egypt had horses and weapons and armor and armies.
Israel was a peaceful nation. She rode donkeys, not horses.
It’s almost as if Jesus is doing something pretty profound here. He’s not just riding a donkey as a symbol of peace, but as a commentary on the nation of Israel.
A nation that traded its lowly position for war and suffering. A nation now experiencing the consequences of her actions.
Perhaps Jesus is even insinuating God’s feeling about Israel having kings…because that was never His intention. And maybe Jesus is also saying something about how confused and lost God’s people had become.
Flash forward to the present. In 2017, we’re living in a tumultuously charged political world. Wars and weapons and tit-for-tat ways of relating to each other are daily occurrences. In that regard, not much has changed since the time of Jesus.
And yet we have this image of Christ riding on a donkey. He comes as our saving king, not mounted on a glorious warhorse, but in peace and humility. Jesus shows us that salvation doesn’t come through military, forceful might, but through sacrifice and love.
On Palm Sunday, we recognize the coming king, but perhaps some of us need to reorient ourselves to who Jesus truly is. We need to see him as the suffering servant, the sacrificial lamb.
We need to see him in the chaos and confusion of a world looking for a king on a warhorse, when what they got was a king on a donkey.
And maybe in our own lives, we need to step off the “warhorse” of our agendas and political leanings and find the path of lowliness, humility, and love.
In the new world God is creating, there is no need for weapons or war horses. Isaiah prophesied that we’d grind our weapons into plows and that lions would lie down with the lambs.
As Heaven and Earth collide, we are longing for a day when there are no wars and no fighting and no pain. There are no chemical weapons or missiles or suicide bombers.
This is the future of God’s creation. After all, Jesus said he came to restore all things.
This means the things that are broken and twisted and lost and suffering.
The restoration of all things is people.
It’s our lands.
It’s what we’ve turned into, even though that was never God’s intention.
Perhaps we are like Israel in a sense.
We’ve traded donkeys for war horses and maybe some of us are looking out into our world, awaiting our mighty conquering king.
Jesus comes to us on Palm Sunday humble and gentle, reminding us that our saving King didn’t waive weapons or lead a battle charge. Rather, He raised hands in surrender and willingly laid down his life. And we were freed.
In the greatest act of love and redemption, we are reminded of God’s plan to save the world. This happened not through force or might or sheer power, but through forgiveness and love.
As we embark on this journey of Holy Week, may we be made more aware of our King coming to meet us where we are.
May we receive Him as He is, not how so many wished He’d be.
And in all of this, may we find a truth that heals and restores a world that is broken and hurting.