I love all those facts about donkeys, and the writer of Mark was obviously keen on donkeys too because the extraordinary thing about this account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, this event that we celebrate with Christians around the world today, on Palm Sunday, is that it contains just three verses describing that event and seven verses, in the words of one commentator, detailing the odd procurement of Jesus’ donkey. Just three verses for the procession – the people spreading their cloaks on the road, the vegetation hastily gathered, the crying of “Hosanna! Hosanna!” and the words of Old Testament psalms with their Messianic promise, “Blessed in the one who comes, the Coming One of God!” And seven verses – twice the length – on finding the donkey – where to find the donkey, what sort of donkey to find, what to do with the donkey, and what to tell people you are doing with the donkey – and then, actually doing it!
We have been moving this weekend and moving house is always a time of revelation about the people you live with, particularly the person you have married, and I have realised that Aron goes into incredibly fine detail, if the thing being discussed, the thing being moved, matters to him. The thing is, I’ve realised, listening to myself, that I do the same thing.
And I have the same sense here, in this drawn out account of donkey procurement that what is going on here matters to the writer of Mark; that these seven verses are here for a reason – we mustn’t skip over them and rush to the parade – but we must examine what they are saying about how God comes into our world and into our lives and experiences.
So, lets first look at where they find the donkey and what sort of donkey they find.
A lot of older commentaries emphasise that Jesus saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt…” is a sign of Jesus’ divine prophetic ability – and that prophecy can refer to the great things in our lives as well as small – and I think that is a very good point, but I find it just as easy to imagine this donkey borrowing had been prearranged – hence the use of the code phrase, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.”
What deserves more attention is where they are when they go to find the donkey. Verse one says: “When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives…”
This is significant. The Mount of Olives looms large in Israel’s sacred memory and political history. It is from the Mount of Olives, according to the prophet Zechariah, that “the Lord shall go forth and fight against those nations [that have captured Jerusalem].” (Zechariah 14:3) The writer of Mark wants his audience to note this – and the similarities between Jesus’ entry and that of the military leader, Simon Maccabaeus, who entered Jerusalem, “with praise and palm branches, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel.” (1 Maccabees 13:51b)
Some commentators say Mark may also be referring to events contemporary with the writing of this gospel, to Menahem, a leader in the early months of the Jewish revolt from 66 CE, who, according to the Jewish historian, Josephus:
…retired to Masada, where he broke open King Herod’s armoury, and gave arms not only to his own people, but to other robbers also. These he made use of for a guard and returned in the state of the king to Jerusalem, and became leader of the sedition, and gave orders for continuing the siege. [Wars, II, xvii, 8]
So, where they are at this moment and what they do at this moment is highly significant. But, rather than gathering an army or raiding an armoury, Jesus, quite deliberately in Mark’s account, sends two men to fetch a young donkey.
Mark portrays Jesus as drawing on the political history and religious imagery of his people, and then deliberately distancing himself from it – from the kind of Messiah those ideologies had shaped. In seeking out a donkey, in entering Jerusalem astride the back of a donkey, he aligns himself with another tradition from Zechariah – one that the writer of Matthew quotes for us in full.
With all that religious and political expectation riding on his shoulders, Jesus instead comes, “humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
Why it is a young colt, a colt that has never been ridden…? Firstly, it strengthens the connection with the passage in Zechariah, and, secondly, it fits with the idea of Jesus being set apart and holy (like coming into the world through a virgin’s womb), but I think there is another reason as well. Just as riding a donkey is a symbol of humility – a symbol of peace – so is riding an animal that has never been ridden an act of vulnerability for both Jesus and the animal – the way all of us must go about the work of making peace.
Finding the donkey where they do – near the Mount of Olives which is also the location of the Garden of Gethsemane – and finding the sort of donkey they find, says to us that Jesus comes – that God comes – not in might, not to wipe out the opposition, but as a God who shares, humbly, our experiences, who knows fully our vulnerability, who suffers with us and gives all in self-offering. Is this the Messiah we are prepared to welcome, the Messiah who comes riding on a donkey?
Poet, Steve Garnaas-Holmes, put it this way:
Jesus entered as a king,
but on a colt, not a war horse,
king of vulnerability,
prince of lowliness.
Am I on a horse?
the horse of being right,
the horse of insisting,
the horse of privilege?
Soul, untie the colt,
the colt of gentleness,
of listening, of humility.
Untie the colt that is not afraid
to not have all the answers,
to still be learning.
Untie the power of your vulnerability.
Ride the colt that knows
the power of powerlessness,
the power of love.
Am I on a horse?
Untie the colt
and get on.
And there’s a second aspect to this passage we should examine – buried in the detail about what to do with the donkey and what to tell people you are doing with the donkey.
What Mark is telling us is that worshipping a God who shares our experiences, who knows our vulnerability, who suffers and gives all; who gets down into the nitty gritty – sometimes very gritty – detail of our lives means doing the same ourselves. It means performing the small tasks, the lowly tasks, the minor and the mundane tasks of love, and doing so far more often than the great and glorious tasks of love. Our God is in the details and we must be too.
If there is to be a triumphal entry there must be two disciples who go and get the donkey!
These are what Professor of Preaching, Thomas G. Long, calls “the routine, often exhausting, seemingly mundane donkey-fetching details of our service” for God.
“The grand work,” he writes, “of proclaiming the gospel and exercising authority in [Jesus’] name is often a matter of speaking a quiet word in a committee meeting, spending time with someone who is incoherent and coming apart at the seams at work, feeding someone their meal in a hospital and [I relate to this bit!] mistyping a few desperate, halting words on a computer screen when getting ready for Sunday’s sermon. In Mark’s world, “preparing the way of the Lord”, usually looks like standing hip-deep in the muck of some stable…looking suspiciously like horse-thieves…trying to corral a donkey for Jesus.”
Do you find that encouraging? I do! There are so many times we wonder if what we’re doing matters, if it is makes any difference, if we really are preparing the way of the Lord! And a lot of the time we don’t know. We don’t get that kind of feedback. And yet, every now and then, when people talk about someone else, someone they’ve known, someone in this church, perhaps they’re talking to you, they mention some small thing that was done in the past – something you might not even remember – that made a huge impact on them.
So, why spend so much time writing about procuring a donkey? Why spend so much time preaching about someone writing about procuring a donkey? Perhaps because the donkeys fetched in this world are significant. They demonstrate how God enters our world and how God goes about justice and peace and love in it. And because the donkey fetchers of this world are significant too. The mundane and minor acts of love that we perform matter. When done for him they, too, show that Jesus loves us; that Jesus has come to save us. They, too, cry out Hosanna. They, too, cry out praise to the one coming into our world.