The humble donkey has a lot of which to be proud. For a good chunk of the history of human civilization, they’ve been a key utility player in the human arsenal of helpful creatures. They’re hardy, able to carry a surprising amount of weight for their size, don’t require nearly the same amount of maintenance as a horse, and despite a certain reputation for recalcitrance, often prove a reliable companion. Also, they murderously hate coyotes. This may not have been on the minds of folks in Biblical times. I have no idea, but after seeing a lone donkey in a field with a bunch of sheep, while driving through the Hill Country, I looked up why. Donkeys are useful protective species for more helpless creatures, like sheep. A donkey will stomp a coyote to death, on sight, no questions ask. They stomp first and ask questions later. It's like what if your family’s midsized SUV lived a secret double life as club bouncer protecting your teenaged children from bad decisions. Donkeys constitute one of nature’s great wonders.

Donkeys carry a full quiver of amazing attributes, but majesty just isn’t one of them. Plucky utility? They’ve got it for days. A surprising useful dog-based blood lust? Weirdly, yes, donkeys have that too. A regal nature worthy of a king? I’ll be the first to concede that this is one of the few things that donkeys don’t have. Squat and potbellied physic coupled with coarse, bristly hair fails to fire the imagination in quite the same way as a majestic stallion or a mighty elephant. To the ancient imagination, a king would no more ride a donkey than a president arrives at a state dinner in a family station wagon. The US political press experienced a tempest in a teapot recently at the mere suggestion that President Biden would ride on a bus to the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. Pope Francis got a lot of positive press early in his tenure because he chose to forgo a fancy ride and got carried around in a Fiat hatchback. Both of these stories highlight our own continued expectation for rulers and their vehicles. Majesties deserve majesty in their method of transit. A donkey just doesn’t fit that particular bill.

However, Jesus, at this moment of high majesty and triumph, rides in on a donkey. Or, to be more precise to Matthew’s telling, “they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.” (Matthew 21:7 NRSV) By entering Jerusalem the way that he did, he declares himself a victorious, conquering ruler. The normal mode for such a parade would have been the warhorse or the chariot. Jesus rides a semi-stolen donkey and colt. The message of humble, servant king rings loud and clear. The method of transit proclaims the type of ruler that Jesus represents – one that willingly dies for his more troublesome subjects.

Matthew gives this choice of conveyance a little more context.

“This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

‘Tell the daughter of Zion,

Look, your king is coming to you,

               humble, and mounted on a donkey,

               and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ (Matthew 21:4-5 NRSV)

This line of prophecy comes from Zechariah 9:9, specifically in a pair of oracles from the prophet about the promised Messiah. Zechariah writes after the people had returned from exile and get to begin to rebuild. Thanks to the fall of Babylon and the rise of Persia, they’re in the process of getting back two of their three most important things. They once again live in God’s promised land, and the new Temple slowly rises from the rubble of a failed past. The third thing that they need to make their dreams complete – a king from the house of David sitting on the throne – remains just a dream. A Persian appointed governor rules God’s people. These closing oracles of the Prophet Zechariah get at what that promised and returning kingship will look like. This promised Messiah will return, riding a donkey and the colt of a donkey.

Thus, Jesus riding a donkey, to the original audience watching in Jerusalem, adds a much deeper level of symbolism. Christ isn’t just declaring himself any old king. He’s declaring himself the long promised Messiah king from the House of David. Without that piece, one could easily wonder as to why the Temple folks decide that now is the time to kill Jesus. This specific way of entering both declares the end point as a certainty and contributes to his arrest because he claims his rightful power. The powerfully comfortable in the Temple recognize the threat.

God’s Messiah wouldn’t be the warhorse riding type. God didn’t want an earthly king because they would lack the humility of God. When the true Messiah, Emmanuel, God among us comes in glory, he arrives as the adopted son of a carpenter, a road weary traveling rabbi with little to his name, come to die for his subjects, and riding on the humble donkey.