by Dr. Duane Litfin
As I was preparing for Palm Sunday this year, I recalled a story I heard years ago. It was a tale of the donkey that carried Jesus on his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Afterward, as he was led back to the stable, the donkey spoke excitedly to his fellow donkeys.
“You won’t believe what happened to me today.”
“What was that?” they asked.
“The people cut down branches and waved them in my honor. Some of them removed their coats and laid them down for me to walk on.”
“That’s amazing,” the others replied.
“Yes,” said the donkey, “it was amazing. At one point they even wanted to make me King!”
As I recalled this tale I was struck again by how easy it is to miss the point of being a donkey. Jesus chose to ride into Jerusalem on the foal of a humble beast of burden. This was surely to fulfill Scripture (Zechariah 9:9), but the significance of his choice reached deeper still.
Let’s think for a moment about donkeys.
Among the Israelites it was only in earlier times, when they possessed no horses, that distinguished persons ever rode on donkeys. By the time of King David, royal princes and kings rode on mules. Then Solomon became a horse breeder and from that time on there’s not another instance of a royal person riding on a donkey—except, that is, for the reference in Zechariah: “Behold, your king is coming to you…humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
Picture a cluster of thoroughbred horses pressing with every fiber of their magnificent bodies toward a glorious finish; or imagine the flashy haughtiness of a herd of zebras in the wild; or think of the majestic strength and stubbornness of a mule. Then compare these splendid animals with the lowly foal of a donkey. Yet it was on that humble colt Jesus chose to ride, not a thoroughbred.
The truth is, Jesus always prefers donkeys. It’s not a flattering thought, but let’s face it—it’s true. Like the Corinthians, there are not many followers of Jesus the world considers wise, or mighty, or noble; not many the world deems thoroughbreds. Why does God choose to use such unimpressive people? Paul’s classic answer is that the Lord delights in using “what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor. 1:28-29).
We mustn’t be insulted by this. In fact, we should revel in it. If we are unduly full of ourselves, it’s good to have our prideful pretensions punctured. Or if we’re feeling inadequate, it’s helpful to be reminded that Jesus isn’t looking for thoroughbreds. One of the most reassuring statements in the Bible is found in Psalm 103: “He knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.” We are all, even at our best, just donkeys for Christ.
In an odd way this humbling reminder can be an encouragement. After all, the requirements for donkeys are not all that high. They are set so low, in fact, that every one of us can meet them. According to Mark 11:5, as the disciples began to untie the colt Jesus had requested, its owners asked what they were doing. Once the owners learned it was for Jesus they willingly let the animal go. That’s all it takes to be a donkey for Christ—we just have to be available.
What does that availability look like? How about our time? In our hectic lives it’s tempting to find time for a great many things that have little Kingdom significance, leaving us too busy to be available to the Lord. But as Annie Dillard reminded us, “How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives.” Jesus asks for our time, but how easy it is to keep that donkey all tied up.
How about our finances? The Lord has given his resources into our hands, but they’re often so bound up by indebtedness because of what we consume upon ourselves, that they stay permanently unavailable to the Lord. Jesus asks for our finances, but how easy it is to keep this donkey all tied up.
How about our hands, our feet, our tongues? Jesus calls us to do something, but we hold back. He calls us to say something, but we remain silent. We’re the most enthusiastic of sports fans; we talk freely about politics and current events, but when the opportunity comes to speak up for Christ, we are struck dumb. Jesus asks for our hands, our feet, our lips, but how easy it is to keep the donkey all tied up.
Most fundamental of all, perhaps, is that Jesus demands our allegiance. Do you recall the old World War II recruiting poster? It was a picture of a stern Uncle Sam pointing his bony finger directly at us over the caption, “Uncle Sam wants YOU!” That poster at least had the virtue of honesty. These days our ears are filled with voices making similar, if much more hidden, pitches. These voices urge us to give our loyalty to celebrities, to sports teams, to money, to prestige, to power, to the company, to position, to acclaim, or merely to acceptance. Each of these loyalties can become an idol designed to steal our hearts from Jesus. Christ demands our full allegiance, but it’s all too common to find this donkey tied up elsewhere.
We must not miss the point of being a humble beast of burden. We are all—once we come to realize it—just donkeys for Christ. It’s an honored role we must learn to relish. Jesus delights
to ride donkeys such as us. All we have to do is keep ourselves available.
Dr. Duane Litfin served for seventeen years as the seventh president of Wheaton College (Wheaton, IL). His writings have appeared in numerous journals and periodicals. He is the author of several books, most recently Conceiving the Christian College (Eerdmans), Word vs. Deed: Resetting the Scales to a Biblical Balance (Crossway), and Paul’s Theology of Preaching: The Apostle’s Challenge to the Art of Persuasion in Ancient Corinth (IVP Academic).