Donkeys appear in the Bible quite a bit. Sometimes this is because they were very common in the ancient world, and sometimes because they are an important symbol. For someone thousands of years ago, seeing someone riding a horse would have been a clear signal that they were wealthy and powerful. For someone to ride a donkey or have a donkey pulling their cart would have been very common, and hardly anyone would take notice of them.
This is what we see in Zechariah’s prophecy about Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem (our first reading today), riding on a young donkey. Of course, we hear much later that Christ did this and was welcomed with great joy. He was seen by the people as one of them, in a way, because He didn’t come riding in on a big war horse to conquer Jerusalem. In fact, He came meekly and humbly, because he came to conquer sin, not us.
This use of a donkey as a symbol of something humble or common is one that we see repeated over and over in ancient texts of all kinds. In scripture, my favorite one is the story of Balaam and his donkey, because it shows us a lot about how people would have overlooked a humble donkey at this time, and never given it a second thought. In the story (Numbers chapter 22), Balaam isn’t doing what God wants, so He sends an Angel to block the path. The donkey sees the Angel and tries to turn aside three times, and each time Balaam beats her for trying to turn off the path. God then allows the donkey to speak, and only then, after his donkey has a conversation with him, Balaam is able to finally see God’s plan for him.
No one is very different than Balaam, at least not as much as we like to think. This is why Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey. God sent us many great and powerful leaders, many of whom probably rode in on great steeds, and we wanted another one. But God gave us His Son, humble and vulnerable to be sacrificed for us. Most people missed it at the time, just like Balaam missed the point. We will always do the same unless we open our eyes to the signs in front of us. Most of them won’t be announced by thunder and lightning, so we must find those common ways God is trying to get our attention. Especially since most of us don’t have donkeys.