On Being a Good Donkey
When Jesus and his disciples drew near to Jerusalem,
to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives,
he sent two of his disciples and said to them,
“Go into the village opposite you,
and immediately on entering it,
you will find a colt tethered on which no one has ever sat.
Untie it and bring it here.
If anyone should say to you,
‘Why are you doing this?’ reply,
‘The Master has need of it.”
The colt the disciples found was not a horse but a young donkey, unbroken to the duty of carrying a burden on his back. This donkey was not the only one of its kind to play a part in the Biblical story. Numbers 22:1-31 recounts the attempt of the Midianite prince Balak to secure the blessing of the Prophet Baalam in the face of the impending invasion of his land by Israel, now freed from Egypt and on the march to Canaan. Baalam’s indecisiveness in the face of this invitation leads the Lord to send an angel to stand in the path, blocking the way to Moab. Balaam did not see the angel but his donkey did, and so refuses to go forward on Baalam’s misguided mission. Having urged his perceptive ass forward three times to no avail, Baalam then strikes the donkey, who protests, “What have I done to you , that you have struck me these three times?” Baalam replies, “Because you have made sport of me. I wish I had a sword in my hand, for then I would kill you.” Baalam’s ass replied, “Am I not your ass, upon which you have ridden all your life long to this day? Was I ever accustomed to do so to you?” The Lord then intervenes: “Why have you struck your ass these three times? Behold I have come forth to withstand you, because your way is perverse before me and the ass saw me. . . . . If she had not turned aside from me surely just now I would have slain you and let her live.”
Baalam and his talking ass were famous in Israel in apostolic times, so that Peter in his Second Letter compares the false prophets of his day to Baalam; “forsaking the right way they have gone astray; they have followed the way of Baalam, the son of Peor, who loved gain from wrongdoing, but was rebuked for his own transgression; a dumb ass spoke with a human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness” (II Peter 2:15–16). And tradition has quite reasonably assigned the donkey a place in the story of Jesus’ birth. The donkey is central to the image of the flight of the Holy Family, depicted so lovingly in Giotto’s fourteenth-century painting showing Mary mounted on a donkey holding Jesus, following Joseph into Egypt. And tradition has further enriched the role of the donkey by locating him at the manger, medieval tradition flowering in Christmas music such as the 1865 carol by William Chatterton Dix: “Why lies He in such mean estate, Where ox and ass are feeding?” And in this text for Passion Sunday from Matthew a young donkey is given the honor of bearing the Lord into Jerusalem for the only popular acclaim He ever enjoyed, and if that acclaim was marred by irony—the crowd that shouted hosannas would soon turn on Jesus to demand His death—this was not the donkey’s fault. The colt was commandeered, willingly as it happened, because Jesus had need of him. Without the donkey there would have been no triumphal entry, no event that alerted the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin to the possibility that this Jesus might be so popular that civil unrest, even rebellion, might occur, no arrest, no cross, nor resurrection; the greatest story would not have been told in the way that it must have been told.
“The Master has need of it” strikes the imagination awkwardly, but in order to work His holy will in the world Jesus had needed many things. Without the six stone jars that the Virgin commanded be brought there would have been no miracle at Cana (John 3:6). The miracle of the feeding of five thousand could not have taken place without the five loaves and two fishes that Philip discovered (John 12:22). Christ sent two of His disciples into Jerusalem to ask a householder, “Where is my guestroom where I am to eat my Passover?” The Lord made bread and wine the means of His presence in the Church. From the cross the Lord cried out for water (John 19:28). He called the disciples because He needed them for the apostolic mission upon which He would send them as witnesses to His resurrection. And in a yet deeper sense Jesus longs for souls. One of the greatest of theologians, that fifth-century Dionysius of whose history we are ignorant, wrote that God through His excess of goodness yearns for mankind. Christ is a shepherd who seeks us, “the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 9:10). Even Plato wrote in His Laws that God who is just cares for men.
It is a great mystery that this caring, the desire for the good of mankind, does not represent a want or a need or an insufficiency in the divine life, because in the community of the Blessed Trinity all truth is established, all love fulfilled, and all of time comprehended in a way that while it may be acknowledged is beyond human knowing. God’s willingness to engage human reality from creation to redemption is an expression of the love that overflows from the joy that is the eternal fruition of all being in the begetting of the Son by the Father through the Love that is the Holy Spirit. God’s willingness to know humanity from within, His omnipotent life expressed in an incarnate life of Jesus, seems to answer to our necessity but in the divine life it is the center of an ever-present reality, of a story whose beginning and end are known to the Story-Teller from the foundation of the world. Jesus’ need for the colt, His calling the twelve, are moments in an eternal design within which for God there are no surprises. But the drama and the glory of human life is our being called, as was the young colt, into the divine design whose end we do not know and which for us, is an open road. The animal who warned Baalam was, as Saint Peter writes, a dumb ass who by divine agency spoke. And one can at least hope that the colt, the untried donkey, who bore Jesus into Jerusalem, if he could not know as persons might know that he was bearing the Lord of glory, had at least the inchoate awareness that he was playing a starring role in God’s plan.
There is something in the very character of the donkey that portends a place in God’s scheme of things; he is little, lacking the intrinsic nobility of his cousin the horse, not the mount of a great warrior but a barer of burdens. It was with insight that C. S. Lewis made the donkey Puzzle the animal hero of the Narnia stories, a role much different from that other Narnian hero, the valiant mouse Reepicheep, but the emblem of that patience and endurance and simplicity of soul without which we will not see God. It is ours to imitate the donkey of Passion Sunday, doing with the freedom and good will that belongs to the human estate what the colt did in the way that nature always hears the voice of its Lord, bearing Him with us toward the cross that belongs to every life and rejoicing with Him in His defeat of death and gift of life unending with Him.