One of the biggest parades in the recent history of Indianapolis took place just a couple of months ago. After a rained soaked victory in Miami, the Super Bowl champions came home. The city greeted them with a parade from the Colts facilities all the way into the RCA Dome. The parade was supposed to begin around 4 p.m. but got underway late because the Colts' plane from Miami was delayed. An estimated 40,000 fans packed the city streets and braved sub-zero wind chill temperatures to shout as their favorite heroes drove by. I didn’t go.
My perspective, like most of yours, was from the news media. The television stations preempted scheduled shows in order for the entire city to have a perspective on the parade. Those of us who watched on television did so from the comfort of our warm homes. I guess you could say we were fair weather fans. I talked to a couple of people who were inside the dome. Their perspective was noise. The shouting crowd was loud. I know of a couple of families who tried to get into the dome but ended up outside on the street. Their perspective was the crowds. It was so crowded it felt at times to be unsafe. But when the parade finally passed by, there were triumphant shouts. A few even gave high-fives to the players who were riding atop the slow-moving trucks and floats.
A slow moving truck didn’t carry Jesus. A donkey was carrying Jesus. I know that isn’t what Matthew reports but the other gospels and most scholars believe that it was simply a donkey, specifically a donkey’s colt. There are several reasons. One finds it hard to believe that Jesus was so long and bowlegged that he could straddle two animals. It isn’t likely that you could process through the stone streets of Jerusalem riding sidesaddle on two animals. None of the gospels reports Jesus sitting on a platform that straddles the colt and donkey. There wasn’t enough time to produce such a saddle and it certainly doesn’t fit the image of a humble donkey carrying Jesus into the Holy City. But none of these is the compelling argument that suggests that Matthew may have it wrong. Scripture itself reveals this.
Matthew writes his gospel from a biblical perspective. As he tells the story of Jesus, he often quotes Old Testament passages. In this case Matthew quotes Zechariah 9. Matthew writes his verse, “Tell the daughter of Zion, ‘Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’” (Matthew 21:5) Zechariah actually reads: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zechariah 9:9.) The two passages are quite similar but there is one big difference. Matthew reads “on a donkey and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The original scripture that he is quoting doesn’t have the “and.”
One of the challenges we have in understanding how scripture comes to us is our perspective. We have a Bible at hand. We can even go online and look at many translations. But there weren’t many translations or Bibles in every home. The Bible wasn’t even the Bible. There was only the Old Testament cannon which was put together just about the time that Matthew was writing his gospel, around 90 AD. Since Matthew didn’t have a reference at hand, didn’t have a Bible to pick up, he had to quote Old Testament scripture from memory. And as you have just heard, his memory was pretty good except for one word.
Over the next two weekends, our pastor’s class students will be making their public professions of faith. They are “public” professions because each has spent private time in prayer in my office personally accepting Jesus. During those sessions, each student recites John 3:16, as best they can. Many nail it perfectly as they have been practicing it for six or seven weeks. But a good third of the students leave out a word here or there or inadvertently change a word. This year, one of our students learned the passage using the New King James version. It contains the phrase only begotten Son. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) This student said “forgotten son.” For God so loved the world that He gave His only forgotten Son….” I kept a straight face and didn’t correct him because I didn’t want to embarrass him. But who knows, he may spend his life saying forgotten instead of begotten because I didn’t correct him.
Somehow Matthew added the word “and”. I think, given my work with students, that he learned it that way. From Matthew’s perspective, carrying Jesus is “on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey." We know, given when Matthew is writing, he wasn’t there or if he was, he was a very young boy. Matthew was writing about Palm Sunday 60 or 70 years after the event. He remembers it because he has been told the story. It has been passed down from generation to generation from those who were there just as we pass our faith down to our children and grandchildren. Matthew also uses Mark’s Gospel as a source. And, he has a memory verse in his head, memorized probably just a little wrong. So when he remembers the story and reads Mark, he puts his perspective on it. Carrying Jesus was a donkey and a colt rather than just a donkey. Perspective is everything.
Before I leave this, let me show you how perspective changes the shape of the way you remember. Given the various perspectives of the Colts parade just two months ago, what kind of trucks did they ride in on? Do you remember? I don’t. I’m pretty sure they were pick-up trucks and black but beyond that, I don’t know. Of course, if you were on the parade route, you might know. I asked two who were there and got different answers. One said Ford, the other Dodge. Then someone said, “Didn’t they ride buses?” They road buses from the airport. You can see how easy it is for us to be confused after two months. You can imagine what has happened to this story when it wasn’t written down for many years. There are as many different perspectives of this parade as any parade. Life is that way. Scripture is that way. Depending on the angle, we might see something very different.
While Matthew doesn’t agree on the number of animals, he does agree that the way Jesus was carried was humbly. All the gospel writers understand that Jesus entered humbly. Carrying Jesus was a humble donkey and his entry made a statement about humility.
Again, perspective is needed. Jerusalem was not just any city. By the first century, it had been the center of sacred geography of the Jewish people of a millennium. The Temple was considered one of the architectural wonders of the modern world. King Herod had expanded the Temple mount to a size that nearly 175,000 people could gather in the Court of Gentiles. Approaching from Bethphage at the Mount of Olives, the sun reflecting off the Temple Dome, finished with gold leaf, was dazzling. As a place of annual pilgrimage central to the Jewish faithful, they would have remembered the collection of Psalms from 120-134 used in such pilgrimages. The song of ascent is 121. They remembered it; likely, they recited it. “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’” (Psalm 122:1) From this viewpoint and this perspective, Jesus says, “Find me a donkey; the humblest of beasts will carry me into the city.” Jesus is making a religious statement. But he is also making a political statement for at the very same time, Roman soldiers and Pilate are entering the city in a very different way.
Contrast this with the arrival of Pilate. Pilate lived at Caesarea Maritima or Caesarea on the Sea, at an opulent seaside palace sixty miles to the west. It was a more modern city than Jerusalem; certainly a more Roman city. But during the major Jewish festivals, reinforcements were sent to the Roman garrison. So on the other side of the city, imagine a different parade. Pilate and his soldiers arrive as a show of military power used to intimidate the pilgrimage. It is a parade of cavalry on horse, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, beating drums. Instead of being greeted with cheers, it would have silenced the onlookers with fear, intimidation and resentment. 
When you compare the two images, you begin to see what Jesus is accomplishing by riding into Jerusalem. The great reformationist Martin Luther years ago stated, “Look at him (Jesus)! He sits on a donkey, which is no war animal but which is ready for burdens of work that will help human beings. Thereby he shows that he does not come to terrify people, to drive or oppress them, but to help them, to carry their burdens and take them on him.” 
This is what Matthew and all who tell the story want us to understand. Carrying Jesus is the most humble beast of burden. This isn’t a royal processional of strength.
Donkeys were workhorses. Donkeys were the common pack animals used by hard working laborers, landowners, and merchants alike. It accomplished the most mundane of daily tasks in small villages and inside the big cities as well. Gray, substantial, and subservient, donkeys were a necessary, but unexceptional part of first-century life.
The donkey is clearly Jesus' own choice of mount for his entrance into Jerusalem. Riding on that humble beast, Jesus both inhabited the words of Zechariah's prophecy and illustrated the dual nature of his messianic identity. He was King of Kings and Lord of Lords. But he was also servant of servants, a workhorse, helper of helpers.
While Pilate was ushered into Jerusalem with a royal processional hovering high over the crowds, Jesus rides on a short-legged donkey which puts him face-to-face with the crowd. Jesus didn’t impressively ride through a crowd mounted on a donkey. He could only ride in the midst of the crowd so he could touch them and see them and experience them.
There is a legend in honor of the donkey's humble service to Jesus that says the animal was rewarded with a permanent “sign of the cross.” Most donkeys have a distinctive black cross pattern across their sturdy shoulders. Despite this tradition, the donkey still remains without glory. Little girls don't dream of riding across summer fields on a little donkey. The Kentucky Derby doesn't blow the trumpet announcing a race of donkeys. And everyone from Shakespeare to Pinocchio knows that fools and dolts are depicted as donkeys. Of course, the donkey's other common name says it all: a donkey is just an . . . well, you know what that word is.
Yet if our mission is to carry Christ into the world, then that makes us donkeys. I guess that is as close as I can come to calling you a name from the pulpit. But I’m calling myself the very same name. You and I are called to be donkeys, carrying Jesus into the city, carrying Jesus into our neighborhoods and families and our own personal communities. I suppose you can take offense at me calling you a donkey; or you can consider it a privilege. It is all a matter of perspective. From Karl Barth’s perspective, he considered it a privilege.
Karl Barth was one of the greatest theologians of the 20th
century. At his 80th birthday party he said, “In the Bible there's talk of a donkey, or to be quite correct, an ass. It was allowed to carry Jesus to Jerusalem. If I have achieved anything in this life, then I did so as a relative of the ass who at that time was going his way carrying an important burden. The disciples had said to its owner: 'The Master has need of it.' And so it seems to have pleased God to have used me at this time. Apparently I was permitted to be the ass which was allowed to carry as best I could, a better theology…. about Jesus.”
Here we are again on Palm Sunday. Each year, we come to remember Jesus’ willingness to humble himself. Even though he was in the form of God, he emptied himself, came from on high to earth. He became like us, “And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2: 7c-8) It is all a matter of perspective, isn’t it? We can see this, see what he is doing riding into Jerusalem. He is humbling himself even to the point of death on a cross.
So the question for you today is: Are you willing to humble yourself? Are you willing to be a donkey and carry Jesus? Will you carry Christ? Wherever he goes? However he goes? Will you be a donkey? This is where Matthew’s perspective is helpful because when it comes to donkeys like you and me, “The Lord needs them. The Lord needs us.”
The Last Week, What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem, Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan, Harper San Francisco, page 3.
“Are you willing to Carry Jesus”, Leonard Sweet @ preachingplus.com. Retrieved by subscription. This influenced the theme of this sermon. From this point on, the sermon is heavily indebted.
As quoted by John Robert McFarland's Preacher's Workshop
called "The Illustration is the Point," The Christian Ministry, January-February, 1988, 21. The quote actually ends “a little piece” instead of about Jesus. It is changed to clarify the homiletic point.