“The next day the crowds who had come up for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took branches of palm and went out to meet him, shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessings on the King of Israel, who comes in the name of the Lord’. Jesus found a young donkey and mounted it—as scripture says: ‘Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion; see, your king is coming, mounted on the colt of a donkey. At the time his disciples did not understand this, but later, after Jesus had been glorified, they remembered that this had been written about him and that this was in fact how they had received him.”
—John 12:12-16 (Jerusalem Bible)
It seems to me that donkeys are getting a bad rap. These gentle, unassuming, hardworking beasts of burdens have been made the butt of countless jokes. In Mexican culture and others as well, the appellation “donkey” is applied to a stupid person. Those who went to school in Mexico may tell you about the burro orejon, or donkey ears, that the student who incurs the teacher’s wrath must wear when sent to the back of the room. In Tijuana donkeys are even painted to look like zebras. We laugh at them and take their pictures. But with their typical donkey humility they don’t seem to mind. They just go one being donkeys.
If your years in high school were like mine, people were often judged by their “rides”. I recall that there were three ways that young men could become popular with girls: be an athlete, be in a band, or have a cool car. It hasn’t changed that much today. For people in the ancient Hebrew culture, the mode of transportation spoke of the person. So why did Jesus insist that he ride a donkey on his Palm Sunday journey into Jerusalem? There is an entire store of scriptural references supporting what he most likely would have known, and it has a direct bearing on his journey, and ours as well.
The quote from the book of John gives us the context. Jesus found it imperative to fulfill the prophecy that he ride into Jerusalem on a donkey. Turning to the book of Matthew, we find his request as to what was to take place: “When they were near Jerusalem and had come into sight of Bethphage and the Mount of Olives Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go to the village facing you, and you will immediately find a tethered donkey and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone asks anything to you, you are to say, “The Master needs them and will send them back directly”.’ This took place to fulfill the prophecy: ‘Say to the daughter of Zion: Look, your king comes to you; he is humble, he rides on a donkey and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden’.” [Matthew 21:1-5]
This is the translation according to the Jerusalem Bible. It contains a detailed series of not only chain references, but notes as well. Here is what the note to the passage from Matthew says: “In describing the messianic king’s humble mount the prophet had in mind the unpretentious, unwarlike nature of the rule. Jesus, by performing this action, deliberately took to himself both the words of the prophecy and their deeper meaning.” Neither did this symbolism escape his audience, who were aware of the scripture. Following the chain references, these passages are illuminated by other passages. And this is how I stumbled on this business of donkeys.
The quotations in Matthew and John are taken from the book of Zechariah, chapter 9, verse 9. Again, referring to the notes: “The Messiah is to be ‘humble’ (ani), a characteristic attributed to the future people of God. Renouncing the panoply of the historic kings, the messianic king will ride the traditional mount of princes.” From here the chain references take us back to the book of 1 Kings. The ambitious Adonijah, who wanted to be king, procured a chariot and a team of horses with fifty men to run in front of him, but this was of no avail Solomon, whom we know for his wisdom, is instead consecrated by the aging King David and, wouldn’t you know it, is escorted to his anointment on David’s own mule. Donkeys are the mount of judges, those having wisdom and discernment, and the book of Judges tells us of two of them. Jair, who judged Israel for twenty-two years, had thirty sons who rode on thirty donkey’s colts and possessed thirty towns in Gilead. [Judges 10:3-5] Aldon, son of Hillel, another judge of Israel, had forty sons and thirty grandsons who rode on seventy donkey’s colts. [Judges 12:13-14] The Kings, other than Solomon, are found to be riding horses, but the donkey is the mount of the wise.
The earliest and most curious reference comes from Genesis. The notes say that this possibly refers not only to David but the David as a type of the Messiah, possibly the earliest indicator of the messianic hope that was held by the Jewish tradition. It is haunting and mysterious, and again mentions the donkey: “The scepter shall not pass from Judah, nor the mace from between his feet, until he come to whom it belongs, to whom the peoples shall render obedience. He ties up his young ass to the vine, to its stock the foal of the she-ass. He washes his coat in wine, his cloak in the blood of the grape; his eyes are cloudy with wine, his teeth are white with milk.” [Genesis 49:10-12]
The humility of the donkey, you see, as opposed to the pride of the kingly horse, symbolizes the call to conversion made by the prophet Zephaniah, “Seek Yahweh, all you, the humble of the earth who obey his commands. Seek integrity, seek humility: you may perhaps find shelter on the day of the anger of Yahweh.” [Zephaniah 2:3] Humility is our only defense against not only our self-destruction, but the destruction of society as well, which in Old Testament times was attributed to the wrath of God, but which we now see as the tendencies of our out-of-proportion egoism and greed. Those imprisoned for their crimes of avarice may now have the occasion to reflect on this as they spend their time behind bars. But in a more general sense we all need to get off our horses, for only by humility are we fit for the kingdom of God.
The Hebrew language, and the passages from the Old Testament which relate to the symbolism of the donkey, provide us with a comprehensive and satisfying philosophy of humility in all its aspects. We would do well to understand this viewpoint and to incorporate it into the scope of our thinking and action, for the way of humility is a complete spiritual system. First, the internal aspect, a complete stripping of our pretensions of grandeur, of our demands upon God or anyone else for that matter, a complete openness and availability to grace, as in the old hymn “Just as I am, without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me.” This offering of ourselves a rending of our hearts, is a fitting gift as we present ourselves at the feet of the Master. This is followed by a natural and spontaneous flow to the external, as within our being we have created a fertile field for, as the Buddhists say, right action, to take place. To assimilate these ideas into context, to live the philosophy, has the potential to transform the fabric of our society which is under so much strain into one which benefits the greatest number and which reduces the tension and animosity between individuals and social and economic groups. With it can come a reduction of differences, a mutual support, a sharing of resources. Again I turn to the notes from the Jerusalem Bible. These terms are not so much for us to learn as to show how well-developed this philosophy was, and how it may be applied in our own day: “The ‘humble’ or ‘poor’, anawim in Hebrew. These play a large part of the Bible, Though wisdom literature looks on poverty, resh, as the result of idleness, the prophets are aware that the poor are usually the oppressed, aniyyim; they demand justice for the weak and lowly, dallim, and for those in need, ebionim. The humane legislation of Deuteronomy shows the same attitude of mind. With Zephaniah ‘poverty’ assumes a moral and eschatological significance, In short, the anawim are those Israelites who submit to the will of God. [Later] the word anaw (or ani) has the added meaning of thoughtfulness for others. It is to the poor that the Messiah will be sent. He himself will be humble and gentle, and victim of oppression.”
This philosophy is beautifully expressed in the book of Sirach. The words could very well have been written for us today: “My son, do not refuse the poor a livelihood, do not tantalize the needy. Do not add to the sufferings of the hungry, do not bait a man in distress. Do not aggravate a heart already angry, nor keep the destitute waiting for your alms. Do not repulse a hard-pressed beggar, nor turn your face from a poor man. Do not avert your eyes from the destitute, give no man occasion to curse you; for if a man curses you in the bitterness of his soul, his maker will hear his imprecation.” [Sirach 4:1-6]
Our Messiah was and is deeply involved with the pain and injustice of the world, and that is what makes him the Messiah. He is not apart from it—the suffering of the oppressed is truly his suffering. And the way out of the mess that we find ourselves in is to make our nature that of his nature. Again, it requires an absolute and unrelenting internal humility that blows apart all our earthly schemes and is the only force which can make us fit for the Divine. Then the external matters are dealt with. We must not turn our faces from the poor, or to those in need of justice, or to those oppressed by powerful political and economic forces under which they have no control. Our humility, like that of Jesus, must make their struggle ours.
The Christian social and moral view we are left with is exactly the same as that of the Old and New Testaments. It was the spirit of the Jewish law which was fulfilled by the Master during his time on earth. It is also that reflected in the Book of Tao and Hindu and Buddhist scriptures. The difference is that in the Christian revelation we actually have one who in his physical body took this all upon himself. This is where the transformation takes place. There is a higher development, a new dimension, a personal one. We participate with him in this living sacrifice, as he does with us, for he is the vine and we are the branches. And if enough of us pattern our lives in this way, I just may be the key to escaping this terrible judgment, a judgment we have made upon ourselves, which has befallen the world. If the Hebrew prophets were alive today, they would rail against the conditions under which most of the people of the world live. And for many of us here it doesn’t take a prophet to see where we are heading. The business cycle seems to be one of prodigal behavior, followed by loss, followed by a sort of repentance, all to start over again. In economics alone, students of the Great Depression see this pattern: the sense of perpetual prosperity, the greed, the manipulation and speculation which led to false expectations, which led to the bubble, which lead to the crash, which led to the economic debacle which was to haunt the world for the next ten years.
Remember the Sirach quote? Think of the signs around us now. Bigotry and hate crimes against minorities are on the rise. Anti-immigrant sentiments among many nations stir misery and unrest among those displaced from their own countries. There is increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of the super-rich. The poverty rate, especially that of children, is increasing, affecting their chance for later success and happiness. Large corporations consume smaller ones, increasing their power and their ability to control markets. This is especially alarming in the broadcast news and print industries where control of information limits the right of the public to be fully informed. Reduced investigative reporting enables business and government leaders to escape accountability. Student loan payments doom many with career aspirations to a life of struggle, again driven by the greed of lenders and, so far, an unwillingness to enact legislation which would allow for forgiveness or reduction. And, as a reminder, according to both the Bible and the Quran, it is sinful to consume interest. Whatever you gain in interest will not be counted as gain with God.
The horses have been running wild and have made a mess of things, but now, as in times past, the burden falls to the hardworking, humble donkeys to pull things back together. It may take a long time but they will, for in their humility is their true strength. Their work is the work of Jesus. And in closing I hope that you will agree with me that you can learn a lot from a donkey.
A Litany of Humility
Let your hearts be broken, not your garments torn, turn to Yahweh your God again, for he is all tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in graciousness, and ready to relent. In your midst I will leave a humble and lowly people, who will seek refuge in the name of Yahweh. For Yahweh consoles his people and takes pity on those who are afflicted. The poor will receive as much as they want to eat. Those who seek Yahweh will praise him. Long life to their hearts! My eyes are drawn to the humble and contrite spirit, who trembles at my word. My soul glories in Yahweh, let the humble hear and rejoice. The humble shall have the land for their own to enjoy untroubled peace. The faithful exalt in triumph, prostrate before God they acclaim him. Yahweh will always hear those who are in need, will never scorn his captive people. He has pulled down princes from their thrones and exalted the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things, the rich sent empty away. How happy are you poor: yours is the kingdom of God. Happy you who are hungry now; you shall be satisfied. Happy you who weep now: you shall laugh. How happy are the poor in spirit; theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The good news is proclaimed to the poor and happy is the one who does not lose faith in me.
All scripture selections, including those in the Litany of Humility, are from the Jerusalem Bible.