The Stubbornness and Courage of a Donkey
Minneapolis hosted the Final Four last weekend… and I have it on pretty good authority that the city did a lot of work to get ready for it – not quite as much as we did for the Super Bowl – but when big events happen in town, everyone from the mayor to the owners of food trucks gets ready.
The same thing was true in Jerusalem. Passover was a big deal and attracted large crowds of people – pilgrims and revolutionaries and revolutionary-minded pilgrims. But it also attracted those whose goal was to keep the peace - Pax Romana – a peace gained by and enforced by power and might.
Two scholars, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, propose that while Jesus was entering Jerusalem on a donkey from the Mount of Olives, another procession was occurring from a gate on the opposite side of town.
One was a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession. From the east, Jesus rode a donkey down from the Mount of Olives, cheered by his followers. A rabbi, Jesus was from the peasant village of Nazareth, his message was about the kingdom of God, and his followers were pilgrims going to the temple.
On the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor… entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry, foot soldiers, with their leather armor, helmets, weapons, and banners. Imagine the sounds of marching feet, creaking leather, clinking bridles, and the beating of drums. 1It reeked of power and might. Just as it was supposed to do.
What a contrast! Two processions – two different messages:
Jesus’ procession proclaimed the kingdom of God; Pilate’s proclaimed the power of empire.”
And yet… there was more to Jesus’ entry than a simple renunciation of the power of the empire.
You see, the pilgrims knew their history and the prophecies of scripture. To assure the transfer of power to Solomon, as he had promised Bathsheba, David had Solomon anointed by a priest and then had him ride into Jerusalem on his own donkey. It became a tradition. The prophet Zechariah said, “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.” Zechariah 9:9
The people of Israel were long overdue for the prophesied messiah, the new awaited king, to come and restore them. And so…when the disciples – and all of the pilgrims saw Jesus, this rabbi who spoke of God’s kingdom with authority, healed the blind and raised the dead riding on a donkey into Jerusalem… how could they help but shout with joy that the time had come!
This image was not lost on the Pharisees – but they saw it as “dangerous.” It was dangerous because the Pharisees knew that if the Romans smelled even a whiff of revolution or heard the words “New King” or “Messiah,” they would destroy anything and everything that threatened the “Pax Romana” - their power. And that included the privileged place of the Pharisees and maybe even the temple itself.
There are times that call for courage. There is the instinctual courage that causes a young father to jump in front of a car to grab his toddler from its’ path. And then there is the kind of courage that sees danger coming, has plenty of time to choose a safer path, and yet chooses to remain faithful and endure the challenge - despite the fear … for the sake of the greater good. 2
Jesus demonstrates this second kind of courage. He tells the Pharisees that if his disciples were silent, “even the stones would shout out.” Rather than shushing his disciples and choosing a safer path, Jesus continues his journey, humbling himself and becoming obedient even to the point of death – death on a cross.”
Courage is easier to admire from afar.
During WWII in Nazi-occupied France, Pastor Andre Trocme gathered his congregation together in the small mountain village of Le Chambon. It was Christmas eve. It should have been a joyful time and yet his people were full of fear. You see, they had formed an underground network for saving refugees, many of them Jewish children. But they didn’t even dare talk with one another because none of them knew which of their neighbors might betray them to the German occupiers. So the pastor, wanting to encourage his people to continue to do what was right, gathered his people together and told them stories -- about Jesus’ life and the courage of a donkey. 3
Yes, of a donkey. Donkeys show up quite a bit in the Gospels and in our tradition. There is the donkey we imagine who carried a very pregnant Mary to Bethlehem, and Mary and Jesus to Egypt and there is a donkey in the story of the Good Samaritan. The donkey in our Gospel today is a young colt – never ridden before. In the pastor’s retelling of the stories, the master of the donkey is often afraid - afraid to let Mary and Joseph into the inn, afraid to let his donkey go to Egypt, afraid to pick up an unknown man by the side of the road. But the donkey, exhibiting the traits of contradiction, otherwise known as stubbornness, and courage, is not afraid. In each of the stories, against the “better judgment” of her “owner,” the donkey does the right thing. Mary gets to a stable to give birth and the donkey stays to keep it warm. The donkey takes the best path to Egypt and so protects Mary and Joseph. And it is the donkey, in the pastor’s retelling of the Good Samaritan story, that makes the Good Samaritan stop and care for the injured man by the side of the road.
In the pastor’s retelling of today’s story, the owner has finally gotten wise and tells the disciples that his donkey is the most stubborn donkey imaginable but if the donkey follows them, it will be ok because the donkey is always right! Sure enough, the donkey follows them and leads her colt to Jesus. The donkey was used to show courage – despite the circumstances.
The people of this mountain village were being called: by their pastor, by their conscience and by faith to have courage to do the right thing, to care for and support the Jewish refugees from the power of the Empire of the day. The example of stubborn courage displayed by the donkey in the pastor’s stories helped them to put aside their fears and embrace their faith and their mission with courage.
Ordinary people, like us, are called by God to not be afraid to follow but instead to be of good courage. There are plenty of challenges in our world, plenty of reasons to be afraid. But brothers and sisters in Christ, “Be of good courage.” We can dare to do the right thing, to live out our faith with courage – despite the challenges in our lives and in our world. For Jesus has already gone before us and has prepared the way. The journey is not always easy. But not only is the way of Jesus better than the way of the empire but Jesus loves us so much that he gives us the faith and the courage to follow. Thanks be to God. Amen.
1 The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem, by Borg and Crossan, p. 3 by Janet Hunt in http://dancingwiththeword.com/the-donkey-a-subversive-choice/#comments
2 William Barclay as quoted by David Lose http://www.davidlose.net/2013/11/luke-19-28-40/)
3 Easter Stories: Classic Tales for the Holy Season https://thevalueofsparrows.com/2017/03/11/lenten-story-how-donkeys-got-the-spirit-of-contradiction-by-andre-trocme/