SOAP on Matthew 21:5 – Who Wants to Be a Donkey?

Colorcover_7Scripture:  The prophets words, "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’"
were fulfilled in Jesus (Matthew 21:5, NRSV).

Observe the Context: Today’s lesson lies in the middle of Jesus’ celebratory entrance into Jerusalem. Suddenly the once hostile crowds seem to be supportive of Jesus. The people are excited about his presence and strip palm leaves to lay at Jesus’ path and stretch their garments across the road.

Their shouts while emphatic and boisterous still reveal a misconception about the identity of the promised Messiah.  Jesus is called "Son of David," "the one who comes
in the name of the Lord," and "prophet." By citing the prophesy of Zechariah 9:9, Matthew brings the people’s Messianic expectations into this dramatic scene.

Against the backdrop of shouted hosannas, Matthew emphasizes a discordant note in the  triumphant entry. Jesus instructs two disciples to find a very
particular mount, a donkey, at a particular location, with a particular partner … her young colt. Matthew seems to tells us that Jesus rides into Jerusalem on collective back of both the donkey and the colt. Matthew does not allow us to misread the identity of either mount … they are not a handsome high-spirited horse or a noble steed.

No, Matthew wants readers to be perfectly
aware of the incongruity between the crowd’s shouts, the royal
processional, and the humble, simple beast of burden upon which Jesus

Are_you_willing_to_be_a_donkey_20050320_Applying the Text to Our Lives: Donkeys are work horses. Donkeys are used as common pack animals by hard -working laborers, landowners, and
merchants alike. The donkey is a simple unimpressive worker that accomplishes many daily tasks the one million villages, towns, and even cities of this planet. They were a necessity for first-century life, but hardly anyone spent time celebrating their existence.  Unlike the horse, no young child grows up wishing for the moment they can finally ride an … a donkey.  But horses, remember the nursery rhymes:

Ride a cock horse to Banbury cross
to see a fine lady upon a white horse.
With rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,
she will have music wherever she goes.

Or, this is the way the ladies ride …
This is the way the gentleman ride …
This is the way the farmer rides …

Or, ride a little horsey all around town.
Ride a little horsey, but don’t fall down.

It was really no different in Jesus’ day.  They did not need the barns of nearby "Horse Country" to know that Alexander the Great was known for his horsemanship as well as conquering the world.  To a world that celebrated the power of Alexander, the prophet Zechariah promised God’s children that the Messiah would come humbly riding a donkey, not a marvelous and noble steed.  Jesus knew the prophecy, but more importantly he knew himself.  The donkey is Jesus’ choice of mount for his
entrance into Jerusalem. By riding the humble donkey, Jesus reminded us of two things:

  • He was King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
  • He was also servant of servants, a work horse, helper of helpers.

When he realized what was unfolding before as he descended through the Kidron Valley, Jesus chose not to "pimp his ride" in the words of a popular TV show. He rode in on the "ride" of the simplest peasant. A donkey’s back doesn’t put you above the heads of others. In fact, riding this short-legged beasts
put Jesus face-to-face level with the crowd. The crowds did not part as Jesus’ ride came into view, rather the mob moved with Jesus and Jesus moved with the mob as they shouted, "Hosanna!  Blessed is the One who comes in the Name of the Lord. Hosanna!"  It’s as if Jesus rewrote the nursery rhyme to sing like this:

This is the way the Messiah rides;
This is the way the Messiah comes … riding on a donkey.

Church tradition long ago suggested that in honor of the donkey’s
humble service to Jesus, the animal was rewarded with a permanent "sign
of the cross" – many donkeys do show a distinctive black cross
pattern across their shoulders. But let’s not kid ourselves. Few people given a choice between a donkey and a horse will choose to throw their leg casually over a donkey’s back.

Are_you_willing_to_be_a_donkey_20050320__1One of the classic themes of a Western is that of a miner trudging through creek-beds, along canyon beds, and over mountain passes with his trusty donkey by his side. Miners didn’t use horses because they were not sure
footed enough to traverse the rough terrain, the winding
trails, the slippery stones of the creek bed. A miner entrusted his most precious cargo of gold to a steady donkey.

We can relive this experience if sign up to take the trail ride down into the base of the Grand
Canyon. One might think some
innate intelligence makes these creatures capable of picking out
the best track to follow. In fact, the opposite is the
case. Far from being cautious, the Grand Canyon donkeys often horrify their
passengers by walking as close to the edge as possible. Often the donkeys move down the canyon paths at the very edge of the trail with fearful passengers teetering on their backs. Its as if the donkeys feel most secure when they can clearly see the
edge, where the greatest danger lies. It may be that what unnerves a donkey is not being able to see the edge.

Are_you_willing_to_be_a_donkey_20050320__2Today I invite us to aspire to being a donkey rather than a millionaire. I know this is an unpleasant request to hear.  Give me a million and I’ll tithe it to the church, or better yet I’ll invest it and tithe the earning to the church.  But the mission of the church is to carry Christ into the world. If this is true, then it may be that our work looks like being called to be a donkey. I confess up front, there’s no glory in
being a donkey. A donkey gets not glamor, only long trails, steep roads, heavy loads, and
little recognition for a completed job.

Are_you_willing_to_be_a_donkey_20050320__3If you and I are donkeys its because of our strong backs and sure feet in a difficult time. We carry burdens for others along treacherous trails. But look at what
we’re carrying. We’re carrying the good news of the Jesus Christ … the King of Kings. The Prince of Peace. The Lion of the
Tribe of Judah, and the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the

I have seen folks in our congregation working on roofs at a Moore Housing project, visiting in nursing homes among the feeble, preparing meals for a Lenten lunch, putting mailing labels on a post card to church friends, shepherding high-schoolers along a ski slope, or corralling children in our choirs or in children’s church. I hesitate to call such folk donkeys … surely the work is more exciting than that.  Or, is it a job that they willingly do for the sake of the Master who has need of their time, talent, and treasure. 

I introduced some members of our church this week as "unpaid servants" and they "thanked" me for the promotion and raise from the status of volunteer.  But may be the language is right … this donkey and her colt responded to a call from Jesus.  I cannot see any evidence that they "volunteered" for duty.  Here’s how famed twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth put it at his 80th birthday party: "In the Bible there’s talk of a donkey, or to
be quite correct, an ass. It was allowed to carry Jesus to Jerusalem.
If I have achieved anything in this life, then I did so as a relative
of the ass who at that time was going his way carrying an important
burden. The disciples had said to its owner: ‘The Master has need of
it.’ And so it seems to have pleased God to have used me at this time.
Apparently I was permitted to be the ass which was allowed to carry as
best I could a better theology a little piece" (as quoted by John
Robert McFarland’s Preacher’s Workshop called "The Illustration is the Point," The Christian Ministry, January-February, 1988, 21).

So I end this morning with a question:

  • Will you be a donkey? Will you carry Christ? Wherever he goes? However he goes?
  • Will you be a donkey? Will you walk cliffs? Will you be
    unafraid of the edges? Will you journey the edges between this world and the next, between hate and
    love, between war and peace?
  • Will you be a donkey? Will you be humble enough to be a beast of burden? To carry the burdens of others? To carry your cross?
  • Finally,
    will you be a donkey? Will you shout with joy and praise God, welcoming
    the savior’s presence with "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the
    name of the Lord."

Will you be a donkey this Palm Sunday?

Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, do you have need of us?  Do you have a task to do this week?  Do you have a trail we need to negotiate?  Do you have a burden we need to bear?  Free us to follow in your Way, your Truth, so that we might find your Abundant Life. Amen.

Conclusion: Some folks will always show forth the other attributes of a donkey – they will be stubborn and obstinate. From the days of the Hebrew children in the wilderness, God’s
people themselves have often been stiff-necked (Exodus
32:9; 34:9). I want us to listen now to some stiff-necked witnesses to Jesus’ triumphant entry who said only, "Jesus, you had it coming to you."  "Stages on the Way" is now read. (From IONA Community: The Wild Goose Worship Group, Stages on the Way: Worship Resources for Lent, Holy Week & Easter, copyright 2000, pp. 42-47).

Then the choir concludes by singing "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross."


  • "Onos" in Matthew 21:2, 21:5, and 21:7.  Donkey in the NRSV and NAS, ass in the KJV (G3688 in Strong’s Concordance).  Donkey = animal resembling a small horse: a small domesticated member of the horse family with a gray or brown coat, long ears, and a large head. Latin name Equus asinus.
  • "Polos" in Matthew 21:2, 21:5, and 21:7.  Colt in the NRSV, KJV, and NAS.  Colt = 1. the young of a horse; 2. a young creature: (a) of a young ass, or (B) an ass’s colt  (G4454 in Strong’s Concordance).  Colt = young male horse: a young uncastrated male horse, usually under four years of age.

SOAP = Scripture, Observation, Application, and Prayer.