The Donkey: A Subversive Choice?

Luke 19:28-40

I have written of the colt — or donkey — which Jesus rode into Jerusalem in this space before. You can find my thoughts here at: Humble and Mounted on a Donkey. As you can tell from the title, my thoughts a few years ago focused on Jesus’ humility as he rode into Jerusalem.

While I have not entirely changed my thinking about the animal which was Jesus’ mount that day, I find myself moving in a little different direction this year. Indeed, this time through I am wondering at the possibility that the choice of a this young donkey was, in fact, intentional for other reasons as well. Indeed, perhaps this choice was downright subversive.

In part, my thinking has shifted because I found myself paging through the book of Easter Stories: Classic Tales for the Holy Season  where I came across a piece written during World War II by a pastor in France. This is a story, or rather a series of short stories shared with his congregation entitled: “How Donkeys Got the Spirit of Contradiction.” In these stories, Pastor Andre Trocme leads his people through reflections about the stories in the New Testament where a donkey shows up. Like the one we imagine carried Mary into Bethlehem with Joseph walking alongside. Like the same one which may have aided their escape to Egypt. Like the one the Samaritan might have used to help rescue a wounded man as he moved him to a place of safety where his healing might begin. And yes, indeed, the one we hear about today.

This pastor created scenario after scenario where the owner of the donkey hesitated to allow his animal to be used by these people for their various journeys and where again and again the donkey in it strength and stubbornness refused to bow to her master’s fear. His point?  His listeners were living in a time and place in history where fear dominated and where their faith called them to exhibit courage — perhaps even stubbornly so. As the donkey did again and again. These words introduce these stories:

On a Christmas Day during World War II in Nazi-occupied France, Pastor Andre Trocme gathered his congregation together in the Protestant church in the small mountain village of Le Chambon. The people of the area had formed an underground network for saving refugees, many of them Jewish children. Fear kept them from talking too much to each other —  none of them knew which of their neighbors might betray them to the German occupiers. The rescuers of Le Chambon knew that they might face concentration camp or worse if found out.

Wishing to strengthen his congregation in their resolve to do what is right, Pastor Trocme told them stories about Jesus’ life. Later collected into a book, these original, child-like stories testify to the power of faith to enable ordinary people to risk their lives for strangers. (p. 13)

Oh, I do wonder how those same stories might speak today for I wonder where we are called to exhibit a ‘spirit of contradiction’ in the face of threat or fear, despair or disillusionment. And so again I do wonder if the choice of a donkey was more intentional in a different way than I first thought. I wonder if as we reflect on ‘the donkey’ we find ourselves coming to the heart of the meaning of Jesus’ actions during the last week of his life.

Certainly this view is supported in The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem, a collaborative effort by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan. In their opening pages they speak of two processions entering Jerusalem on a spring day in the year 30:

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. Jesus was from the peasant village of Nazareth, his message was about the kingdom of God, and his followers from the peasant class…

On the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Idumea, Judea, and Samaria, entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers. Jesus’ procession proclaimed the kingdom of God; Pilate’s proclaimed the power of empire. The two processions embody the central conflict of the week that led to Jesus’s crucifixion. (p. 2)

Imagine the imperial procession’s arrival in the city. A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagle mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds; the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. the swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful. ( p. 3)

It is so that my other commentaries do not speak of this ‘other procession.’ And yet, it makes sense, for we do know that there was a more visible military presence in the city on high holy days such as the Passover with the goal of being a visible reminder to the crowds of who or what was really in charge. It follows that these symbols and tools of  ‘imperial power’ would have had to arrive somehow and perhaps this was exactly how this came to be that there were too processions taking place at the same time. And so Borg and Crossan assert that Jesus’ actions were very intentional, that he planned this so as to contrast with what was happening on the other side of the city. More than that, by his actions, Jesus drew on the ancient memory of the people who would recall the prophecy of Zechariah:

“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. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” (Zechariah 9:9-10, NRSV)

Oh yes, it seems this colt, this young donkey was so much more than a sign and symbol of Jesus’ humility. Rather, in keeping with this prophecy, it was a sign and symbol to all those who witnessed Jesus’ entrance to Jerusalem that God was not yet done with them. More than that, the prophet speaks the truth that the one riding that donkey had been sent to offer the world another way, another path to victory, an avenue to true peace. And this other way? It surely flew in the face of the chosen values and methods of the powers of this world. It still does.

I am not yet sure how I will preach these images on Palm/Passion Sunday this year. As I move towards Holy Week, though, I am pondering these questions:

  • If Jesus were to ride into my town today, what would be his means of transportation? What signs and symbols would speak today?
  • If, in fact, the choice of the colt was subversive and meant to run counter to the ‘powers of this world’ at the time, what ‘powers’ would Jesus be working against today? What does Jesus’ peaceable entrance contrast with today? What would his message be?
  • I am struck by Pastor Andre Trocme’s efforts to encourage his congregation to “stubbornly and courageously” reach out to help others in a time when there were real, deadly consequences for doing so. How does THAT message speak today? Indeed, where and how are we called to be “stubbornly courageous” in our compassion — even to the point of risking ourselves?
  • Certainly, there are many entry points into the story of Jesus’ Passion which can help us begin to grasp its import and meaning. The colt, this young donkey, continues to capture my imagination. As you read through this story, what captures you?

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2 comments

  1. Hi Janet, your account of the subversive nature of Jesus' journey on the donkey brings to mind the actions of various churches around Australia in recent weeks. Our current government has a policy of sending asylum-seekers who arrive by boat to detention on Nauru or Manus Island. The churches are joining together with the intention of offering sanctuary to people who have been brought to Australia for medical treatment and face being sent back to Nauru or Manus. The action seems to be in line with Pastor Trocume's 'stubbornly courageous' aim, although not nearly so dangerous to life or limb as that to which he called his congregation. I think people offering sanctuary here perhaps risk gaol or a fine.

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