Was it a miracle or was it animal abuse? Was he a liberator or an abuser? Every year we remember how Jesus rode into Jerusalem seated on a donkey, the picture of gentle and humble kingship. Away from that story I look at it a bit differently.
The problem lies in the gospels of Marcus and Luke. Most probably this already bothered the authors of Matthew and John, because in those gospels the problem was solved. In John I've turned into a 'donkey', at least no longer a colt. In the gospel of Matthew there's mention of two donkeys, a mare and her colt. If Jesus rode my mother, I skipped along behind them, without danger to myself or the children and adults in this frightening, cheering crowd.
Unless it was a miracle, like when Jesus walked on water, in Marcus and Luke it's animal abuse. Because adult humans shouldn't ride colts.
28 After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
29 As he approached Bethphage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them,
30 "Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here.
31 If anyone asks you, 'Why are you untying it?' tell him, 'The Lord needs it.'"
32 Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them.
I ran away from Luke's account of the entry into Jerusalem. The strange thing is that I don't really know what I am. Am I a horse's colt or a donkey's colt? Or a mule or a hinny? There's no special reason for me to have been a donkey's colt because Luke is not very interested in Jesus' humbleness. And on top of that, lightly colored donkeys and mules were very highly regarded by kings and other rulers. But whether I'm a horse or a donkey, in either case it isn't gentle to burden my back with the weight of an adult. Only when I'm three years old, I can do the work of a mount. (See also Jewish legislation in the Halacha.)
33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, "Why are you untying the colt?"
34 They replied, "The Lord needs it."
35 They brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it.
36 As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road.
37 When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:
38 "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!"
39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, "Teacher, rebuke your disciples!"
40 "I tell you," he replied, "if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out."
I ran away from this story, but that doesn't mean I didn't want to be a part of it. Because it could have been so beautiful. I was tied there, in that village near Jerusalem. I couldn't move around freely or go to my mother. There was hay nearby, but the water had long gone. There was little shade and I was thirsty. With my tail I made some weak attempts to chase off the flies. The only thing I could really do, was wait - in hope and fear. Why can people just tie up animals?
Then they arrived. Two men in Galilee clothes, a bit hesitant, searching, until they spotted me. They spoke to me: `It must be you, that our Lord refers to. Come, let us untie you.' `What are you doing?' My owners protested, and they went toward the men when they saw what was happening. But their answer was that the Lord needed me, and that was enough. I was untied, I could come along. That hot day seemed to become a Sabbath for me (Lk.13:15).
So far it was right. About what followed I shall be brief, how I arrived at the one who was my liberator and my abuser. His disciples put their robes on my back, but it didn't lessen the weight, no matter how good I looked. They put clothes beneath my hooves, but it didn't ease my walking, no matter how royal the road was. And the cheering, the loud shouting. They had to hold me tightly, otherwise I would have returned at full speed. Maybe he would have fallen off, and I don't know if that would have been right or not. Worse would be if against my will I would have trampled one of the women, men or children.
So I walked there, and I hoped someone would speak out, maybe a Pharisee who wanted his disciples to be silent:
'When you see the donkey of your enemy buckling under his burden, and you feel like passing him by, you should help him lighten his load.' (Ex. 23:5).
I ran away from the story. I'm looking for a different story in which I can participate in my own way. Jesus' road to kingship, Jesus' road to suffering are important to me. His disciples freed me didn't they? That is why to me he is a lord, greater than the lords who tied me down. But how do I rhyme this with the pain in my back, in my legs and feet when I followed his road?
Jesus' road to kingship led to imprisonment. He was tied, him too, to the cross, knowing about the end that awaited him. He suffered under the cruelty of the powers that felt threatened by the approach of freedom. Did he then remember my imprisonment, my liberation, my suffering?
Liberation, recognition, joy are powers of God, greater than greed and lust for power. Let loose, freed, I still felt at home in the story. As long as it was about the powerful deeds the disciples had seen, I would have liked to dance along, exuberant like a colt can be when it gets all the space it needs. But I was needed for the kingship. Just like Jesus was needed, or differently?
Was I needed for the kingship? Should I have been honored by the robes on my back, under my feet, by the steps I took on the road to suffering? Or can I protest this kingship? Can I search for a story in which the power of the king is liberating, and where suffering is voluntary?
I ran away from the story. Many animals cannot run away. They are like I was: tied down from a young age. They wait in hope and fear. They are called to a burden that is too heavy. Because the heaviness in their lives is lightness. Their food, drink, safety and reproduction are cared for. Our freedom is gone. Passion, the passion for living that braves even the road of suffering, is unknown to us. So light are we, piglets, chicks, lambs, calves, tied down in death.
Are we needed for the ruling of people? Can people in these times, with so much freedom and possibilities, not live without cruelty against us? Do people need it to enslave young animals for their dominion? Or can people - royally - liberate, give space, consider the needs and natures of their animals? If that is possible, man and animal will see the power of freedom and joy together.
Joanne Seldenrath, theologian