I don’t know about you, but I love donkeys. There’s something special about them. They have such sad faces and their voice is one of the most melancholy things known to the ear of man – it sounds like a soul crying out in despair. They are sure-footed and deliberate creatures (they have an ardent desire for self-preservation) which is why they are a most trusted pack-animal in treacherous places like the Grand Canyon. And they also have a curious Cross on their backs, which is a very significant symbol considering the donkey’s history in the New Testament.
The importance of donkeys is mentioned several times in the Scriptures. In the Old Testament, donkey ownership was a sign of prosperity. When an Old Testament patriarch’s possessions were listed, donkeys always show up on the list; but unlike the other animals on their list of prized possessions (excepting the occasional camel), donkeys were never an animal intended for ritual sacrifice. The donkey was a beast of burden. Not known for its quickness – they typically kept the same pace as the humans that were on foot that they accompanied – but they relieved the traveller from bearing the weight of their goods and, if being ridden, from the toil of journeying on foot.
Saul, Israel’s first king, was a keeper of donkeys. Before him, Jair the Gileadite, who was a judge over Israel, had thirty sons who rode on thirty donkeys; and ruled thirty cities (Jud. 10:3). And before him, Moses told the Hebrews; “Neither shall you covet your neighbour’s wife; and you shall not desire your neighbour’s house, his field, or his manservant, or his maidservant, his ox, or his donkey” (Deut. 5:21). You should, of course, recognize these words of Moses; they form the 9th and 10th Commandments.
There’s this passage from the Prophet Zechariah which is echoed in Saint Matthew’s Gospel today; “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey” (Zech. 9:9).
“Triumphant and victorious” are not words we might associate with a man riding on a donkey. It’s contradictory – it’s a sign of contradiction. In a mystery, it says to us: “Only a Real Man would dare ride a donkey into the most important battle of all time!”
Our Lord was that sign of contradiction. He came riding on a donkey into Jerusalem. He was the King. He had no army, no cavalry of horses, no tanks, no cruise missiles and such. Yet, He behaved and the people hailed Him as the King crying: “Hosanna to the Son of David!” (Mt. 21:9).
The donkey was essential to this triumphant and victorious procession because:
- The donkey announced humility.
- The donkey announced peace.
- The donkey announced that the King was a man of His people.
Our Lord riding upon a donkey presented Himself as King, Messiah and Saviour. It was unmistakable. To the Jews, He presented himself as the fulfilment of Zechariah’s 500-year-old prophecy.
My favourite mention of a donkey in the Old Testament is the account in the Third Book of Moses called Numbers about Balaam. Balaam was a gentile and a prophet who could discern the mind of God. As it was observed of Balaam; “he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed” (Num. 22:6). [Not because Balaam had the magical ability to actually bless or curse but rather because Balaam had the God-given ability – the sensitivity – to discern the heart of God. Balaam was called upon by Balak, king of Moab, to curse the Hebrews as they passed through Moab. Balaam tried to curse them, but he was constrained by the will of God to instead bless the Israelites. This didn’t stop Balak from pressing Balaam to continue trying to curse his enemies and Balaam from trying to find a way to curse Israel because there was a yuge reward awaiting Balaam if he succeeded in cursing them – always follow the money. As an aside, this story makes for a good study in free-will – Balaam knew the mind of God, and still chose to do the wrong thing; but that’s an illustration for a different time.]
So, here’s where the donkey enters into the tale of Balaam. The passage reads: “Now Balaam was riding the donkey… and the donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand; and the donkey turned aside out of the road, and went into the field; and Balaam struck the donkey, to turn her into the road. Then the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on either side. And when the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, she pushed against the wall, and pressed Balaam’s foot against the wall; so he struck her again. Then the angel of the Lord went ahead, and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, she lay down under Balaam; and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he struck the donkey with his staff. Then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” And Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have made sport of me. I wish I had a sword in my hand, for then I would kill you.” And the donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey, upon which you have ridden all your life long to this day? Was I ever accustomed to do so to you?” And he said, “No.” Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed his head, and fell on his face. And the angel of the Lord said to him, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times? Behold, I have come forth to withstand you, because your way is perverse before me; and the donkey saw me, and turned aside before me these three times. If she had not turned aside from me, surely just now I would have slain you and let her live.” Balaam goes on to repent of his foolishness and then he disappears into the oblivion of time.
For those who were paying careful attention you’ll have noticed that Balaam struck the donkey three times. This is significant.
Three times was Our Lord judged guilty of death: by the Jews, by Herod and by Pilate. Three times was Our Lord denied by Simon Peter. We celebrate the three times Our Lord fell on the way to Calvary. Three nails fastened Our Lord to the Cross. Three languages super-scribed His Cross. There were three condemned to die that day. There were three who stood at the foot of the Cross. Our Lord died at three in the afternoon.
Shortly before being elected Pope, Joseph Ratzinger wrote this meditation for the Holy Week Stations of the Cross in Rome; “The Judge of the world, who will come again to judge us all, stands there, dishonored and defenseless before the earthly judge. Pilate is not utterly evil. He knows that the condemned man is innocent, and he looks for a way to free him. But his heart is divided. And in the end, he lets his own position, his own self-interest, prevail over what is right. Nor are the men who are shouting and demanding the death of Jesus utterly evil. Many of them, on the day of Pentecost, will feel “cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37), when Peter will say to them: “Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God … you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law” (Acts 2:22ff.). But at that moment they are caught up in the crowd. They are shouting because everyone else is shouting, and they are shouting the same thing that everyone else is shouting. And in this way, justice is trampled underfoot by weakness, cowardice and fear of the dictate of the ruling mind-set. The quiet voice of conscience is drowned out by the cries of the crowd. Evil draws its power from indecision and concern for what other people think.”
As the people of God, we follow in the train of the One who triumphantly and victoriously entered the city on a humble donkey. But even this humility wasn’t enough. He humbled himself further to be sold for 30 pieces of silver, taken captive by the pathetic and conquered Jewish soldiers, struck and spat upon by the cowardly rabble, judged by ambitious men infinitely inferior to Him, abandoned and denied by His dearest friends in His most desperate hour and finally helplessly nailed to the Cross. As the people of God, He is our example to follow. He is our Lord and God.