The people of Jerusalem were waiting patiently along the road for their Messiah. They had heard about Jesus’ teaching and healing in Galilee and knew he was coming south. They liked the way he challenged both Jewish and Roman leaders. They loved the way he made ordinary people and the marginalized welcome.
As they looked down the road they were surprised to see that Jesus was riding on a donkey. I was once in the old city of Jerusalem and saw a donkey sure-footedly
Carrying its burden down the narrow, cobbled streets. In the bible a few individual donkeys are mentioned, mostly carrying quite refined ladies and even a bride! It was not undignified to ride a donkey. The last commandment against coveting reveals that they were valuable, like a vehicle
is to us today.
We cannot avoid linking today’s story to Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice, O people of Jerusalem! Look, your king is coming to you. He is righteous and victorious, yet he is humble, riding on a donkey.” This picture fits the Hebrew world but in the Roman world, riding a donkey was not the style of a king. I suppose Jesus knew this text and chose a donkey deliberately to display the path of humility. However unexpected the people felt, they welcomed him with enthusiasm.
The unexpected was typical of Jesus’ ministry. Two fishermen mending their nets by Galilee had a perfectly good life. But when they met Jesus they left everything to follow him. By contrast, people in the synagogue at Nazareth were amazed at Jesus’ authority, until they were offended when he spoke of God’s love for non-Jews. They tried to kill him.
The woman at the well resisted and argued but then wanted all her friends to meet Jesus. But the disciples were shocked to find Jesus breaking religious taboos talking to ‘that woman’. On that first passover, the disciples saw Jesus taken prisoner and then crucified, dashing their hopes. Jesus’ words and action were often unexpected.
The unexpected is also frequent in our daily life. Sudden health issues, or broken relationships totally change our attitudes. COVID has brought upheaval and a changed perception to all our lives. Abuse of children has shocked us all and changed the laws and protocols in working with children. Women on the march are confronting the toxic side of continuing male dominance in our society.
In our society, when the shocking unexpected occurs, Jesus’ riding on a donkey is a sign of how we can be both strong and humble in our witness to justice and hope in the world. We can speak up.
In our own lives, some of the unexpected is immediately welcome. The question is whether we can look hopefully on the unexpected that is not welcome. This Holy Week is a reminder of our faith story, that we can choose to look hopefully on even the most devastating of our experiences, to believe that despite the walls that enclose us or those we love, there are doors of possibility that may still open to new life. We strengthen our capacity for hope as we enter more deeply into the passion of Jesus and his self-giving life.