I have had little experience with donkeys in my life In fact, I have no experience of donkeys at all. Yes, I have seen them in films and on TV. But the sound of their baying and that rather clownish and, at times, mournful face, only exacerbated by their long ears, and apparently the ability to swiftly kick you if they are irritated, all that I have never really seen.
But here in this story the role of the donkey is writ large. She (here in Matthews story the donkey had a foal) has her day of honour and glory, as G.K. Chestertons poem suggests:
By G. K. Chesterton
When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.
With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devils walking parody
On all four-footed things.
The tattered 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.
The Conquerors Procession
There is an important precedent to this story of Jesus riding a donkey through the walled gate into Jerusalem to the cheers and accolades of the populace. Almost 300 years before, Alexander the Great rode his majestic horse named Bucephalus into Jerusalem. The Jews had decided that they could not defeat Alexanders army, so they opened the city and he processed as the victor into Jerusalem. Bucephalus is one of the few horses from antiquity that can be named.
A massive creature with a massive head, Bucephalus is described as having a black coat with a large white star on his brow. He is also supposed to have had deep blue eyes. Plutarch tells the story of how, in 344 BC, the thirteen-year-old Alexander won the horse. A horse dealer named Philonicus the Thessalian offered Bucephalus to King Philip II for the sum of 13 talents, but because no one could tame the animal, Philip was not interested. However, Philip's son Alexander was. He promised to pay for the horse himself should he fail to tame it. He tamed it and rode the horse into many battles.
So history tells us that Alexander the Great rode his steed through the streets of Jerusalem to the cheers of its citizens who had surrendered the city and had little other choice than to pay homage to the conqueror.
Jesus the "Conqueror"
It seems reasonable that the author of Matthews gospel had this story in the back of his mind, which he then placed against the words of the Prophet Zechariah, "Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey," as he penned the words of Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem, informed both by Zechariahs vision and Alexanders conquest.
It is obvious that Jesus entrance into the capital was a parody of a conquerors triumphal procession after a victorious battle. And parody and caricature is the intention of this story.
The More we Worship Jesus the Less we Follow his Teachings
Historically - at least since the 3rd Century AD - Christian theologians have moved our thought toward the worship of Jesus. The hymns we sing on Easter Day are generally formed from this school of thought. And of course the scriptures see this Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, the Messiah. But we know from Jewish history that the Messiah was not a divine being, but a liberator, a deliverer. And this text reminds us that the Messiah was a person in the same manner as King David:
The 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!"
Hosanna, from the Aramaic means "to save or rescue us, possibly to be our saviour," and primarily, in the military sense, to "save us from the oppressor." And this is for me the point of the story. We are not "saved or rescued" by worshipping Jesus of Nazareth; we are "saved or rescued" by following his lead.
Sorry folks, we can sing about Jesus and worship him as much as we like, but only by following his example and imbibing his message can we be "saved", if that is the right word to use. Preachers often draw the conclusion that the crowd that poured out their adoration of Jesus by placing their coats and palm branches on the ground before him were the same crowd that called for his crucifixion. While there is no evidence for that, we know that crowds can be fickle. And this is particularly so when a group of people venerate, idolize and invest in a famous person. We have seen the product of that in the celebrity culture of the 20th and 21st Century and often it can be mimicked in some contemporary churches.
On the other hand, when there is a respect and even a reflective commitment to what someone proclaims or teaches, then there is less idolizing of that person and more likelihood of a willingness to follow the lead that they give. As the 19th Century lawyer, Civil War veteran and political leader Robert G. Ingersoll wrote:
To find art's nectar in the weeds of common things, to look with trained and steady eyes for facts, to find the subtle threads that join the distant with the now, to increase knowledge, to take burdens from the weak, to develop the brain, to defend the right, to make a palace for the soul. This is real religion. This is real worship.
The Crowd who saw the Message
I am giving this crowd a bit of a bad name and that may be unfair, because among them were those whose encounters with Jesus of Nazareth would be life-changing. Matthew writes that:
When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, "Who is this?" The crowds were saying, "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee".
In this sense the crowd got it right. Jesus was a part of the prophetic tradition. He was a critic of the religion of the day. And even a visionary and wise sage, who could see both the ruin coming to those who clung to the old ways and the liberation for those who embraced the ethic of love for God and humanity. That was his message and teaching. And he called all to follow him into the new world.
But in the story of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, we do hear the words of Jesus message; we see an example of it. The black or white charger of conquest is replaced with a donkey of humility. The tribute of gold and fine linen is replaced with shabby coats and borrowed palm branches. The trumpets of military procession are replaced with the calls of the people, Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
So we have humility instead of hubris; common cloth instead of the spoils of war; and the voices of the people rather than the shouts of soldiers and warriors. This is a vision of a very different world, even different from the one in which we live today, and it is created not through force or violence; not by power or aggression; nor by adoration and adulation; but rather it comes from listening to the words of the teacher and following the message of Jesus of Nazareth.