Friday, March 22, 2013

Listening to Jesus’ Donkey (Matthew 21:1-3)

On which animal did Jesus ride into the city of Jerusalem? A donkey [The foal of an ass, KJV]

In contrast to is his usual low key mode of operating, all four canonical gospels depict Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem as occurring before a substantial and enthusiastic crowd (Matthew 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:28-44; John 12:12-19). In short, Jesus makes an entrance. Jesus’ approach to the Holy City marks a major turning point in Matthew’s gospel and in many ways begins the Passion narrative. Often referred to as the “Triumphal Entry”, the church commemorates the event annually on Palm Sunday.

In preparation for his entry, Jesus’s gives very explicit instructions to his followers on where to secure his ride: Jesus will enter Jerusalem atop a donkey. .

When they had approached Jerusalem and had come to Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied there and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to Me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord has need of them,’ and immediately he will send them.” (Matthew 21:1-3 NASB)
Donald Senior (b. 1940) summarizes:
Jesus prepares for his entry into Jerusalem by sending two disciples into the village to procure a donkey and a colt (Matthew 21:2-3). The whole tone emphasizes Jesus’ messianic authority—he commands the disciples; they do exactly what he says; and everything is as “the Lord” predicts. (Senior, Matthew (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries), 230)
The city where the disciples procure the donkey is undetermined as Jesus refers only to the “village opposite” (Matthew 21:2). Grant R. Osborne (b. 1942) contemplates:
It is difficult to know whether Jesus sent the two disciples to Bethphage (D.A. Carson [b. 1946]) or Bethany (Donald A. Hagner [b. 1936], David L. Turner [b. 1949]). The text could point to either. It is also difficult to know whether Jesus had made prior arrangements or knew supernaturally that the donkeys would be there. Either way, he deliberately plans the event as a messianic fulfillment, possibly connected with three passages: Zechariah 14:4, which prophesied Yahweh would stand on the Mount of Olives on the day of the Lord...the lion of Judah (Genesis 49:10-11, a messianic figure within Judaism) who “tethers his donkey...[and] colt” (so John Nolland [b. 1947]), and David’s return to Jerusalem (after his son Absalom...forced him to flee) on a donkey in II Samuel 15:30-31, 16:1-2 (so R.T. France [1938-2012], Stanley Hauerwas [b. 1940]). (Osborne, Matthew (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 753-54)
W.F. Albright (1891-1971) and C.S. Mann (b. 1917) explain the vagueness:
At first sight, this little incident is full of mystery. This account is one of many in the gospels in which the relevant circumstances were still so well known to the people when the oral tradition became fixed that they were not included. This can be very baffling for the reader in search of exact biographical detail. The high incidence of background information which is assumed or omitted as taken for granted is eloquent proof of the immediacy of the New Testament material—the transmitters of the oral tradition were not concerned beyond the immediate accuracy of transmission. (Albright and Mann, Matthew: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (The Anchor Bible), 251)
Whatever city the disciples frequent, their mission is to secure an ónos, a “donkey” (CEV, ESV, HCSB, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV) which some translations render with the more antiquated “ass” (ASV, KJV, RSV) and its colt, polos (Matthew 21:2). In this era, the donkey was bred as a beast of burden and was a prominent means of distributing goods (Matthew 21:2, 5, 7; Luke 13:15; John 12:15).

W. D. Davies (1911-2001) and Dale C. Allison, Jr. (b. 1950) define:

ὄνος (most often for hamôr in the LXX) means ‘donkey’ (male of female; here the latter.) πωλος (cf. ‘ayir, ‘he ass’) according to Walter Bauer [1877-1960] means ‘horse’ or, when used in conjunction with another animal, ‘young animal’. But Heinz-Wolfgang Kuhn [b. 1934]...and Otto Michel [1903-1993]...have established that the word standing by itself, can mean ‘ass’...Rabbinic literature makes the ass a messianic animal. Zechariah 9:9 was the key text in this development. It in turn arose out of the use of the ass in the ancient Near Eastern royal ceremony. I Kings 1:33 (cf. I Kings 1:38) supplies an Old Testament example: Solomon rode on David’s ass to Gihon to be anointed king (cf. II Samuel 18:9, 19:26). For the mules of nobility see Judges 5:10, 10:4, 12:13-14; II Samuel 13:29. Riding on a mule for ceremonial entry into a city is already an established act of kingship in ARM 6.76, a text from the royal archives of Mari; ANET 1, pp. 44-7, translates a Sumerian text (‘Gilgamesh and Agga’) in which those ‘who are raised with the sons of the kings’ are referred to as those who ride donkeys. (Davies and Allison, Matthew 19-28 (International Critical Commentary), 116-17)
John Nolland (b. 1947) adds:
In Mark there is a single animal.: ‘a πωλον tied up [masculine form] on which no one has ever sat’. In Matthew there is a ‘donkey tethered [female form], and a πωλον with her. πωλον is capable of a range of meanings. In secular Greek it often means ‘horse’, but it means ‘donkey’ in the Septuagint and documents showing Septuagint influence. Originally it had meant the young of an animal, and it still did in appropriate contexts. The reference to a female donkey and the quotation to come in Matthew 21:5 make clear that for Matthew πωλον means a young male donkey. (Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew (New International Greek Testament Commentary, 833)
David E. Garland (b. 1947) interprets:
It is...a royal entry. The heir of David who was to be anointed as king rode a donkey to his coronation. When Absalom’s hair got caught in the branches of a large terebinth, he was riding a donkey, which was symbolic of his claim to kingship (II Samuel 18:8). Mephibosheth rode a donkey as a symbol of his royal claim that he would make for the old house of Saul had the insurrection of Absalom succeeded (II Samuel 19:27). David, anxious to secure Solomon’s claim to the throne over that of Adonijah’s, instructs his comrades to mount Solomon on his donkey to ride to his anointing as king (I Kings 1:32-40; see also II Kings 9:13). Jesus’ approach to the city from the east, from the Mount of Olives, is also suggestive, since some expected that the messiah would come from the east, from the Jordan valley (see Josephus [37-100], Antiquities 20.8.6 § 169; Jewish War 2.13.5 § 261; Genesis Rabba 98:9; Qoheleth Rabba 1:9; Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 98a; 99a; and Zechariah 14:1-5). (Garland, Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary, 213)
From this passage, some Christians have applauded the often neglected donkey. Howard Clarke (b. 1929) relays:
In the Middle Ages these biblical associations made the donkey the transportation of choice for wandering preachers. G.K. Chesteron [1874-1936] honored this humble animal in his poem “The Donkey.” After three stanzas describing how the donkey has always been ridiculed and mistreated he concludes: “Fools! For also had my hour:/One far fierce hour and sweet:/There was a shout about my ears,/And palms before my feet.” (Clarke, The Gospel of Matthew and Its Readers: A Historical Introduction to the First Gospel, 174)
Regardless of its symbolism, to its owners the more important fact is that the donkey has monetary value. Craig S. Keener (b. 1960) assesses the ass:
A donkey could cost between two months’ and two years’ wages, depending on its age and condition, but most peasants who could save enough would buy one, as they were extremely important even in small-scale farming. If a farmer had two, however, he sometimes rented one out (Naphtali Lewis [1911-2005] 1983: 130). (Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 490)
Commentators often play for humor the fact that Matthew actually implies that Jesus rides both animals simultaneously (Matthew 21:2, 5, 7). This fact has also been referenced by critics. One such skeptic was John William Gott (1866–1922), the last person in Britain to be sent to prison for blasphemy. In 1921, he was arrested and tried publicly at the Old Bailey. In response to his appeal, Lord Chief Justice Alfred Lawrence (1843-1936) wrote, “It does not require a person of strong religious feelings to be outraged by a description of Jesus Christ entering Jerusalem ‘like a circus clown on the back of two donkeys’.”

Eduard Schweizer (1913-2006) explains the purported discrepancy:

Taken literally, it speaks of a donkey and (the “and” appears only in the Septuagint) a colt (Genesis 49:11 likewise), but only because Hebrew writers often use hendiadys (cf. for example Psalms 2:1-5, 33:10-12; also Numbers 21:28; Deuteronomy 32:2; I Samuel 2:6-7; Isaiah 47:1). Matthew has thus made the Markan reference to the prophetic passage explicit and at the same time emphasized its literal fulfillment...Something similar has taken place in Matthew 27:34...and John 19:23-24. (Schewizer, The Good News according to Matthew, 404)
Many have seen the reference to Jesus riding both animals as Matthew misinterpreting Zechariah’s prophecy (Zechariah 9:9). John P. Meier (b. 1942) has even suggested that this is evidence that, contrary to tradition, the author of Matthew’s gospel is not Jewish.

Donald Senior (b. 1940) summarizes:

Meier...thinks this...shows that Matthew misunderstands the Hebrew parallelism of Zechariah 9:9 where the reference to a donkey and a colt is not to two animals, but to one. Meier contends that only someone unfamiliar with Hebrew poetic forms, and, therefore, not a Jew, would be this literal on such an insignificant detail. Therefore, Matthew was not a Jew who became a Christian but a Gentile Christian who became well versed in the Hebrew scriptures and things Jewish. (Senior, What Are They Saying About Matthew? A Revised & Expanded Edition, 16)
Others have explained the alleged discrepancy by comparing Matthew to Mark’s parallel account which notes that “no one yet has ever sat” on the animal (Mark 11:2 NASB), a detail not recorded in Matthew.

Robert H. Gundry (b. 1932) sees the two gospels as saying the same thing in different ways:

Matthew inserts ὄνον, “a donkey”, to correspond with ὄνον in his coming quotation of Zechariah 9:9 (Matthew 21:5) and to substitute for Mark’s clause “on which no man [literally ‘no one of men’] has ever sat.” As it turns out, this donkey was a mother and had been ridden. That her colt accompanied her eliminates any need to describe him as unbroken, for after being broken a colt would be taken from the mother. (Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on His Handbook for a Mixed Church under Persecution, 407)
Craig L. Blomberg (b. 1955) concurs:
Only Matthew mentions two animals. He is often accused of misinterpreting what in the Old Testament was intended to be synonymous parallelism. But irrespective of the correct reading of Zechariah 9:9, it would be natural for the mother to come along if her colt had never previously been ridden (Mark 11:2). Matthew 21:5 can easily be taken as implying that Jesus rode only on the young donkey, appropriate symbolism for his purity and holiness. (Blomberg, Matthew (New American Commentary), 312)
Bruce B. Barton (b. 1943) further defends:
Matthew highlighted the prophetic fulfillment by noting a second donkey, the colt’s mother. Jesus didn’t ride her, nor is she essential to the story. But she provides a detail of fact. Her calming presence also explains the handling of an unbroken colt. (Barton, Matthew (Life Application Bible Commentary), 406)
Robert H. Smith (1932-2006) sees the imagery as intentional:
Has Matthew misunderstood poetic parallelism? Hardly. Playfully, insistently he portrays Jesus as the pluperfect fulfillment of prophecy. And he pictures Jesus the way ancient oriental gods and kings are frequently depicted: enthroned above a pair of animals. He comes meek but royal nonetheless. (Smith, Matthew (Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament), 61)
The disciples are instructed to take the animal and, if confronted, respond with a cryptic line befitting a cloak and dagger caper: “The Lord has need of them.” (Matthew 21:3 NASB). The implication is that this answer will be sufficient and there will no questions asked. Jesus’ word is sufficient.

The intended meaning of “the Lord” is replete with potential interpretations. Some have even viewed it as a codeword. Leon Morris (1914-2006) details:

“Lord” is patient of more than one meaning. It could mean the owner of the animals, but against this is the fact that, though Luke has the same expression at this point, a little later he says that the owners (“lords”) questioned the disciples when they came for the animal; there was more than one owner, and the owners were with the donkey, not where the donkey was to go. It could mean God, for the animal was to be used in God’s service, but it is not easy to see how those standing near the donkey could have understood this. Another possibility is that “Lord” means himself...if this is the way of it, we should notice that he says “the” Lord, not simply “our” Lord; it is the Lord of all that is in mind. This cannot be ruled out, but Jesus did not usually apply this word to himself. All in all it seems better to understand the words as a prearranged password. This means that Jesus had somehow made arrangement with the owners of the animals. None of the Evangelists gives any indication who the owners were or how the arrangement was made. But that it was made shows clearly that Jesus has had more dealing in and around Jerusalem tan Matthew has so far indicated. (Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 519-20)
John Proctor (b. 1952) adds:
The fetching of the donkey has the feel of a royal command, as of the king commandeers any animal he needs. But it much more likely reflects an agreement with a sympathetic local contact. Even so, there is a curiously cryptic feel to the matter—almost like something out of a spy novel—and it may be that Jesus was even now being careful and how and where he attracted attention. (Proctor, Matthew (Daily Bible Commentary: A Guide for Reflection and Prayer), 170)
As Jesus asks his followers to take property they do not own, the legality of Jesus’ request has been addressed. Craig S. Keener (b. 1960) reflects:
The response testifies first of all to the man’s respect for Jesus: rulers (as Jesus is here) and officials could impress animals (Sallust [86-25 BCE], Jugurthine War. 75.4; Richard A. Burridge [b. 1955] 1994: 54); Jewish teachers (as the man presumably regards Jesus) could also borrow animals among those who respected the, (J. Duncan M. Derrett [b. 1922] 1971). (Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 490)
Robert H. Gundry (b. 1932) reminds that a king may commandeer a donkey any time he pleases:
“And if anyone should say anything to you” is indefinite and ambiguous both as to possibility and content, and the succeeding verses will say nothing about anyone’s saying anything to the two disciples when they untie the animals. So the entire stress lies on Jesus’ telling the disciples to call him the animals’ “owner” in saying he needs them. “Owner” translates the word otherwise translated “Lord” and therefore alludes to Jesus’ lordship. As Lord, his ownership of the animals obliterates anyone else’s owning them and gives him the right to use them. Matthew includes nothing about Jesus’ returning the animals. So the stress stays on his divine ownership of them (contrast Mark 11:3). And their being sent to Jesus by the possible “anyone.” underlined with “immediately,” caps the stress on his owning them. (Gundry, Commentary on Matthew)

Jesus’ memorable procession into Jerusalem has historical precedent, many with similarities to Christ’s. Craig A. Evans (b. 1952) chronicles:

Jesus’ celebrated entry is one of as many as twelve similar entries, as recorded in I and II Maccabees and in Josephus [37-100]. These entries follow a more or less fixed pattern. Entries involving major figures include Alexander [356-323 BE], who enters Jerusalem, is greeted with ceremony, and is escorted into the city, where he participates in cultic activity (Antiquities 11.325-39); Apollonius, who enters Jerusalem accompanied by torches and shouts (II Maccabees 4:21-22); Judas Maccabeus, who returns home from a military victory and is greeted with hymns and “praising God” (I Maccabees 4:19-25; Josephus, Antiquities 12.312); Judas Maccabeus again, this time returning from battle and entering Jerusalem amidst singing and merrymaking, followed by sacrifice (I Maccabees 5:45-54; Antiquities 12.348-49); Jonathan, brother of Judas Maccabeus, who is greeted by the men of Askalon “with great pomp” (I Maccabees 10:86); Simon, brother of Judas Maccabeus, who enters Gaza, expels idolatrous inhabitants, cleanses idolatrous houses, and enters the city with “hymns and praise” (I Maccabees 13:43-48); Simon, brother of Judas Maccabeus, again, ths time entering Jerusalem, where he is met by crowds “with praise and palm branches, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments and with hymns and songs” (I Maccabees 13:49-41); Antigonus [382-301 BCE], who with pomp enters Jerusalem and then the temple precincts, but with so much pomp and self-importance he is criticized by some for imagining that he himself was “king” (Jewish Wars 1.73-74; Antiquities 13.304-6); Marcus Agrippa [64-12 BCE], who enters Jerusalem, is met by Herod, and is welcomed by the people with acclamations (Antiquities 16.12-15); and Archelaus, [23 BCE-18 CE] who, hoping to confirm his kingship, journeys to enters Jerusalem amidst acclamation and his procession (Antiquities 17.194-239). (Evans, Matthew (New Cambridge Bible Commentary), 357-58)
In light of this history, for once Jesus does something that might be expected of the long awaited Messiah. And as usual, he will turn this expectation on its head. And one way he does this is with his ride of choice: the donkey.

Entering riding a donkey is unique and Jesus is undeniably intentional about its selection. D.A. Carson (b. 1946) comments:

The distinguishing feature of the synoptic accounts, as opposed to John 12, is that Jesus arranged for the ride. The applause and the crowds were not manipulated; they would have occurred in any case. But the ride on a colt, because it was planned, could only be an acted parable, a deliberate act of symbolic self-disclosure for those with eyes to see or, after the resurrection, with memories by which to remember and integrate the events of the preceding weeks and years. Secrecy was being lifted. (Tremper Longman III [b. 1952] and David E. Garland [b. 1947], Matthew and Mark (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary), 493-94)
R.T. France (1938-2012) accedes:
Jesus’ ride was a matter of deliberate choice, and indeed probably of careful planning, rather than a matter of necessity. Among a crowd of pilgrims on foot the rider on the donkey intended to be noticed and expected his supporters to draw the appropriate conclusion. He can not have been surprised or displeased when they did. Such a deliberately provocative approach to the city is also consistent with the equally public and provocative action which Jesus was to take on his arrival in the temple area (Matthew 21:12-13). Among the Passover crowds coming into the city it would have been impossible for Jesus and his disciples to arrive without drawing attention to themselves, but Jesus has not come to slip quietly into Jerusalem. (France, The Gospel of Matthew (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 774)
If riding this donkey was so important to Jesus, why does he not secure it himself? Why does Jesus choose to enter Jerusalem riding a donkey? What do you associate with this animal? What would you have named the donkey? When have you wanted to make a grand entrance? What is the best entrance you have ever witnessed? Who would you lend something valuable to, no questions asked? When have you gone to great lengths to create the proper ambiance for an event? Does Jesus stage anything elsewhere in his ministry? Why now? Why is this event so important? What message is he attempting to convey?

Larry Chouinard (b. 1948) surmises:

It is doubtful...that Jesus’ instructions for obtaining a donkey were simply to secure transportation for the final two miles of his journey. Rather, it appears that Jesus intends to deliberately stage the manner of his entrance into Jerusalem in terms of the prophetic expectations of Zechariah 9:9. Thereby, his entrance becomes a prophetic act which implicitly makes a Christological statement. The focus of the account is upon the Lord’s foreknowledge and sovereign awareness of his conformity to God’s will as expressed in Old Testament prophecies (Chouinard, Matthew (The College Press NIV Commentary), 366)
Thomas G. Long (b. 1946) agrees:
Matthew is conveying a theological truth here, and he risks the somewhat improbable picture of Jesus straddling two beasts in order to make his point: King Jesus’ humble entrance into Jerusalem was, in the deepest sense, a fulfillment of God’s intent to save humanity as declared in Scripture. (Long, Matthew (Westminster Bible Companion), 235)
A large factor in Jesus’ rationale for riding a donkey is its consistency with Zechariah 9:9. Douglas R.A. Hare (b. 1929) deciphers:
It may very well have been an “acted parable” in which Jesus consciously acted out the prophecy of Zechariah by riding into the holy city on a donkey. While it was customary for pilgrims to arrive by foot, his action would have seemed only slightly unusual to outsiders. According to John 12:16, not even the disciples perceived the event as the fulfillment of prophecy until after the resurrection... In Matthew’s account the underlying prophecy is not only explicitly quoted but is placed before the event to emphasize that Jesus actively fulfills the messianic prophecy. (Hare, Matthew (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 237-38)
Matthew stresses the prophetic association by inserting a fulfillment citation (Matthew 21:4-5); John’s gospel makes a similar reference (John 12:14-15). Matthew introduces the verse with the usual prefixed formula for Old Testament testimony. Though it captures the verse’s meaning well, the gospel’s rendering of Zechariah 9:9 is neither an exact match of the Hebrew or the Greek and it is conflated with introductory words from Isaiah 62:11.

Robert H. Mounce (b. 1921) acknowledges:

Matthew identifies this event as a fulfillment of a prophecy by Zechariah that Israel’s king will come gentle and riding on a donkey. The first line of the quotation (which Matthew says was spoken through the prophet, singular) comes from Isaiah 62:11 and the rest from Zechariah 9:9. Eduard Schweizer [1913-2006] says this is “constant with rabbinic hermeneutics, in which a passage containing the same word as another serves to interpret the latter”...Of interest is the omission from Zechariah of the descriptive phrase “righteous and having salvation.” It appears that Matthew was interested mainly in emphasizing the humility of the Messiah. (Mounce, Matthew New International Biblical Commentary)

Stuart K. Weber (b. 1945) provides an overview of Zechariah’s original context:

Zechariah 9 begins an oracle predicting the destruction of all Israel’s enemies and the ensuing peace in Jerusalem. All of Israel’s chariots, war horses, and battle instruments would be taken away (Zechariah 9:10), and Jerusalem’s king would enter peacefully, “righteous and having salvation” (Zechariah 9:9). The king would be gentle, since there was no longer any need for war, and he would arrive by the humble means of a donkey. (Weber, Matthew (Holman New Testament Commentary), 362)
Stanley D. Toussaint (b. 1928) analyzes:
Rather than use the first clauses of Zechariah 9:9, Matthew introduces the Zechariah passage with a phrase from Isaiah 62:11, “Say to the daughter of Zion.” The Zechariah passage actually has, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem.” But this would not fit into Matthew’s argument since Jerusalem failed to recognize its King. Jerusalem had to have its King pointed out; therefore the Evangelist substitutes the words of Isaiah to give the passage more meaning. “The substitution is interpretive.” (Toussaint, Behold the King: A Study of Matthew, 238)
Brendan Byrne (b. 1939) concurs:
The text quoted from Zechariah 9:9 omits the epithets “triumphant and victorious is he,” so as to focus all attention on “humble” (Greek praus) and on the mode of transport. (Byrne, Lifting the Burden: Reading Matthew’s Gospel in the Church Today, 158)
This stress on humility is well represented in eastern iconogaphy which depicts Jesus riding the donkey side saddle, a style associated with a woman not a warrior (pictured).

R.T. France (1938-2012) asserts that the original audience would have gleaned Jesus’ meaning:

Even without an explicit quotation of that prophecy in the text, any Jewish reader of the story could hardly fail to be reminded of it and of the royal ideology which underlies it. Zechariah’s prophecy of a humble and peaceful king coming to Jerusalem “vindicated and saved” is based on the story of David’s return to the city after the defeat of Absalom’s rebellion, when he came in triumph as king, and yet humbly and in peace (II Samuel 19:1-20:22). When the Son of David chose to ride down to the city from the Mount of Olives on a donkey, the acted allusion was unmistakable...Zechariah’s prophecy pictures David retracing his outward route over the Mount of Olives (II Samuel 15:30) and riding on the donkey which has been provided for him in II Samuel 16:1-2. A donkey is a suitable mount for a king, but only for a king in time of peace. (France, The Gospel of Matthew (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 773-74)
Stanley P. Saunders (b. 1953) sees many layers to Jesus’ insistence on the donkey:
This image is sometimes regarded as Matthew’s clumsy, literalistic misreading of the Hebrew parallelism in Zechariah 9:9. It is, rather, a deliberate literary device–the kind that works best in oral presentations. It signals: (a) Jesus’ royal, messianic identity as Son of David (the donkey is associated with coronations of kings, cf. I Kings 1:33-48); (b) Jesus’ identification with what is meek or humble (Matthew 21:5; cf. Matthew 5:5,11:29)...(c) Matthew’s identification of Jesus with Moses (Moses rides a donkey in Exodus 4:19-20; cf. Matthew 2:19-21); and (d) a strong affirmation of Jesus’ fulfillment of the messianic vision of Zechariah 9-14 (cf. Matthew 21:12-13, 26:15-16, 26:26-29, 26:30-35, 27:3-10, 27:51-53), where the messiah not only restores Israel and shatters her enemies, but brings peace to the nations and sets prisoners free (Zechariah 9:9-11). (Saunders, Preaching the Gospel of Matthew: Proclaiming God’s Presence, 208)
Riding the donkey sends the message not only that Jesus is a king but also conveys the type of king he is. Stanley Hauerwas (b. 1940) determines:
Jesus identifies himself as Lord, but one that will ride on ass, a creature not normally associated with what it means to be a king. Victors in battle do not tide into their capital cities on asses, but rather they ride on fearsome horses. But this king does not and will not triumph through force of arms. (Hauerwas, Matthew (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), 181)
Jesus presents himself as a new type of conquering hero, a nonviolent one. George Martin (b. 1939) details:
Pilgrims normally entered Jerusalem on foot, but Jesus will ride into Jerusalem like the king in Zechariah’s prophecy to indicate that he is not a warrior messiah bent on establishing an earthly kingdom. Jesus is “meek and humble of heart” (Matthew 11:29), not a man of violence (Matthew 12:19-20); he forbids his disciples from following the way of violence (Matthew 5:38-39, 26:51-52). (Martin, Bringing the Gospel of Matthew To Life: Insight & Inspiration, 437)
Myron S. Augsburger (b. 1929) notes:
Jesus entered Jerusalem not on a white charger, but on a lowly beast of burden, not on a horse as a symbol of power, but on a colt of an ass as a symbol of humility. He is the peaceful King of the people of God, not a revolutionary with political interest (Isaiah 11:1-2). Note the care with which Matthew stresses identity: the identity of the location, the identity of a colt rather than a white charger, the identity with Old Testament prophecy (Matthew 21:4-5), the identity in the cry of the crowd (Psalm 118:26), and the identity as the prophet from Nazareth (Matthew 21:11). (Augsburger, Matthew (The Preacher’s Commentary), 227)
All together Jesus uses the donkey to make a grand statement. Frederick Dale Bruner (b. 1932) asserts:
There are two closely related and yet contrasting points here. (1) In this story...Jesus, as it were, “comes out of the closet” and publicly acknowledges his Messiahship. (2) Yet by choosing a donkey for this “confession,” Jesus perfectly illustrates his modest Messiahship. Thus was have another text in which the two great truths about Jesus are illumined — what early theologians called the doctrine of the two natures (Jesus’ true identity and true humanity) or what modern exegesis calls the authority and lowliness of Jesus. (Bruner, The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28,353)
The donkey provides a striking image and serves to parody the expected regal processions. As usual, Jesus flips the script. Mike Graves and David M. May (b. 1958) conclude:
If we choose to retain the “Triumphal Entry” title, we must do so with the greatest sense of irony. This entry by Jesus into Jerusalem is unlike any other triumphant processional familiar to first-century people. If it is triumph, then we need to accept Matthew’s definition of triumph. It is not an imperial Roman grand propaganda parade heaping accolades on a king/warrior for the successful incorporation of another province into the empire that was Rome. It was a parade, certainly, but not that type of parade. The sad-eyed man riding into Jerusalem on a donkey that day was leading a funeral parade—his own. (Graves and May, Preaching Matthew: Interpretation and Proclamation , 76)
Warren Carter (b. 1955) adds:
Jesus’ meekness consisting of compassion and service challenges such a power structure. His act of entering the city employs some features of the entrance processions and triumphs in order to contrast or reframe them, to parody them with a very different vision of human interaction. Jesus rides a donkey, not an intimidating warhorse representative of strategies to dominate and exploit, an everyday common beast and one that was often a symbol used by Gentiles to deride and scorn Jews (Josephus [37-100], Contra Apion 2.80-88, 112-20; Tacitus [56-117], Histories 5.3-4). He is not welcomed by the city’s leadership with escort speeches, only by his followers. And he is a very different sort of king, meek not triumphant, a compassionate servant not a powerful imperial official. (Carter, Matthew and Empire: Initial Explorations, 129)
Most Christians would prefer the Jesus who rides in on a white horse as seen in the Bible’s final book (Revelation 19:11). But Jesus enters Jerusalem as the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6), not to abolish Rome. And he conveys this sentiment through his ride. In this way, Jesus’ donkey speaks more than Balaam’s famed talking donkey without ever saying a word (Numbers 22:28).

If you had to make a grand entrance on a major thoroughfare and had any vehicle at your disposal, what transportation would you choose? How would Jesus enter Jerusalem in our time? Did the original audience grasp Jesus’ intent? Do we?

“There were only a few shepherds at the first Bethlehem. The ox and the donkey understood more of the first Christmas than the high priests in Jerusalem. And it is the same today.” - Thomas Merton (1913-1968)