Donkeys and palm branches
If we lived in the ancient Middle Eastern world, we would know that a leader galloping into town on a horse meant war. If a leader meandered into town on a donkey, this meant peace. First Kings 1:33 mentions Solomon riding a donkey on the day he is recognized as the new leader of Israel—a king of peace.
Poor and pregnant Mary rides all the way from Nazareth to Bethlehem on a donkey (Luke 2:4-7). This gentle beast of burden carries for her the Savior of the World. Jesus who carries humanity from sin to salvation uses the image of Mary’s donkey to connect with the how Jesus embraces the poor, weak and oppressed during his life on earth. For example, the story Jesus tells of the Good Samaritan is a perfect symbol of his love and compassion (Luke 10:25-37).
The story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey appears in all four Gospels (Matthew 21:1-17; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:29-40; John 12:12-19). Putting the four accounts together, it becomes clear the procession into Jerusalem on a donkey is significant not only to the people of Jesus’ day but also to Christians throughout history. Palm Sunday, which takes place this Sunday, April 2nd, is a time to celebrate this momentous occasion.
Palm Sunday brings the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the back of a borrowed donkey that has never been ridden before. The disciples spread their cloaks on the donkey for Jesus to sit on, and the multitudes came out to welcome Him, laying their cloaks and the branches of palm trees on the road before Jesus. People along the streets hail and praise Him as the “King who comes in the name of the Lord.” This adoration continues as Jesus rides to the temple where earlier He taught and healed people as well as drive out moneychangers and merchants who had made His Father’s house a “den of robbers” (Mark 11:17).
Jesus’ purpose in riding into Jerusalem makes public that He is the Messiah and King of Israel in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Matthew says that the King coming on the foal of a donkey was an exact fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9, “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
In addition to the meaningfulness of the donkey, palms are also significant. Date palms, for example, are majestic trees that grow abundantly in the Holy Land. Their long, large leaves spread out from the top of a single trunk that can grow more than 50 feet tall. In Biblical times, the finest specimens grew in Jericho (known as the city of palm trees), Engedi, and along the banks of the Jordan.
In ancient times, palm branches symbolized goodness, wellbeing, grandeur, and victory. These branches were often depicted on coins and important buildings. King Solomon had palm branches carved into the walls and doors of the temple.
Palm branches were regarded as tokens of joy and triumph and were customarily used on festive occasions (Leviticus 23:40, Nehemiah 8:15). Kings and conquerors were welcomed with palm branches being strewn before them and waved in the air. A victor of a Grecian sport would return to their hometown triumphantly waving palm branches in their hands.
Deborah, one of Israel’s judges, held court underneath a palm tree. This chosen location offered both shade and prominence (Judges 4:5).
When Christians think of donkeys and waving palms, the start of Holy Week is not far away. Holy Week begins a visceral, grueling, and heart-wrenching seven days. The week ends with the most profound rejoicing. The rock that kept Jesus’ body in a tomb has been rolled away. Inside, grave clothes are neatly folded. The body isn’t there.
This means death to Christians doesn’t exist. Christ beat death not only for himself for but also for all who follow him.
As the world moves toward this Sunday and what could be thoughts of donkeys and palm branches, I offer as inspiration the following quote from Philips Brooks (1835-1893), an Episcopal clergy person who authored O Little Town of Bethlehem. “Let every man and woman count himself immortal. Let him catch the revelation of Jesus in his resurrection. Let him say not merely, “Christ is risen,” but “I shall rise.”
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