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Donkey Wisdom for Palm Sunday

“Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Matthew 21: 5 (Zechariah 9:9)

So reads the passage from the gospel about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.

Jesus may have been humble. But in the last couple of months, I’ve learned a thing or two about donkeys. And I can say this: Jesus wasn’t humble because he rode into town on a donkey. A donkey is as noble an animal as any horse.

For the past 27 years since meeting her, Roberta, my wife has wanted a donkey for a pet. Whenever she brought up the subject, I just nodded and smiled. I humored her by making artwork depicting donkeys and giving them to her. Donkey paintings, donkey metal sculptures, etc. Nice try. But the donkey drumbeat didn’t subside: it just grew more urgent with each passing year. Last year we moved to a two-acre property in Ojai, just north of LA, and a few months ago, finally, we adopted two donkeys – Sespe and Sisar, Chumash Native American names for canyons above town. They came from the Arizona desert, from the Bureau of Land Management – wild burros that have never been tamed or trained.

Originally, Roberta wanted just one donkey. But she was informed that you’ve got to have at least two, because otherwise they are miserable. They are wary animals: they are always on the lookout for predators. Which, by the way, a donkey can dispatch with a swift kick of both its hind legs. All alone, a donkey will be on guard all the time, and become neurotic. Together, a pair of donkeys can trade off being on guard, much to the relief of them both.

Does this explain that extremely peculiar detail of the Palm Sunday story – in which Jesus shows up in Jerusalem on the backs of two donkeys at the same time? That would a feat of non-humble donkeymanship, for sure! This passage from the Bible wonderfully illustrates the folly of taking the Bible literally. The author or authors of Matthew, when they were assembling the gospel myth, looked for resonances of the story of Jesus in the Hebrew scriptures. They used a passage from the prophet Zechariah about a king who showed up on a donkey, and on the colt of a donkey. Doublets were a poetic convention in ancient Jewish literature. The Bible has many examples of statements which are then immediately repeated in slightly different words. A rhyme of meaning, if you will – as opposed to a rhyme of sound. The writer of Zechariah was referring to one animal, not two, in that passage.

So Christians who take the New Testament literally are double-saddled with the absurdity of believing that Jesus performed an equestrian miracle as he entered the gates of Jerusalem on two donkeys at once! Forget walking on water, friends – as a co-owner of two frisky donkeys, I can attest to its near-impossibility.

But if we read the Palm Sunday story as Hebrew poetry, we’ll find double donkey wisdom in it.

We say that Jesus entered Jerusalem not as a prince of earthly, violent power – but as the prince of peace. Maybe the donkey – or should I say the donkeys – had something to do with that peace.

If you cross a donkey with a horse, you get a mule.

A Spanish pilgrim in rough clothes rode on a mule toward Rome and Jerusalem in the year 1522. Ignatius of Loyola was his name. He was “to the manor born” but rejected his wealth and status to pursue spiritual enlightenment.

Along the way he met a Muslim Moor, and the two of them conversed as they rode mules side by side down the dusty highway. The conversation focused on the Virgin Mary. The Moor agreed that she had conceived Jesus without a man, but he said that since she delivered Jesus vaginally, she was then no longer a virgin. Ignatius vigorously defended the Catholic dogma that she was still a virgin. What did they miss about the perennial advice to avoid talking about religion or politics with strangers? The Moor sped up on his mule and left Ignatius behind.

Ignatius stewed about the conversation as the mule slowly carried him forward. He was infuriated at what he perceived to be a mortally serious offense against the Holy Virgin. As a proper caballero, insults against the integrity of a noble lady were not to be taken lightly. Honor had to be defended, at sword-point if necessary. What should he do? The Moor had told him of his destination not far ahead. Should he pursue the Moor and kill him for his disrespect? Or should he let the matter go? He tried to determine the moral basis for a decision, but came up with nothing.

So he decided to let God direct his mule. Perhaps Ignatius was remembering the biblical story of Balaam, whose donkey was more attuned to divine guidance than he was – his donkey saw an angel that Balaam could not see.

Ignatius let the reins go slack on the mule just before the fork in the road. One way – the road in better condition – led to the village where the Moor was headed. The other was the country bypass road to points east. If God directed the mule to the village, he would defend the Virgin’s honor by slaying the Moor. If God directed the mule to head in the other direction, he would know God intended the matter to be dropped.

The mule carried Ignatius away from that deadly encounter. Ignatius was no prince of peace, that’s for sure. A short-tempered hot-head. But it appears that he was riding the mule of peace, whom Ignatius followed into founding the Jesuit order of priests, who have been the peace and justice activists of the Catholic Church ever since.

People say that donkeys are stubborn. On the contrary, they are smart animals who don’t take direction from humans unless those directions make sense. Heck no, Balaam, I’m not walking forward while there’s a scary angel standing in front of me with a big sword! Why would I go down the barren cobbled road to town, when the other country road is verdant with delicious grass? The gospel myth tells us that people laid branches down in front of Jesus’ path as he rode the donkey – donkeys? – into town. Donkeys have a much broader concept of food than horses. Jesus’ donkey probably had the good sense to nibble on the leaves of the branches as he delivered the Prince of Peace into the city. Wisdom here: if you want the Prince of Peace to enter your life, you better tempt his Donkey of Peace forward with good eats!

Since Sespe and Sisar came into our lives, I’ve had the great joy of watching my dear wife commune with them every morning when she feeds them a mix of hay and alfalfa. She just sits on a stool in the corral, basking in the sun, as they chew their piles of food near her. They’ve grown to trust her presence. First she was able to stroke Sespe’s head a bit – then his face, then between his ears. Sisar was much more skittish. But now he’ll let her rub his head, as well. Love is just this. Presence. Attention. And the trust that flows from that deep attention. Being there, being with – nothing more, nothing less. When I go out into the corral, I stick out the back of my hand and let them sniff. And just stand there with them, maybe walk and let them follow for a while. Just be there with them. They seem content to simply stand near each other, and near us. Sespe and Sisar, donkeys of peace…. In this peace, in this love that is attention, let us process into the Jerusalems of our lives – our places of work, our communities, our wider world – and spread that peace and love through our personal relationships and our social and economic systems.

Rev. Jim Burklo is the Senior Associate Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life at the University of Southern California. An ordained United Church of Christ minister, he formerly served as a community organizer, director of a homeless services agency, church pastor, and campus minister. He is a member of the board of directors of and an honorary advisor for Jim is the author of seven published books on progressive Christianity, including TENDERLY CALLING: An Invitation to the Way of Jesus, which will be in print in early 2021. His weekly blog, “musings”, has a global readership.

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