Imagine waiting for the arrival of the Queen of England. You are in a thick crowd that lines the street. Anticipation fills the air. Finally the motorcade comes into sight. First come the advance cars. The people around you wave flags and cheer wildly. Finally the great woman herself comes into view. Her upper body is visible, so she must be standing in an open-topped limousine. Then you see the limousine, and—huh?
Something is wrong. She is not riding in an armor-plated black SUV after all. Her Majesty is riding a bicycle. Huh? What can this mean? A Queen who is not haughty but humble, not proud but unassuming, not ruling from on high but identifying with us earthlings?
In his account of Jesus’s “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem (21:1-11), Matthew doesn’t put Jesus on a bicycle. But he does seat him—huh?–on a donkey. A what?
In the Old Testament prophetic book of Zechariah, which Matthew quotes, the donkey is a lowly, humble animal, in contrast to the war horses kings usually ride. So Jesus’s choice of entry vehicle may be saying something about his reign—that he is—huh?–a servant “king,” not the militant conquering victor from God which many were expecting.
The donkey also can be a symbol of ridicule and scorn. Julie and I learned this while teaching in the West African country of Ghana years ago. Mennonite Central Committee had sent a Canadian agricultural expert to advise the Ghana Mennonite Church farmers on how to improve their yields. The farmers wanted expensive tractors. The expert recommended donkeys, because these animals would be more economical and sustainable.
Huh? The farmers were insulted. “Donkeys?” they gasped in amazement. “We’ll be laughed at by our neighbors! We’ll be known as ‘the donkey church!’”
Perhaps by riding a donkey, Jesus is also mocking the kings and rulers who were riding so arrogantly atop their magnificent steeds. By his choice of entry vehicle, he may be saying, “In God’s reign, true power comes not through your instruments of war. God’s power, in your eyes, looks insulting, ridiculous, laughable—like a—huh?–donkey.”
When Friday of Jesus’s triumphal entry week comes, we’ll see the supreme expression of God’s power. And, like that donkey, it will not look at all powerful. But for those with eyes of faith, that lowly, scornful cross will be, as the Apostle Paul puts it, “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24).