Title: The Way of the Donkey
Date: April 5, 2009
Texts: Phil 2:5-11, Mk 11:1-11
Author: Isaac Villegas
What’s with the donkey? This is the most important publicity moment in Jesus’ life. And he rides into Jerusalem on a donkey. We all know that image matters. People notice the details when you’re important.
Just think about how much attention the media paid to what Michelle Obama wore up on the stage with her husband. Or how the JCrew website crashed when someone mentioned on television that the Obama kids were wearing JCrew clothes. We notice these things.
So, why in the world would Jesus choose a donkey? It’s not like Jesus simply uses whatever is around. He’s picky. He has a plan, a strategy. He is methodical about his ride. He goes through a lot of trouble to get a donkey for his trip—and not just any donkey. He has a special one in mind. And he sends his disciples to fetch it. It’s all part of his plan. He has an image in mind.
So, why a donkey? Well, there’s an important prophecy in the Zechariah about the king of Jerusalem ridding into town on a donkey to set the people free. Let me read some of it: Zech 9:9-10, 14:
Rejoice, 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 form the river to the ends of the earth.
When this king comes on a donkey, God is going to kick the bad guys out of town. Everything will change. The people are ready. They line the streets. Jesus comes on a donkey.
Now, when I think about Jesus on the donkey, I think of it as a sign of humility. But I learned some things about donkeys yesterday from Sidney. So I asked him if he’d come up here and talk to us about donkeys.
(Interview Sidney: donkeys are smarter than horses, donkeys don’t follow blindly, they make decisions, strong sense of protection and preservation, not easily spooked, etc)
I think it’s really interesting that donkeys are actually smart. I usually think of them as dumb animals, not a whole lot of brains. And stubborn. But they are stubborn because they are really smart. They refuse to do the dumb things that humans ask them to do.
The story of Balaam’s ass in the Old Testament shows us how a donkey refuses to do something stupid. The prophet Balaam is on his way to curse Israel. He is riding on his donkey on a narrow path. Suddenly the donkey stops in his path. She refuses to go any further. Balaam is angry. He starts beating his donkey, trying to get her to keep on going. But the donkey refuses. She’s stubborn. She lays down in the middle of the path—an act of defiance.
Finally, God opens the mouth of the donkey. She tells Balaam that she won’t go any further because there is the angel of the Lord is standing on the path with a drawn sword, ready to kill Balaam. The donkey refuses to go any further because the angel will kill them. The donkey can see things that Balaam can’t.
Now, I’m not saying that donkeys are smarter than humans, or that they can see angels and we can’t. Maybe Sidney wants to say such things. Here’s the connection that I want to make: Jesus links his identity to a donkey. And there’s something important about the way of the donkey.
Jesus and the way of the donkey. You probably think I’m crazy for making this connection. Well, let me draw your attention to this picture. It’s graffiti from Rome, possibly from the 1st century. It’s a picture of a crucified donkey. The inscription says something like, “Alexamenos worships his God.” Alexamenos is the guy on the left, and the God is the donkey-man on the cross. You can even see Alexamenos holding up a hand, probably a gesture of worship.
It wasn’t unusual for Christians to be mocked as worshiping a donkey. Tertullian, writing in the 2nd century, talks about this common accusation. This image is an insult to Christians—mockery. But, there’s another inscription near this picture, in a different hand. It says, “Alexamenos is faithful.” It’s a response. The inscription is like those modern day graffiti wars on the sides of buildings. One group uses spray paint to make fun of another, then that group responds with an insult of their own.
“Alexamenos is faithful.” Apparently there’s something true about the God Alexamenos worships and the way of the donkey. Remember, Jesus is very intentional about picking a donkey on which to ride into Jerusalem. On his big day, he comes on a donkey.
Then what happens? The moment everyone waited for. Crowds of people lined the streets. No one wanted to miss this day that would change the world: inauguration day in Jerusalem. Israel will be restored, the crowds think. “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” (Mk 11:9-10). Hosanna is a cry of salvation—it means something like “Save us.”
The people think this is the moment of their salvation. Jesus is another king David who will return Israel to glory. A new kingdom—freedom from oppression, freedom from the dominion of Rome. The kingdom has come.
But what does Jesus do? Well, he chooses the way of the donkey: stubborn refusal. Jesus refuses to take the reigns of the world. Jesus refuses to take charge of the city. Jesus refuses.
Listen again to the anticlimactic ending: “and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve” (Mk 11:11). Nothing happens. Jesus stops, like Balaam’s ass, looks around, and retreats.
Sometimes the most important thing we can do is stop, retreat, withdraw. That’s the way of the donkey. We can easily get caught up going somewhere we don’t need to go. You feel like everything in your life is pressing you to go down a path. You think you know what will make you happy, you think you know what will change the world, you think you have the solution, so you go for it, without hesitation.
But Jesus refuses. When all the forces in the world open up an easy road to success, to power, to fame, Jesus retreats.
The way of the donkey: that’s how we combat sin in our lives and in our world. We can say no; Christ has freed us to choose a different way. We don’t have to do that one thing that will make everything turn out right, that one thing we are sure will make us happy, that one thing that we think will change everything.
Instead, just like all donkeys, Jesus becomes a slave. That’s what Paul says in our passage from Philippians: “he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (Phil 2:7). Instead of taking the throne in Jerusalem, Jesus withdraws and becomes a slave. His throne is a cross.
But something else happens before the cross. Jesus retreats from the crowds and shows us what it looks like to be a slave—not just any slave, but a slave to God’s love. He washes feet.
And that’s what we will be doing together here on Thursday night, Maundy Thursday. Jesus doesn’t refuse the crowds in Jerusalem so he can go back home and watch television. No. He refuses the throne so he can so something more important—wash the feet of the disciples, show the world what God’s love looks like.
This is nature of our faith, the key to the kingdom: the most important thing we do happens in secret, when we withdraw, away from crowds and thrones, from the public eye. We wash feet. It’s not glamorous. And it may not seem that important in the grand scheme of things. But it’s what we do, no matter how silly we may feel or look. That’s the way of the donkey.
We live into the love of Jesus when we love each other, when we care for one another, when we serve, when we become slaves of God’s love.