“The Way of the Donkey”

Palm Sunday – March 20, 2016

Mark 11:1−11

From the time of ancient civilizations, donkeys have symbolized what is lowly, stupid, or stubborn. (I do not understand why the Democratic Party would celebrate the donkey as their symbol!) Yet in this gospel, Mark goes to great lengths to make sure we know that Jesus wanted a donkey, a colt, that one would be waiting for him, that it was there for “the Lord,” that it would be returned as soon as he was done with it.

Scholars have speculated: why, in such a short gospel, so much emphasis would be placed on a donkey of all things? Seven verses are dedicated to Jesus’s request and the disciples’ retrieval of the beast. What was Jesus trying to prove, and why should it matter to us?

Some speculate that this story is an ironic enactment of a Jewish military story, where the hero is supposed to arrive to great fanfare, joyously acclaimed, and then enter the temple to make a thanksgiving offering. Yet Jesus rides on a donkey, the least kosher animal of all; emphasizing the dramatic irony of the Messiah, on a donkey, of all things.[1]

Some think the Palm Sunday procession coming into Jerusalem from the east side of the city was a conscious procession to an imperial Roman procession coming in from the west, that Jesus’s ride on a donkey contrasted with Pontius Pilate’s ride on a horse, as the Roman governor entered to demonstrate Roman imperial power to put down any threats raised by pilgrims coming to Jerusalem for Passover.[2]

Most agree that Jesus’s choice emphasized the prophetic oracle in Zechariah, the call for Jerusalem to rejoice, as the king comes triumphant and victorious, humble and riding a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. This would be the Prince of Peace. That Mark would spend seven verses on this detail means that whether you go with the implications for the faithful of his time or the politics of his time – and those were not so far apart – that Jesus would come riding on a donkey is no accident.

This is a donkey tale, in which the Savior, the One who was supposed to be victorious, gets the loser’s animal. The wisest of them all gets the stupidest creature. The holiest rides on the dirtiest beast. And it is no accident. This donkey ride is the way the prophet encouraged us to prepare in Advent, the story as it was meant to be told. But I don’t like donkeys.

Truly, I don’t like them, ever since my childhood. I was only two or three, so my memory of facts is fuzzy, but the feeling is still raw. The neighborhood association must have had some annual carnival or field day in our local park, when someone with a farm connection brought in a donkey. I don’t know if I was thrown from it or the donkey became aggressive with me; the memory of what happened is blank. Yet I remember the pit in my stomach afterwards, and the fact that for years, I was uninterested in going near anything remotely equine. I loved Black Beauty; we went to see the movie The Black Stallion for my eighth birthday. But the closest I would get to the horse on my Tennessee grandfather’s farm was to feed it hay from the pickup truck. Donkeys represent what I choose to avoid if at all possible. Why Democrats would claim them as a symbol is simply beyond me. (Advice for baby Natalie: keep her away from donkeys!)

Yet Jesus chose the donkey: the way I avoid, and I know I’m not the only one. The “jack animal” you get called when someone really wants to insult you. And it signifies the week that most clearly reveals Jesus’s identity in this gospel that never says a word about his birth. For Mark, it’s Jesus’s donkey ride, rather than Mary’s, and what happens afterwards, that demonstrates that he is the One who clearly reveals God.

This is the One Matt and Rebecca have promised to raise Natalie to know in her baptism. This is the Jesus whose ministry in life, death, and new life we remember in this week we call Holy Week. This is the Christ we believe has changed the world forever. On a donkey. Why?

Teaching us to embrace the things we would do anything to avoid. Perhaps at times even to seek them out, publicly. Not because they are good, or productive, or even holy in and of themselves, but because the only way is through.

Remember the story of going on a bear hunt? It’s a responsive story, the leader taps her knees, invites the hearers to call back “Going on a bear hunt… going on a bear hunt…” and the group faces all kinds of obstacles – a forest, a creek, a mountain, a storm – during which the leader says, “Can’t go over it… can’t go under it… can’t go around it… gotta go through it!” And then there’s some great sound effect.

On the back of the donkey, Jesus models for the crowd, for his followers then and now, that when it comes to the darkest moments we would do just about anything to avoid, you can’t go over them, you can’t go under them, you can’t go around them, the only way is through. The way we were told to prepare, the way of the donkey, is truly the only way.

Some people say that Jesus is the way, meaning that if you don’t believe in Jesus, you won’t go to heaven. This caricature of the doctrine of salvation can also get carried over to baptism, to joining a church, to almost anything religious, which is unfortunate. Because this way of the donkey is perhaps the most down-to-earth, practical way of facing the difficulties of a very real life, of the depressions we can’t shake, of the illnesses that won’t let us go, of grief, of injustice, of the pain we do so much to medicate away. It’s not that being depressed or sick or grieving or hurting is a good thing, but that the way of the donkey – Jesus’s own way – shows us God travels this same route. No one, not even Jesus, can travel any way but through.

Think of all of the donkeys – the colts, the youngest and potentially most problematic – all the ways of those colt donkeys we would just as soon avoid. This week of darkness, ending on a day when darkness fills the earth. The way of the donkey – the roads we would just as soon not take, the pain we don’t want anyone to suffer – by saying that the donkey is for the Lord, Jesus shows us how God takes this way, too.

Our world suffers from a dangerous dualism that separates everything into good vs. bad, right vs. wrong, true vs. false, winning vs. losing, healthy vs. sick, holy vs unholy. Consider how this dualistic way of thinking lies at the root of so many of our problems. While some choices are better than others – they lead to life, to love, to light – the way of the donkey shows us that even along the ways the world finds painful: in the corridors of our hospitals, in the centers of refugee camps, under the K Street bridge – especially in those places – God is there. God has passed that way before; in fact, God has never left.

Looking forward to this holiest of weeks, we remember that the only way is through all of it, that God is with us, that we are not alone, even as we journey with Christ to that mystery on the other side of it all.

[1] C. Clifton Black, Working Preacher Commentary on Mark 11:1-11

[2] Borg and Crossan, The Last Week.