“Palm Sunday: The Donkey’s Story” -Birrell Walsh

I like donkeys.  When I was a kid we had a donkey named Jackson.  He lived in the back pasture, thinking his own thoughts and permitting kids to ride him occasionally.  Never adults, which is a story my uncle Bob could tell you.

Both Swedenborgians and Jewish Hasidim see the donkey as a symbol of natural wisdom, common “donkey sense.”  Yet we know from the story of Balaam’s ass, in Numbers 22, that donkeys can see angels and that donkeys can talk with humans.  

So based on that affinity I thought I would interview the jenny, the female donkey, who with her colt carried Jesus on Palm Sunday.

She was quite dark like the beautiful donkeys of Syria, almost black with silver in her fur.  She had great soft ears that followed everything that went on around her.  I asked her if she remembered that time.

“Oh yes,” she said.  “How could one forget?  It was not only the day itself, but the days before and the days after, the horrible days after.”

She stopped, looking back over her long life in Judea under the Romans.

“It was never peaceful in Jerusalem,” she said at last.  “There were always humans and their animals coming and going.  It was a holy city for Hebrews, you know.  They had their only temple there.  Sheep and goats and bulls, you would see them going towards the temple, and you knew you would never see them again.  Death comes for all of us, and it comes often in Jerusalem.

For us with long ears it was not too hard.  We were not considered clean, so we were not eligible for sacrifice at the temple, nor for lunch.  Gentiles might eat us, if they could catch us away from our owner.  But at this time of the year there were not many Gentiles near the city.  It was Passover.  Jews came from all over the empire.  The streets were full of strangers, speaking their barbaric languages.

Now you know from the Torah that we donkeys can see angels.  Angels in their bodies, and angels who are out of bodies.  And we can hear them too, and understand them more or less – even those spirits that are still in flesh.  You would not want to be hearing what most humans think, let me tell you.  That is why we put our ears back so often.

I ramble.  It comes with being old.  You DO want to know what they were thinking, or you would not have asked.  Alright, let me get my memories in order.

I remember that humans always have parties, or schools, or groups that they organize around their disagreements.  Once I carried goods to Caesarea and heard the Greek philosophers arguing.  But in Jerusalem it was mostly Jews arguing with Jews in Aramaic: Sadducees, Pharisees, Zealot guerrillas in the hills.  Yeshua was Jewish – you know that, right? So he was part of the argument.  Sometimes he was the subject.  It was always a family argument.

There was a Pharisee in our neighborhood, and he and my master never got along.  Some argument about religion, I think.  My master took me to Bethlehem.  My master was not cruel, but he loaded me wrong and I just collapsed halfway there.  And along the same road came that Pharisee.  He didn’t say anything.  He just helped me get up, and helped my master re-adjust the load.  My master couldn’t figure out why this man who did not like him did it, but I knew.  It was from the commands he carried around in his heart, Exodus 23:5

When you see the donkey of your enemy collapsing under its load, and are inclined to desist from helping him, you shall surely help along with him.

He was not thinking about that much, though.  He was thinking about this Galilean.  “He is knowledgeable about Torah,” this Pharisee thought, while lifting me up.  “But he did work and healed and gathered food on the Sabbath.  He ate with tax collectors for the Romans, even has one in his disciples.  He consorts with women and they follow him.”  He was tightening one strap, and loosening another so my load was better balanced.  When he saw I could stand, my owner thanked him.  The Pharisee nodded, and went off.  I could hear him thinking into the distance. “He heals people.  He talks about the Kingdom of God.  Could he be the Messiah?  Or is he just another wild man from Galilee?”

That is one of the first times I heard about this Yeshua.  But it was not the last.  A year before the time we are talking about I had carried empty pots for water all over Jerusalem, empty because my master knew I was in foal and cared for me.  We would deliver the pots, and local people would fill them and sell water to all the visitors.  Visitors from Alexandria, where the Jews speak only Greek.  Visitors from Rome, and from Greece.  Jews from Babylon who spoke Aramaic like the people here in Palestine.  The city would fill up at Passover, and walking is thirsty work.

What do people think about when they come to a big religious festival?  Food, shelter, money, sex, the strange sights and occasionally religion.  One thing they all saw was that their holy city, the city they had journeyed weeks to see, was not an Israelitish city.  The temple was there, yes.  Most of the people were Jewish, yes.  But everywhere you looked, especially at Passover, there were occupying Roman soldiers. A Roman puppet Herod had made their city over in the image of a Hellenistic capital.  It was wrong, and the undermutter said it.

I didn’t even need my spirit-hearing to detect the resentment.  Jerusalem, even to the pilgrims from Anatolia and Egypt, Italy and Hispania and Gaul, Jerusalem was supposed to be a Jewish city, ruled by a Jewish king.  It was built into the scriptures they love.  

“The day will come,” said the undermutter.  “The day will come when the Messiah that the God of Israel sends will drive them all out.  Jerusalem will belong to the children of Israel again.”

Mixed in among these silent muttering visitors were bloodier thinkers.  They were Zealots.  They did not intend to wait for the Messiah.  They remembered the Maccabees driving out the Greeks, and they intended to drive the Romans out.  They knew their time had not come, and that it would.

That next year, the year it all happened, I had had my little beloved colt, and he went with me wherever I went. Again I delivered empty pots (my master was still kind) and I listened.  It was the same as the previous year –  but not quite.  This year there was that name.  “Yeshua” the people from Judea and Babylon said.  The Egyptian Jews called him “Yesous.”  A man named after Joshua, the warrior who led the tribes of Israel into Palestine.  There was a kind of expectancy about the crowds.  “Is this the year?”

I mentioned the Pharisees.  There was another party in Jerusalem.  They were Sadducees.  They were richer, and often priests and Levites.  They believed different things than the Pharisees.  They loved their nation very much, and they were very aware of politics because they lived temple and city politics every day.  They had expensive garments that looked uncomfortable in the afternoon sun.  I understood – I too carry burdens.

Most of all the Sadducees loved the temple.  The holy books they shared with the Pharisees told them how to build it, and how to sacrifice the poor animals, and how to pray.  God had given them this temple.

And they knew it could be destroyed.  The first temple had been.  Roman soldiers were everywhere, and Roman soldiers kill.  

I could always hear a current of fear in their hearts.  They feared the Romans.  They feared the Pharisees, with their focus on Law rather than the Temple.  They feared the Zealots most of all, the Messianic hopefuls who would start a rebellion.  And so they feared this Galilean healer and preacher.  He seemed to be some kind of crazy teacher who would ignite the crowds and bring the rage of the empire down on them, destroying the temple and sending the Jewish people again into exile.  When I was delivering pots in Jerusalem, once, I heard the thoughts of a great man among them:

“If we let Him alone like this, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and nation.”

So… so now you want to know about that day, don’t you?  Alright.  My foal and I were at home.  He had grown big, strong, grey like a Judean donkey.  He had ears to hear, and knew what humans were up to.  Out of nowhere, two scruffy men arrived and tried to untie us.  I started yelling.  No one can ignore a jenny when she brays.  My master came out from lunch, a piece of bread still in his hand, and asked just what they were doing.  These two men had that thick Galilean accent, you know the one; and they said “The Lord” had need of us.  Well, my foal actually, but I was not about to let them take just him.  I don’t know what moved my master, but he actually negotiated with them and pretty soon had an agreement that we would be back that evening.  And off we went.  Just outside of the village, right there on the Mount of Olives, there was this little clutch of men and women.  One of them, ah, he is hard to describe.  All I can say is the angel inside of him was … bright.  Luminous.  I trusted him, and suddenly I was not so afraid for my colt.

They put a cloak on my foal, and another on me, and they walked down to the edge of the city.  Then the fellow, the one they called Rabbi, got on the back of my little guy.  Somehow, even though the man was big like a workman, it didn’t seem a burden.  My colt almost frisked, and seemed to like him.

The city was waiting for them.  There was a crowd there.  They started throwing their clothes down on the road and tree branches, as if they were casting their ideas and principles before him.  The cloth made the footing soft, but you could trip on those branches – olives, and palm and tamarisk.  We are surefooted.  We made it.

They were chanting.  They were praising the man on my young colt.  I had figured it out by now.  This was Joshua, Yeshua, the one all the rumors were about.  They were calling him the Son of David.  I stretched my ears out to their limit, listening to their hearts and spirits, because if anything happened to him my colt could get hurt.

The crowd loved him.  He was their hope. He was possibly the one who would make the Holy City theirs again.  That messianic longing that Jewish women gave their children with their milk was coming down the road from the Mount of Olives.  Here and there I could feel the fiercer wild desire of the Zealots.  Is it time, they were wondering.  Is this the time we pick up the Maccabees’ spears and rise?

I remember his mother.  She was in the crowd with him, close to him.  Her eyes were wide with fear. 

The Pharisees in the crowd had another thought.  They knew their books, and one of their prophets – those are humans who can smell far-off things – one of their prophets had foretold this.

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

The Pharisees knew it from the Book of Zacharias.  They know it was wrapped in prophecies of war and desolation for those who defy the God of Israel

I will rouse your sons, Zion, against your sons, Greece, and make you like a warrior’s sword. 

Who could be the sons of Greece but Rome, whose empire spoke Greek over all its eastern half?  Who could doubt that this Galilean knew the Book of Zacharias?  Was he declaring war on Rome?  Any good Pharisee knew what was in that book – did the Galilean think that no traitor would tell the Romans?

And the soldiers who lined the road along which Yeshua entered Jerusalem.  I reached into their thoughts, touched the angels that lived inside them, these soldiers from Italy who had marched for Rome their whole lives.  What did they think, these invaders and occupiers?

I crowded closer to my colt and the man he carried.  I knew what they thought.  These were Romans, for whom execution and slaughter of the enemies of Rome was routine.

Did he know, this Galilean, how sharp the talons of the Roman Eagle were?”

This good donkey stopped telling her story.  She fell silent, very silent.   I asked her, “Did you see angels with him?”

She shook her head as if to clear the memory.  “Yes, but…” she said.  “It is hard to say.  God made us donkeys for natural reasoning, donkey-sense about what is right around us, so it is hard for us to understand angels sometimes.  They love more than we do.  Maybe the Galilean and the angels are trying to heal something much larger than a family argument in the corner of an empire.  There were angels with him.  They seemed to be telling him his destiny lay ahead, in Jerusalem, cleaning the temple, and afterwards…  It turns out they were right.  

For those who try to guard the temple, who try to guard the law, who try to guard our offspring as did his mother and I, for those soldiers trying to guard wolf-suckled Rome, and for this Galilean – for all of us death lay ahead and we feared.  But angels do not fear death the way we living beings do.  They have been through it.  They see glory beyond it, and love.”

Birrell Walsh, PhD is a writer and scholar of comparative religion and mysticism. He has written several novels, as well as poetry and the book “Praying for Others”. He is an active member of the Swedenborgian community at Hillside, an Urban Sanctuary, in El Cerrito, California, where he lives with his wife Nancy.

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