Column: Jesus signals his intentions with choice of mount

Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.
Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

“War Horse,” an award-winning play that has also been made into a movie, tells the story of a horse that lives through World War I.

That reminds us that in the recent past, horses often played a major role in warfare. For us now, that is inconceivable. But once, it was commonplace. That held true for centuries.

Around 1800 B.C., the Hittites, an Indo-European people, developed a new weapon of war that turned the tide of battle for them and enabled them to sweep through the Near East, including Egypt. This innovation was the horse, used to draw a chariot, rather than being mounted and ridden.

The horse, which served the Hittites so well, became the decisive weapon of war in the ancient world. That explains why, when the Bible encourages us not to depend upon the things of this world for security rather than upon God, it sometimes will refer to the horse: “Some rely on chariots, others on horses, but we on the name of the Lord our God” (Ps 20:8). (See also Ps 147:10-11 and Prv 21:31.)

Eventually, the practice of riding a horse into battle became popular, instead of the horse-drawn chariot. For a king to ride a horse then meant that he was riding into battle. On the other hand, for a king to ride on a donkey meant that he came for peaceful reasons.

That is the background that helps us to understand the prophecy from Zechariah quoted in Sunday’s first reading, Mt 21:1-11: “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.’”

When Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem on the day that we call Palm Sunday, he intends to bring peace. The word “meek” reflects that peaceful intention. That is why Jesus instructs his disciples to bring him the ass to ride, so that he might signal that intention.

Most probably, the prophet Zechariah was referring to a single animal, rather than two different animals, with his words, “on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.” That is how the writers of the Gospels of Mark, Luke and John interpret his words.

On the other hand, Matthew is so eager to demonstrate that Jesus has fulfilled the prophecies, that he has recast the narrative, so that Jesus rides into Jerusalem on two animals, rather than the single one, in order to fulfill the prophecy of Zechariah, which he has misunderstood.

But Matthew’s heart is in the right place. Certainly, Jesus, by his death and resurrection, has fulfilled the prophecies of old. And Jesus continues to fulfill our hopes and dreams.

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