‘Go into the village opposite you, and when you go into it, you will immediately find a colt tied up, upon which nobody has ever yet sat.’
Those are words from St Mark’s account of Palm Sunday which we heard at the blessing of our palms. Why does Mark insist that the donkey Jesus rides into Jerusalem on has never been ridden by anyone before?
It’s an odd and slightly unlikely claim in many respects. It may not surprise you to learn that scholars have offered many different interpretations.
Some think it may be a poetic link to the end of the story of the passion, echoing the way in in which Jesus’ tomb had never been used by anyone else either.
Others think this assertion that nobody had ever sat on the donkey simply means it’s a young one. That’s certainly implied in the language of it being a “colt” rather than a fully adult animal. But that seems to make the question even more complex. Why on earth would you choose an immature donkey that had never been broken in yet to ride into Jerusalem? That would surely be a recipe for disaster and result in only one thing: either its rider being tipped onto the floor, or if it was really young, the creature collapsing under the weight of a fully grown man.
But what if the answer to this conundrum is actually a theological and prophetic one? For there seem to have been a number of very important associations in the Jewish imagination between colts and the Messiah.
Some rabbinic texts, for example, asserted that a colt which had been ridden by a king may never be ridden by anyone else again. But above all, the text that seems to have exercised the greatest influence on people’s minds in this respect is a prophecy in Zechariah 9.9 in which it is foretold that a new Davidic king will ride into Jerusalem on a new colt:
“Rejoice greatly O daughter Zion, shout aloud O daughter Jerusalem! Lo your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and rising on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
I think a really crucial theological point is being made by Jesus when he seeks out this rather odd and inappropriate animal to ride into Jerusalem on. He is that humble king that Israel has long waited for, and he comes to enter his own city of Jerusalem.
And that makes sense, I think, of why the crowds went crazy. For they got the message too. They will all have recognised the symbolism of what Jesus was doing, and what he was saying about himself, and they quite liked it.
But that’s not all that can be said about this young colt which had never been ridden, for its significance also started to be spotted by theologians who wrote in the centuries after Jesus’ life and who saw in it great allegorical significance.
A biblical theologian called Origen who lived in the third century said the following about this colt that had never been ridden:
“Here he seems to me to be hinting at the circumstance of those who afterwards would come to believe but who had as yet never sat under the authority of the Word prior to Jesus coming.”
For Origen, the unridden donkey represents those who would come to faith in Christ but who had never experienced the weight and authority of the Jewish Law. In other words, that unridden donkey is you and me – unknowing, young and foolish until Christ comes to bring us to maturity and knowledge of God through his Passion in Jerusalem.
So as we begin our keeping of Holy Week, think of that little young colt, unridden any anyone. So seemingly unimportant a detail, yet full of theological and political significance. And contemplate the possibility that it just maybe represents you and me: so often untamed, unknowing, stubborn and clueless; and in need of the one who leads us to enter Jerusalem with him as he humbly goes to his death.