A Tale of Two Donkeys
Updated: Apr 5
This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:
“'Say to Daughter Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’
The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on" (Matthew 21:4-7).
“On them.” Two donkeys, both covered with cloaks for Jesus to sit on. Does that strike anyone else as odd? How does a person even do that – ride two donkeys at once? This isn’t the only time Matthew engages in what scholars call “doubling.” Matthew also doubles the number of Gadarene demoniacs Jesus restored, as well as the number of blind men he healed while traveling from Jericho to Jerusalem. Matthew even adds the word “and” to the Old Testament quote (yes, he changes Scripture) to emphasize the point. Instead of “...on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” Matthew has, “...on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” So instead of just a young donkey, Matthew adds mama donkey as well.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I heard an explanation that made sense to me. Justin Martyr, a second century Christian apologist and philosopher, thought it might refer to Jews and Gentiles; or as I’m thinking, more specifically to Jewish Christians (mama donkey) and Gentile Christians (young donkey). There is a tradition that Matthew’s gospel was written to Christians in Antioch where there were strong contingents of both groups. We know especially from Paul’s letters that both groups often found it difficult to be in community together. Many current scholars believe that this is likely the primary issue Paul is addressing in his letter to the Romans, where he emphasizes that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.
That may be what Matthew is saying too. It’s not just the Gentiles that are blind but the Jews as well. It’s not just Gentiles that are influenced by demonic forces, but Jews as well. Exhibit A would be the horrific evil both groups inflicted on Jesus on Friday. At the cross the degree and depth of human depravity was put on full display, overriding racial boundaries. Yes, we’ve all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, and Jesus wants people of all nations to be his students or disciples (Matthew 28:19).
So on Palm Sunday Jesus is glorified by riding two donkeys while the crowds are shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” This isn’t a rodeo. The donkeys are humbly serving him while he humbly journeys into the city that in a few days will put him through the most excruciating torture imaginable. John’s Gospel emphasizes that Jesus’ crucifixion will be his most glorified moment. God’s ultimate glory is not his power over the world but his love for the world: “God so loved the world that he gave his Son….” He even tells the owner of the donkeys that he's only borrowing them and will be sure to send them back.
Matthew, like the other gospel writers, isn’t it just a historian but also an artist and theologian. He knows that the key to unity between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians (or between Christians who are Democrats and Christians who are Republicans, or Christians who are Roman Catholic and Christians who are Protestant, or Christians who practice infant baptism and those who practice only adult baptism...you get my drift) isn't likely to come by working out our differences. (What does that even mean?)
When two of Jesus’ disciples went into the village to get the two donkeys, Jesus told them: “If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them.” You see, he needs and wants all of us. And he loves all of us, in spite of the incredible jerks any of us can be in any particular moment. These same two disciples and their companions will jump ship the night before Jesus’ death. They were willing to die defending a swordwielding Jesus, but not a Messiah unwilling to put up a fight.
Love can be hell. A Roman crucifixion was about as close as you could get to hell on earth. Jesus didn’t die on a cross so that we wouldn’t have to. He died on a cross so that we would be able to. Earlier he’d told his disciples that anyone who wanted to follow him would need to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow him. Jesus, like Matthew, was an artist. He didn’t hesitate to use hyperbole or a parable to make a point. The point is that love is hard. Getting along is hard. Humbly admitting that you may be wrong, or that your enemy may have a point, requires a fair amount of self-denial.
Matthew’s picture of two donkeys lifting up Jesus may be instructive for those of us who consider ourselves Jesus followers. This is about his glory, not ours. My working definition of the church these days is that it is a community of people who revolve their lives around the living Christ. In other words, we need to stop talking about him or anything else as if he’s not in the room. We have to realize that there are always going to be things about Jesus and his kingdom that are mysterious and beyond our pay grade, but that we’re likely to gain more understanding if we we humbly join minds and hearts as his fellow students.
"I will be with you always, to the very end of the age" (Matthew 28:20).
Maybe we can start by humbly admitting that each of us can be an ass at times.