The full significance of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey may be lost on us if we do not know the background to his action. It was, in fact, a public claim to being the long-awaited Messiah.
Mark writes that Jesus said: “You will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden” (Mark 11:1). That is part of Jesus messianic claim because only an unused animal can be fit for important religious purposes. In Old Testament times, when a red heifer was used for sacrifice it had to be one that “has never been under a yoke” (Num 19:2)Similarly, when the Philistines wanted to send the ark of the covenant back to Israel the oxen pulling the cart had to have never been yoked (1 Sam 6:7).
So, in requiring the donkey to be one that had never been yoked, Jesus was stating that it was to be used for an important religious purpose.
Matthew points out what would have been obvious to the people in Jesus’ time: “This took place to fulfil what was spoken through the prophet” (Matt 21:4). He was referring to Zechariah 9:9-10 about how Israel’s messianic king would come to them riding on a donkey. The people of Jerusalem, including his enemies, understood very clearly that Jesus was claiming: “I am the Messiah.”
Various qualities in Jesus are pointed out:
1. Jesus is righteous
Zechariah made that clear: “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous…” (Zech 9:9-10).
Jesus was righteous. He had completely fulfilled all that God had asked of him until that point. Throughout his childhood and adult life there was not a stain on his character. As the red heifer, a mere visual aid, had to be “without defect or blemish” in order to be fit to be a sacrifice for cleansing from sin, so Jesus was the perfect sacrifice. Now he was faced with the ultimate act of obedience – suffering and death.
2. Jesus is gentle/humble
Matthew states: “This took place to fulfil what was spoken through the prophet: “Say to the Daughter of Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle …” (Matt 21:4-5).
Remember how Jesus dealt with the children. Nowadays we are very child-centred and sentimental about children. Even a century or so ago, children were treated very differently and sent off to work in difficult conditions. Jesus was outstanding in his respect for children and his gentle treatment of them.
Think of how he dealt with Mary Magdalene who had a bad background. Think of his gentle dealing with the sinful woman who anointed him with oil. Amidst criticism from the self-important he commended her and forgave her sin. He dealt similarly with the woman caught in adultery. The religious people were calling for her to be stoned to death. Jesus told her he did not condemn her and to go and sin no more.
No self-respecting rabbi would be seen talking one-to-one with a woman in public, especially not to a sinful woman and even less to a Samaritan woman. But Jesus was.
Jesus says to us: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29)
Also, in Holy Week, we can meditate on the gentleness of Jesus foretold by Isaiah: “He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. ….. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Isaiah 53:2-3, 7).
3. Jesus is peacemaker
Zechariah foretold the coming of the Prince of peace: “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth” (Zech 9:9-10).
And this is where the crowd got it wrong. They were expecting Jesus to be this sort of king at that time. They anticipated that he would lead them to victory against the Romans and to establish freedom, peace and justice in Israel. But he had a deeper peace to achieve: peace between humanity and God and reconciliation between individuals. Disappointment over this mistaken expectation perhaps led some of them to change their cry of “Hosanna” (save now) to one of “Crucify him” a few days later.
But Jesus will one day come as Zechariah foretold, to establish peace amongst the nations. It was not clear in Zechariah’s words that the fulfilment would come in two stages, one yet to be.
4. Jesus is royal
Jesus was not going to be the sort of king the people expected. But he was publicly proclaiming that he is king. Matthew says: “This took place to fulfil what was spoken through the prophet: 5″Say to the Daughter of Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey’ ” (Matt 21:4-5).
It seems strange to us that Jesus should ride a donkey to proclaim his kingship. But the donkey was the Rolls Royce of royalty in those days. When the king came in peace, he didn’t ride the war-horse, but the donkey. So it was with Solomon in 1 Kings 1:44 “Our lord King David has made Solomon king. The king has sent with him Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet, Benaiah son of Jehoiada, the Kerethites and the Pelethites, and they have put him on the king’s mule.”
The people shouted “Hosanna” quoting Psalm 118. They got the concept right but the timing wrong. One day Jesus will descend on the clouds of heaven and will look in triumph on his enemies (Psalm 118:7). “Shouts of joy and victory” will “resound in the tents of the righteous” (Psalm 118:15). Then people will cry out: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD” and “With boughs in hand” they will “join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar” (Psalm 118:26-27). “His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth” (Zech 9:10).
Are you ready for that day?
© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction