The Mundane Holiness of a Donkey
The Humanity of Our Savior
April 7, 2009 - An ancient Jewish saying describes every word of scripture as "a gem with 70 faces." With the number 70 symbolic of totality, this teaches us that no matter how many times we study, we can always find something new to learn, because every word of the Bible is infused with a multitude of meaning.
by Andrew McKain
Hidden behind every detail in scripture is a revelation of God's wisdom, his character, and his plan for creation. It is our responsibility – our privilege - to search for these nuggets of wisdom and apply them to our lives as we seek to walk in the footsteps of the Messiah.
The Gospel's account of Jesus' last days before his death, burial, and resurrection is full of such gems. This year, rather than rush through the story as if we've read and reenacted it all before, let us carefully inspect each word for everything it might have to teach us.
Take Messiah's donkey, for example. As Jesus made his way to Jerusalem, he sent two of his disciples ahead to a village where a donkey was waiting. They were to untie it, bring it to him, and if anyone questioned them, say, "The Lord needs it and will send it back shortly" (Mark 11:3). When they returned, Jesus mounted the donkey and made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, as the crowds threw their cloaks and palm branches on the ground before him, shouting, "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" (Mark 11:9-10).
Beyond Palm Sunday
We are all familiar with that scene. We commemorate it every year on Palm Sunday. But have you ever wondered about the donkey? Why does the Gospel describe the retrieval of the donkey in such great detail? If every word of the Bible is charged with meaning, then what is this donkey meant to teach us?
We know from Matthew that Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem was intended to fulfill the Messianic prophecy of Zechariah: "Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, daughter of Jerusalem! See your King comes to you, righteous and having salvation, lowly and riding a donkey" (Zech. 9:9).
Matthew cites the prophecy as proof of Jesus' Messiahship, but the question remains, why was it important that Messiah come riding a donkey? Generations of Rabbis before Jesus read that verse from Zechariah and wondered the same thing. In their search for an explanation they noticed two other Biblical figures who were said to have employed donkeys in the fulfillment of a Divine mission.
The first, Abraham, is described in Genesis 22:3 as having risen early and "saddled his donkey" on his way to sacrifice Isaac, as commanded by God. The second, Moses, is described in Exodus 4:20 as having taken his wife and sons, "put them on a donkey and returned to Egypt," on a mission to free the children of Israel from slavery.
The Rabbis thus connected the donkeys of Abraham and Moses with that of Messiah, as prophesied in Zechariah 9:9; and they suggested a deeper way in which the missions of each were related. The word for "donkey" in Hebrew (chamor) is related to the word for "material" (chomer) – they share the same root; and in Hebrew, words with a common root are often linked conceptually.
The donkey, as a beast of burden, represents the material aspect of life, the physicality of our nature and of God's creation. Consequently, in the stories of Abraham, Moses, and ultimately, Messiah, the Rabbis see a harnessing of the material for the service of the Divine. They see, in the word "donkey," God's plan for creation – that we would love Him with all of our heart, our soul, and our might (Deuteronomy 6:5). That we would harness all of our material resources to serve God, and in doing so, consecrate even the most mundane parts of our existence unto Him.
The Messianic Task
For readers of the Gospel, the connection between the donkeys of Abraham, Moses, and Messiah, teach us about the nature of Jesus' Messianic task. Abraham's donkey brought him to Mount Moriah to offer his only begotten son as a sacrifice to God – a foreshadowing of how God would one day send his only begotten son, Jesus, as a sacrifice for our sins.
Moses' donkey brought him to Egypt, where God would use him to free the people of Israel from bondage and draw them to Himself - a foreshadowing of the kind of redemption God would accomplish through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, freeing us from captivity to sin and making us a new creation. Just as the Israelites were saved from the Angel of Death (the 10th plague) by putting the blood of the Passover lamb on their doorposts, we are saved by the blood of our Passover Lamb – Jesus.
The donkey that Jesus rode into Jerusalem, about which the Gospel writers give us such great detail, speaks volumes about who he was. Fully human, he lived a very physical existence. He celebrated, he mourned, experienced hunger and plenty, joy and pain. He was the seed of Abraham (Gal. 3:16), the one greater than Moses (Deut. 18:18, Heb. 3:3). And with every fiber of his being he served God, even to the point of giving up his physical life. His sacrifice was the ultimate act of submission to God, and through that sacrifice, God's Kingdom spreads throughout the world.
The Kingdom of Heaven spreads not by conquest, but by service – not with arrogance, but with humility. It is left now to each of us to saddle our own donkey and make our way to Jerusalem, as Jesus did, harnessing every aspect of our lives in service to God, regardless of the cost. We should not seek to escape the material aspects of this world, but to use them for the service of the Almighty, and in so doing, live as a sacrifice unto Him. When we do that, even the most mundane aspects of our being become holy and consecrated unto God.
Andrew McKain is a writer who spent six years living in Jerusalem working with the Jewish non-profit organization One Family Fund. He also assisted victims of terrorism and interned with the Knesset Christian Allies Caucus working to encourage cooperation between Christians and Jews based on shared values.