That little donkey on Palm Sunday bothered me for a long time.
I first heard the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem when I was little, in an illustrated book of Bible Stories for children. These aren’t always a good idea, as I know from my own experience that they can be misleading owing to their oversimplification. I have no problems with all the symbolic stuff, fulfilment of prophecies and the religious significance of Jesus’ mount that day. My concerns were very prosaic, those of a child.
It was an ass’s colt that had never been ridden before, and I’d seen enough donkeys and their foals to know that for one thing, a baby donkey wouldn’t bear a man’s weight, and secondly if you try to mount an animal that hasn’t been broken in, it’s going to kick up its heels and try to throw you off. I couldn’t see Jesus as a rodeo cowboy on a bucking bronco.
My childish objections were soothed by the explanation that the little donkey was probably about two years old, so though technically still a foal it was nearly an adult, and strong enough to carry a man. Plus it would instinctively recognise Jesus as the Messiah and so would behave itself and not try to throw him off.
When I read the story for myself in the Gospel of Matthew, I noticed it said that there were two donkeys – the colt and its mother – and Jesus rode on “them”. Again, my literal mind tried to envisage him astride the two, though I couldn’t see how he could sit on them both at the same time. Did he stand with a foot on each one, like a circus performer? Then someone pointed out that the other gospels only mention one donkey, and Matthew had got it wrong. That didn’t seem right: what about “gospel truth”?
Well, probably the other 3 Evangelists had concentrated on the young one, and simply ignored its mother. Eventually, I concluded that probably there had been two, because Mama would have spontaneously trotted along with her little one. And it doesn’t actually say that Jesus rode both at the same time: it’s a two-mile journey so quite feasible that he rode the older one first and saved the colt for his actual entry into Jerusalem.
And why didn’t it kick and buck? Well, I suppose Jesus must have been the ultimate horse whisperer – or in this case, donkey whisperer. Or perhaps they had already met, and the little donkey knew and trusted him?
That leads me to my final question: how did Jesus know where the disciples would find these two donkeys? It’s always been presented to me as evidence of his omniscience, but there is a very plausible explanation.
This is only a suggestion, and doesn’t in any way diminish the omniscience of Jesus. But I have noticed that he didn’t go around performing magic tricks to impress people. He kept miracles for special occasions, and where “normal” laws of nature apply, he followed them. He usually took the boat, for instance, and didn’t always walk across the lake.
Thousands of people congregated at Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover, and it would have been as difficult to find a room there as it was at Christmas. But this time, Jesus wouldn’t need to go knocking on inn doors or looking for a stable to sleep in, because he had good friends in Bethany, within walking distance of the city: Lazarus, Mary and Martha.
Apparently he stayed overnight during Holy Week in Bethphage, just outside Jerusalem. The donkeys were tied up outside a particular house “in the next village”, which quite possibly could have been Bethany, and the house that of Lazarus. When the disciples were asked why they were untying the animals, the reply “The Lord has need of them” would make perfect sense to anyone of Lazarus’ household, and they certainly wouldn’t argue. So maybe Jesus had already arranged with his friends for the donkeys to be there, ready and waiting?
It was a relief to me to find these explanations. I can now focus on the truly miraculous aspects of Palm Sunday!