Don’t laugh, Jesus went by Donkey

29/03/10 | Posted by MattPage

Said a supposedly humorous car sticker from the 80s, and today is the day that people celebrate the memory of Jesus’ most famous road trip - his journey into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. The symbolism of Jesus’ mode of transport is largely lost on us today. Almost no-one in the west travels on animals today, let alone going by donkey, and even in the middle east donkeys tend to be used to carry goods rather than passengers.


In Jesus’ day, though, things were obviously completely different. Donkeys were commonplace. Yet even so, Jesus’ ride would have caught the attention of many onlookers that day. Why? Well firstly, Jesus riding into the holy city on a donkey would have been seen by many a fulfilling an old prophecy. There’s a book in the Old Testament called Zechariah, and in it (9:9) the prophet says “See your king comes to you…riding on a donkey”.

Jesus would probably have been familiar with this passage: it was one of the main ones that predicted the coming messiah (or king). So his decision to ride into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey was a definite claim to be that king. It’s an allusion so important that Matthew’s Gospel describes the disciples bringing along the donkey’s colt just to make sure the audience gets the point.

On top of this though was also the importance of what the donkey was not. So firstly, he was not riding on a cloud from heaven. This was another prediction about the Messiah from Daniel 7:13 (the same book that gives us the story of the man in the lions’ den). “I looked and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven”. The difference between the two images was understood in different ways, with some Jewish writers expecting two messiahs whilst at least one other thought that the Messiah would come on the clouds if the Jewish people did right, but if they did not act as God wished them then the Messiah would come riding on a donkey. No wonder the Jewish leaders were upset by Jesus’ actions.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, Jesus did not come on a horse. The people of Jesus’ day were used to seeing or hearing about Roman leaders riding victoriously into the cities they had conquered on horseback – an impressive symbol of their power. In contrast Jesus trotting along on a donkey seems almost comical. Some point to it demonstrating his humility. Others to it undermining the pomp of these Roman leaders, and exposing it for shallow and empty symbolism. Jesus’ triumphal entry is earned not forced.

Whatever his intention, Jesus’ actions got the attention not only of the crowds but also his enemies. From that point on he was on a collision course with Rome, which would end with the apparent hopelessness of Good Friday and the victory of Easter Sunday.

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