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Lenten Reflections 2021: What Did Jesus Riding a Donkey Symbolize?

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     @johnvinod | March 29, 2021

Today’s readings are Matthew 21: 1-11 and Zechariah 9: 9-11. All gospel writers refer to Jesus Christ’s final entry into Jerusalem during the passion week. They include a reference to a donkey, the animal selected for riding into Jerusalem. Matthew directly quotes the prophet Zechariah 9:9, who uses three different words for the animal. These words are difficult to render into languages such as English. I find that the new Jewish Publication Society (JPS) Tanakh translation renders it much better than others:

Rejoice greatly, Fair Zion; Raise a shout, Fair Jerusalem! Lo, your king is coming to you. He is victorious, triumphant, Yet humble, riding on an ass, On a donkey foaled by a she-ass (Zechariah 9: 9 NJPS).

The reason Zechariah used different words for a donkey is to distinguish the animal from other species. The prophets of Israel used symbols and symbolic language to convey their message to a mostly oral culture. The original readers of the prophecy would have understood the distinction Zechariah was at pains to convey with his choice of words. The Messiah will come riding an ass, not just an ass, but a donkey, which is foaled or birthed by a she-ass, that is, a purebred jackass. Thus, ruling out a horse, a mule, or a mixed breed.

For this reason, Jesus Christ deliberately rode a donkey, not just any donkey, but a purebred jackass as opposed to a royal horse or a mule used by the kings and princes for wars and conquests. As in the very next verse, Zechariah clearly associated horses with chariots and wars:

I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem;

and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations;

his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth (Zechariah 9: 10 ESV).

Therefore, Jesus Christ wished to signify once and for all that even though he is indeed the messiah and the king, he does not come as the conquering, colonizing, military ruler subduing everything and everyone under his power. The battles, wars, and conquests do not belong to his mission. People of his time expected such a messiah, especially as they suffered under the Roman Empire. Our history is replete with the examples of how Christian churches and missions misunderstood Jesus as the conquering messiah when they went about colonizing and civilizing places and people around the world. That is why in most cases; the cross followed the colonial flag. Alas! All in the name of Jesus Christ!

Our readings today remind us what Jesus Christ had already stated in no uncertain terms that he comes as the humble One. He comes riding a purebred jackass, representing humility and peace. And he comes with Shalom for all rather than the conquest of peoples and places! The Hebrew word shalom is not just peace or the absence of conflict and war. Rather, it means a holistic life full of freedom, health, peace, prosperity, and the presence of God for all who would follow him. May we follow this Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.



For a paperback, please email vinod@vinodjohn.com

Published inDevotionsLenten Reflections 2021

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