There is something thrilling about seeing someone ride a full sized horse. The most heroic statues often depict the champion astride a magnificent horse. It is an image of power, of martial glory, and of military might. Our heritage has conditioned us to expect great heroes to ride into town on great horses. It was not so with Jesus.
The Jewish people had a very odd tradition about this matter. Like most people of the ancient Middle East, the horse was the symbol for strength, pride, and war. But even though the donkey was the symbol for humility and labor it was also, strangely, the symbol for regal authority. The donkey’s symbolic message was that humble service was the nature of a true king.
When we imagine the scene for Palm Sunday, we see Jesus riding on a little donkey with his feet nearly dragging on the ground. The picture in our minds is odd, humble, and almost comical. It is the last thing we would expect of someone who has demonstrated the power that Jesus had. He had fed the hungry, healed the sick, and made the blind to see. Lazarus was alive again after four days of being dead in his tomb. It was clear that Jesus was the greatest power that this world has ever known. The Jewish leaders had conspired to kill him. It was time for a show down. It was a showdown where Jesus road a donkey into town.
The image of Jesus on the donkey is crucial for Christians. It says that he is truly claiming to be king. He is king in the line of David. He is the true king of Israel. Everyone who saw him knew what he was saying. But the message of Jesus on the Donkey is, “do not be afraid.” Jesus is not coming to dominate with tyrannical power. He is not coming to threaten the evil doer with death. He is not coming to over throw world order. Jesus is coming, “humble and seated on a donkey.” He is proclaiming himself the king who is a humble servant to his people. Jesus has come to deliver his people by faith not by power. His purpose is peace, not war. His method is grace, not domination. He suffers for the people; the people do not suffer for him. He has come to die in sacrifice for salvation; he has not come execute the guilty. He has come in peace to establish himself as the true king in Israel.
Sometimes we forget that Jesus really is the true king. He was arrested shortly after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We can easily be fooled into believing that Jesus’ coronation was nullified by the events of Good Friday. But that is not the case. Jesus was crowned king. Pilate crucified him as a king under the sign, “King of the Jews.” And when Jesus was raised from the dead he rose as king in all of creation. As Christians, we are members of Jesus’ Kingdom. And from the ride on a donkey we know the true nature of our King. He is dedicated to humble service to us and through us to the world.
At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him. (John 12:16))