Risky Business in Jerusalem: a Donkey
When reflecting on a Gospel passage, we are urged always to consider the context of the passage within the Gospel as a whole to have the full understanding of what is happening. In her recent book, “Entering the Passion of Jesus,” Amy-Jill Levine, Ph.D., a Jewish New Testament scholar, fleshes out the meaning of Scripture citations found in several accounts of events in the Passion narrative. Jewish audiences, including Jewish-Christians, would have known the scriptures referred to in prophetic passages, much like Christians know a reference to a “good Samaritan.”
The seven chapters of Levine’s book all are entitled “Risking …” something. In Chapter 1, “Risking Reputation,” she reflects on Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem at the time of the Passover. The city was under Roman occupation. Since this was a major Jewish festival, Pontius Pilate would have come to Jerusalem from his base in Caesarea. Pilate undoubtedly arrived, probably on horseback or in a chariot, with a contingent of military personnel as a precaution in case of an uprising among the crowd of Jews, but also as a reminder of who was in control, of who had the power.
By contrast, Jesus comes riding a donkey accompanied by his followers and the welcoming crowds (Matthew 21:1-11). Jesus had instructed two of his disciples to go to a nearby town to find a donkey and its colt and bring them to him. Matthew says this fulfilled the prophets who had written: “Say to daughter Zion, ‘Behold, your king comes to you, meek and riding on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden’” (21:5). Here, Matthew combines Zechariah 9:9 “a just or righteous king” with Isaiah 62:11, “Say to daughter Zion, ‘See, your savior comes.’”
Matthew presents Jesus as king and savior, a just or righteous king/savior and humble/meek enough to ride a donkey. “This king does not enter with the trappings of royalty nor a military parade or a 21 gun salute” (Levine, 27). Instead, Jesus demonstrates his own prior warning to his followers against governing officials who “lord it over others” (Matt. 20:25-26). Levine concludes that Zechariah, Matthew, and Jesus present “a king who takes his place with those who are suffering, … a king who is righteous rather than violent, … a king who is strong in faith, not armed to the teeth” (27-28).
Why would this be risky for Jesus? The crowd’s acclamations could alarm the Roman authorities even though Jesus is not engaged in violence, but rather a peaceful, prophetic counter-demonstration to Roman military rule. Yet Jesus is killed because he spoke up against unrighteous, violent power. What happens to a follower of Jesus today who would “ride a donkey” in the face of unjust, powerful authority figures?