by Father Mike Stubbs
When the president of the United States flies, he takes Air Force One, the aircraft specifically reserved for his use. When Air Force One lands in an airport, it means only one thing: The president has arrived.
The donkey which carries Jesus into the city of Jerusalem also brings with it a similar significance. It signals to the people that their Messiah has arrived. The first Gospel reading for this Sunday, Mk 11:1-10, describes that event.
We might interpret the donkey as a somewhat lowly means of transportation, not worthy of a king. But such is not the case. A donkey would have been a very acceptable way for a king to travel during the time of Jesus. At the same time, riding a donkey would have indicated that the king was coming in peace. If the king had been riding a horse, it would have meant war.
The fact that the disciples requisition the animal on Jesus’ behalf also reflects his royal authority. Only the king could appropriate private property in such an arbitrary way. It is a matter of eminent domain.
The Gospel text specifies that the donkey in question has not yet been ridden by anyone: “You will find a colt tethered there on which no one has ever sat.” In part, this is explained by the fact that the donkey is still a colt. But this also means that this particular donkey is suitable for the king. Just as Air Force One is reserved for the president, the donkey on which the king rode could not be used by anyone else.
We might note that often an object designated for sacred use could not have been previously used for some other purpose. It needed to be unblemished and uncontaminated from contact with secular uses. The donkey which had not yet been ridden thus would serve not only to carry royalty, but also to carry a sacred personage like the Messiah.
An air of mystery surrounds the whole business of the two disciples who acquire the donkey for Jesus. Has Jesus made some previous arrangement with the owner of the animal? Or, does Jesus have supernatural knowledge concerning the whereabouts of the beast? It is not clear. The two disciples almost look like Secret Service agents, facilitating the travel of the president.
The use of the donkey underlines Jesus’ royal nature as the Messiah. But the fact that Jesus uses any vehicle at all draws attention to his entrance into Jerusalem. After all, the normal way to enter the city was to walk. Jesus stands out from the crowd of pilgrims flooding into Jerusalem partly because he is the only one mounted on a donkey or a horse. Everyone else is on foot.
Jesus rides into Jerusalem, carried by a donkey. But soon, he will be walking on the road to Calvary, carrying the cross. His triumphal entrance will turn into the way of suffering and death. But it eventually will lead to the Resurrection and new life.