Saturday, April 13, 2019

Why an Ass?

In many of the Palm Sunday school classes I’ve attended, two questions keep coming up. 

One, the most common, is, why didn’t Jesus walk? 

The other is, why didn’t he ride on a horse, although the notion is less common because people have a hard time imagining Jesus on Trigger.

Most of my Sunday school teachers didn’t know why he rode on an ass, although some skirted the issue by raising their fingers in the air and shouting, “Tradition!” Perhaps that answer is good enough, but there are other possibilities.

I think Jesus chose not to walk because that would have placed him on the same level as everyone else, just another pilgrim in the dense Passover crowd. That would have made him virtually invisible unless he was a lot taller than everyone else, which - if so - was not mentioned in the bible. If an average size Messiah required a triumphant entry into Jerusalem, he had to ride in on some conveyance that set him apart from the crowd. Strolling wouldnt do it. A cart ride would have been silly. A chariot would have been out of the question. 

So why not a horse?

Horses don’t make a lot of appearances in the bible, unless they are the stuff of visions, such as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. But horses were surely common in Jerusalem and would easily overcome sheep and goats in the excremental sweepstakes. According to a cache of credible Internet information, riders of the Roman Equites Legionis were used as scouts, messengers, and defensive screens when soldiers were surrounded by overwrought Goths. Horses also served to make Roman officers look big and scary. 

Horses were beasts of war. Any king who rode a horse through the streets of an ancient city had either already conquered or was signaling his intention to take the city by force of arms.

This is hardly an image fit for the Prince of Peace.

In ancient times, the donkey was regarded as an animal of peace, and on the first Palm Sunday the pacific intentions of a king on a donkey were unmistakable to the teeming crowds .

The donkey also provided another advantage for Jesus. A person straddling a donkey attracts more attention than someone merely walking, but that person is not lifted too high above the crowd. Seated on a donkey, Jesus was accessible to the masses. They could reach out to touch him as he passed. The donkey permitted him to pass through the people as one of them, not as a king on a horse whose prancing hooves would frighten them out of the way.

It’s obvious that Jesus had given careful thought to the sermon he wanted to preach by riding on the donkey. Somehow he knew a donkey had already been arranged for him in a suburb of Jerusalem before they entered the city.

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, 
“Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone said to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this: ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” (Mark 11:1-3)
One thing we might conclude by the promise to return the creature unscathed is that used donkeys do not depreciate in value during a test-drive.

Another thing we might conclude is that Jesus knew exactly how the sermon on the donkey would be remembered through the millennia. Neither a horse nor a stroll on foot would say it as clearly: here, on a humble ass, is the monarch of the universe, who was in the beginning with God, who took on human flesh to experience all the joys, pains and travails of humanity, who was one of us, who came to rescue us from sin, who came in peace to reconcile us with the God we had rejected.

It’s impossible to envision Jesus on the donkey and mistake him for a shock-and-awe conqueror. He rode on the ass through the streets of Jerusalem to say, my time is near. Raise your palms and spread your cloaks before me as signs you know who I am. Then depart in peace and ponder this revelation in your hearts. Leave the violence and flogging and crucifying to others.

Five days later, we know, the fickle frond wavers joined the vicious crowds to call for a brutal end to the sermon. They stood outside Pilate’s palace shaking their fists and chanting, “Crucify him.” 

It’s an excruciating story to hear every Passion Week, all the more so because it set a pattern of church brutality and carnage that has lasted to the present day. Even the peaceful donkey ride through Jerusalem was re-invented by the church as an opportunity for mayhem. According to another credible online source:

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Palm Sunday was marked by the burning of Jack-o-Lent figures. This was a straw effigy which would be stoned and abused. Its burning on Palm Sunday was often supposed to be a kind of revenge on Judas Iscariot, who had betrayed Christ. 

What a travesty of the sermon Jesus was preaching, but less a mockery than other incidents of church history: the Crusades, stake burnings, beheadings, disembowelments, and other hideous tortures of Christians who didn’t believe what the Christians in power believed. 

Christian persecution of Christians continued relentlessly throughout the centuries. The Mennonite Martyrs’ Mirror records countless examples of Christian-on-Christian cruelty. 

For example, a Mennonite named Dirk Willems who was jailed for heresy by his Dutch Lutheran neighbors in 1569, and sentenced to die. Willems escaped from jail and was hotly pursued by angry Lutherans, one of whom fell through thin ice and was about to drown. Willems, a true Christian to the end, stopped running  and pulled the man to safety. It was just enough time for the crowd to catch up with him. They arrested Willems and burned him at the stake. 

No wonder we cannot repeat Tertullian’s Apology without snickering: “‘Look,’ they say, ‘how the Christians love one another, and how they are ready to die for each other.’” The quote is from an essay written in 200 C.E. And looking back, one wonders if it was ever true after that.

As we begin the last week of Lent, Passion Week, it will be good to reflect on these matters. Lent is a time of reflection and repentance. It’s a time to remind ourselves of the reasons Jesus came to us. It’s a time to recommit to the commandments Jesus said were the essential ingredients for human behavior: to love God with our heart, mind and soul, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Jesus expressed all of this in the simple symbolism of riding a donkey through the gates of Jerusalem. 

And as we watch him in our minds eye, making that astounding passage one more time, may we remember the message he intended.

And may we join the cheering crowds in that cleansing refrain:


Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!

Hosanna in the highest heaven!