What’s with the Donkeys?

You see, we can’t overlook the donkey. The donkey obediently bears the voice and provides the base for God to speak. The donkey which returns again and again over thousands of years to this same little square of real estate crushes our feet to get us to acknowledge the messenger and the message from God. And the message hasn’t changed. There is a God of promise, a God of hope, a God of compassion and grace who desires to have a relationship with us, with me, with you.

 

Matthew, in the twenty-first chapter, relates the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The story on which Palm Sunday is based occurred about two thousand years ago. When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Matthew is at great pains to place Jesus’ entering Jerusalem’s Temple Mount in the very center of Israel’s history and tradition. In his telling the story he quotes part of Zechariah 9:9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation, Humble, and mounted on a donkey,…. That Jesus is mounted on a donkey was no small thing. Now in our time we think of the donkey as an humble beast of burden and an animal of industry, clearly not a fit animal for any important assignment. Of course reality is that for the rough terrain of the eastern Mediterranean it was much better suited than the horse.

One of the most important stories in Jewish tradition is called “The Binding of Isaac”. It is found in Genesis 22:3: So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him and Isaac his son; and he split wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. The place to which Abraham was commanded to take Isaac ostensibly to sacrifice his late in life miracle son was an elongated north-south stretch of mountainous wilderness known as Mount Moriah. When it occurred, four thousand years ago, the location meant nothing to the actors in this intense drama that ultimately contrasted a single God of abundance and grace with the blood thirsty gods of Caanan. But we know that that place in the wilderness would, in time, become the seat of David’s government and of Israel’s worship, the home to Solomon’s Temple and Herod’s Temple, the old city of Jerusalem. The fact that Abraham was mounted on donkey is no little thing in Israel’s salvation history.

The most important Biblical reference to a donkey is found in the tenth commandment which warns the Israelites to not covet their neighbor’s donkey. Had you ever noticed? I’ve just got to ask that of all the things in the world we might be tempted to covet, would it be our neighbor’s donkey? I dare not touch the question of whether it was a man’s wife or his donkey which is of greater importance. According to Jewish teaching, when the tenth commandment speaks of not coveting either another man’s donkey or his wife this has everything to do with seeking knowledge from God. The Jews recognized that a man’s wife represents a spiritual medium. In the reference to a donkey the Israelites are being warned not to seek messages from foreign prophets.

Probably the most famous donkey in the Old Testament is the one ridden by Balaam. You remembe the story. While on his way to curse the Children of Israel, Balaam and his donkey passed between two vineyards. Standing in their way was an angel with a drawn sword, but only the donkey was able see him. In an attempt to save his master, the donkey turned from the path and crushed Balaam’s foot against a stone wall. Balaam, oblivious to the angel’s presence, began to beat the donkey and at this point the donkey began to speak. By crushing Balaam’s foot the donkey was attempting to make Balaam aware of the presence of the messenger of God. The donkey of Balaam both speaks and carries the prophet on his back. The donkey is both “a voice” as well the means of delivery for God’s messengers. Of course the good news is that after the donkey speaks, Balaam is able “to see” the angel.

There are some other donkey stories. There is the message of salvation in the story whre Joseph sends wheat to his father from Egypt on the backs of donkeys. And when the Syrian general, Naaman, returned home he took dirt from the land of Israel on the backs of two donkeys we have a story about the importance of the land of Israel. I particularly like the story of Saul, before he was anointed king, He was actually on a mission to find his father’s donkeys. On that excursion Saul meets Samuel and his life is changed forever. It reinforces the connection between donkeys and communications from God. And of special importance for today, three thousand years ago, a thousand years before the time of Jesus, King Solomon entered what becomes the Temple Mount in Jerusalem to assume the throne of David, the very same piece of turf and, wouldn’t you know it, on the back of a donkey. The donkey again is the medium by which messages from God arrive.

Mounted on a donkey Jesus wasn’t just entering Jerusalem to cheering crowds. It’s too easy for us to envision an historical event in which the whole of Jerusalem lined the streets, thronging the new Messiah. What the authors of the Bible fail to tell us is that on the same day, while Jesus, mounted on a donkey, enters Jerusalem near the north entrance to the outer court of the Temple Pilate is parading through one of the main gates of the city on a war horse accompanied by a squadron or two of battle-hardened Roman soldiers.

There were two parades that day. The first and by far the biggest consisted of those who wanted to curry favor with the political, religious and military power. The other crowd is singing a pilgrims’ chant of “Hosanna” from Psalm 118:25-26. It is an acclamation of praise. “Son of David”, and “He who comes in the name of the Lord”, are both messianic titles. “Hosanna in the highest” is equivalent to “Glory to God in the highest.” Tradition doesn’t tell us what the other crowd was singing but you can bet it wasn’t “Blessed be he who comes in the name of the Lord”

It is important, however, not to cut story from its moorings so that it becomes a triumphalist celebration. Two thousand years before Jesus Abraham rode his donkey into the wilderness of Mount Moriah in obedience to God. A thousand years before Jesus Solomon, astraddle a donkey, entered David’s enclave to assume the throne of Israel. Matthew tells us that two thousand years ago, just like Solomon and Abraham before him, Jesus approaches that exact same piece of real estate mounted on a donkey.

In contrast to Pilate Jesus doesn’t enter Jerusalem as if he were a glorious king seeking the adulation of the populous, nor does he come as a conquering king seeking vengeance. Jesus comes in peace; he comes to bring peace between the Creator and his creation; he comes to break down the barriers that exist between humankind; he comes that we may find a peace that passes all understanding. Matthew has the crowd proclaiming Jesus as the king in Jerusalem who has come as an outsider, a prophet from Galilee (Matthew 21:11). This is not a case of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”: things are going to change, and in the biggest of ways, when Jesus is king — starting with how kings rule. Matthew also wants people to know that when he says that Jesus is king, we’re not talking about kingship as it’s usually conceived, or kingship as it’s usually used by those who have it. Jesus is a king who restores the glory of God’s people, but not with military victories. Jesus is not like other kings. Jesus did not come to be “king of the hill,” but to fulfill our longing that, as we find in Isaiah 40 “every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level,and the rough places a plain.

Isn’t that what the writer of the Gospel According to John meant when he wrote that Jesus said to Pilate, “my kingdom is not of this world”. It’s not that Jesus is uninterested in what happens on earth. Quite the opposite is true. Jesus didn’t come to tell us to give up on the earth, any more than he came to rule it like Pilate. Jesus came to redeem it. Jesus is king, but his kingship is not of Pilate’s world.Jesus didn’t come to take over Pilate’s system; he came to replace it. When we confess that Jesus is Lord and Christ, the anointed king, we are leaving no room for the Pilates of this world. When we confess Jesus as Lord – not in some distant world or only in the future, but of all that is, and of here and now – we are proclaiming the Good News. To affirm the vision of the kingdom and to live out its hopes in the present means championing alternatives to existing structures of oppression and authority. And it is possible, with Jesus as Lord, for all those with power to use it as he used his, for the vision of the prophets to find flesh among us who proclaim Christ the king.

You see, we can’t overlook the donkey. The donkey obediently bears the voice and provides the base for God to speak. The donkey which returns again and again over thousands of years to this same little square of real estate crushes our feet to get us to acknowledge the messenger and the message from God. And the message hasn’t changed. There is a God of promise, a God of hope, a God of compassion and grace who desires to have a relationship with us, with me, with you.

 

 

Matthew, in the twenty-first chapter, relates the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The story on which Palm Sunday is based occurred about two thousand years ago. When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Matthew is at great pains to place Jesus’ entering Jerusalem’s Temple Mount in the very center of Israel’s history and tradition. In his telling the story he quotes part of Zechariah 9:9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation, Humble, and mounted on a donkey,…. That Jesus is mounted on a donkey was no small thing. Now in our time we think of the donkey as an humble beast of burden and an animal of industry, clearly not a fit animal for any important assignment. Of course reality is that for the rough terrain of the eastern Mediterranean it was much better suited than the horse.

One of the most important stories in Jewish tradition is called “The Binding of Isaac”. It is found in Genesis 22:3: So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him and Isaac his son; and he split wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. The place to which Abraham was commanded to take Isaac ostensibly to sacrifice his late in life miracle son was an elongated north-south stretch of mountainous wilderness known as Mount Moriah. When it occurred, four thousand years ago, the location meant nothing to the actors in this intense drama that ultimately contrasted a single God of abundance and grace with the blood thirsty gods of Caanan. But we know that that place in the wilderness would, in time, become the seat of David’s government and of Israel’s worship, the home to Solomon’s Temple and Herod’s Temple, the old city of Jerusalem. The fact that Abraham was mounted on donkey is no little thing in Israel’s salvation history.

The most important Biblical reference to a donkey is found in the tenth commandment which warns the Israelites to not covet their neighbor’s donkey. Had you ever noticed? I’ve just got to ask that of all the things in the world we might be tempted to covet, would it be our neighbor’s donkey? I dare not touch the question of whether it was a man’s wife or his donkey which is of greater importance. According to Jewish teaching, when the tenth commandment speaks of not coveting either another man’s donkey or his wife this has everything to do with seeking knowledge from God. The Jews recognized that a man’s wife represents a spiritual medium. In the reference to a donkey the Israelites are being warned not to seek messages from foreign prophets.

Probably the most famous donkey in the Old Testament is the one ridden by Balaam. You remember the story. While on his way to curse the Children of Israel, Balaam and his donkey passed between two vineyards. Standing in their way was an angel with a drawn sword, but only the donkey was able see him. In an attempt to save his master, the donkey turned from the path and crushed Balaam’s foot against a stone wall. Balaam, oblivious to the angel’s presence, began to beat the donkey and at this point the donkey began to speak. By crushing Balaam’s foot the donkey was attempting to make Balaam aware of the presence of the messenger of God. The donkey of Balaam both speaks and carries the prophet on his back. The donkey is both “a voice” as well the means of delivery for God’s messengers. Of course the good news is that after the donkey speaks, Balaam is able “to see” the angel.

There are some other donkey stories. There is the message of salvation in the story where Joseph sends wheat to his father from Egypt on the backs of donkeys. And when the Syrian general, Naaman, returned home he took dirt from the land of Israel on the backs of two donkeys we have a story about the importance of the land of Israel. I particularly like the story of Saul, before he was anointed king, He was actually on a mission to find his father’s donkeys. On that excursion Saul meets Samuel and his life is changed forever. It reinforces the connection between donkeys and communications from God. And of special importance for today, three thousand years ago, a thousand years before the time of Jesus, King Solomon entered what becomes the Temple Mount in Jerusalem to assume the throne of David, the very same piece of turf and, wouldn’t you know it, on the back of a donkey. The donkey again is the medium by which messages from God arrive.

Mounted on a donkey Jesus wasn’t just entering Jerusalem to cheering crowds. It’s too easy for us to envision an historical event in which the whole of Jerusalem lined the streets, thronging the new Messiah. What the authors of the Bible fail to tell us is that on the same day, while Jesus, mounted on a donkey, enters Jerusalem near the north entrance to the outer court of the Temple Pilate is parading through one of the main gates of the city on a war horse accompanied by a squadron or two of battle-hardened Roman soldiers.

There were two parades that day. The first and by far the biggest consisted of those who wanted to curry favor with the political, religious and military power. The other crowd is singing a pilgrims’ chant of “Hosanna” from Psalm 118:25-26. It is an acclamation of praise. “Son of David”, and “He who comes in the name of the Lord”, are both messianic titles. “Hosanna in the highest” is equivalent to “Glory to God in the highest.” Tradition doesn’t tell us what the other crowd was singing but you can bet it wasn’t “Blessed be he who comes in the name of the Lord”

It is important, however, not to cut story from its moorings so that it becomes a triumphalist celebration. Two thousand years before Jesus Abraham rode his donkey into the wilderness of Mount Moriah in obedience to God. A thousand years before Jesus Solomon, astraddle a donkey, entered David’s enclave to assume the throne of Israel. Matthew tells us that two thousand years ago, just like Solomon and Abraham before him, Jesus approaches that exact same piece of real estate mounted on a donkey.

In contrast to Pilate Jesus doesn’t enter Jerusalem as if he were a glorious king seeking the adulation of the populous, nor does he come as a conquering king seeking vengeance. Jesus comes in peace; he comes to bring peace between the Creator and his creation; he comes to break down the barriers that exist between humankind; he comes that we may find a peace that passes all understanding. Matthew has the crowd proclaiming Jesus as the king in Jerusalem who has come as an outsider, a prophet from Galilee (Matthew 21:11). This is not a case of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”: things are going to change, and in the biggest of ways, when Jesus is king — starting with how kings rule. Matthew also wants people to know that when he says that Jesus is king, we’re not talking about kingship as it’s usually conceived, or kingship as it’s usually used by those who have it. Jesus is a king who restores the glory of God’s people, but not with military victories. Jesus is not like other kings. Jesus did not come to be “king of the hill,” but to fulfill our longing that, as we find in Isaiah 40 “every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.

Isn’t that what the writer of the Gospel According to John meant when he wrote that Jesus said to Pilate, “my kingdom is not of this world”. It’s not that Jesus is uninterested in what happens on earth. Quite the opposite is true. Jesus didn’t come to tell us to give up on the earth, any more than he came to rule it like Pilate. Jesus came to redeem it. Jesus is king, but his kingship is not of Pilate’s world. Jesus didn’t come to take over Pilate’s system; he came to replace it. When we confess that Jesus is Lord and Christ, the anointed king, we are leaving no room for the Pilates of this world. When we confess Jesus as Lord – not in some distant world or only in the future, but of all that is, and of here and now – we are proclaiming the Good News. To affirm the vision of the kingdom and to live out its hopes in the present means championing alternatives to existing structures of oppression and authority. And it is possible, with Jesus as Lord, for all those with power to use it as he used his, for the vision of the prophets to find flesh among us who proclaim Christ the king.

You see, we can’t overlook the donkey. The donkey obediently bears the voice and provides the base for God to speak. The donkey which returns again and again over thousands of years to this same little square of real estate crushes our feet to get us to acknowledge the messenger and the message from God. And the message hasn’t changed. There is a God of promise, a God of hope, a God of compassion and grace who desires to have a relationship with us, with me, with you.

 

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