Image: The Crucifixion, Alonso Cano [public domain]
“Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, “The Lord has need of them,” and he will send them immediately’” —Matthew 21:1-3
Growing up I often wondered at this scene: why would the owner of the donkey simply accede to this request? Does he even know who the disciples are? Does he know how “the Lord” has need of his donkey? Yet he allows his donkey to be taken so that Jesus can ride into Jerusalem.
As Jesus approaches the city His fellow pilgrims shout, “Hosanna to the son of David!” (Matthew 21:9) and “Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming!” (Mark 11:10). They recognize in Jesus’ actions echoes of Solomon, the son of David, who rode to his own coronation on a donkey (1 Kings 1:33) and the prophecy of Zechariah, quoted by Matthew, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Behold 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 9:9).
Jesus is the king of Israel! But what would this mean to the Jews? When they first ask for a king 1,000 years prior, the Israelites identify two roles they expected of a king: to govern them and to fight their battles (1 Samuel 8:20). When Samuel anoints Saul as the first king, he confirms these duties saying, “[Y]ou shall reign over the people of the Lord and you will save them from the hand of their enemies round about” (1 Samuel 10:1). After his anointing, Saul defeats an Ammonite army (1 Samuel 11). Later, after David is anointed by Samuel, he defeats Goliath and leads the armies of Israel against the Philistines (1 Samuel 16-17).
Jesus serves his people as a king in a similar fashion. In Lent, we joined with Jesus as He fasted and prayed in the wilderness. This occurred after His own royal anointing at His baptism. After forty days and nights in the wilderness, He was tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1-11). He did battle with the ultimate enemy of not only Israel, but of all humanity—and He emerged victorious! But this wasn’t the definitive victory. That comes today with Good Friday and the battle of the cross. What appeared to be a devastating defeat proved to be His glorious triumph as He delivered us from the hands of our true enemies: Satan, sin, and death.
But that isn’t everything we need to know about the kings of Israel and Jesus’ kingship. Deuteronomy predicts that the Israelites will request a king and stipulates what kings should and should not do. They should write a copy of the Law and read it and keep its statutes (Deuteronomy 17:18-19). They should not accumulate many horses, many wives, or much silver and gold (Deuteronomy 17:16-17). To do so would impose a burden on the people. The downside to having a king is that they can easily become a burden through a misuse of their authority. Samuel warns about the burdens a king will bring: “[H]e will take your sons…your daughters…the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards…the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards…your menservants and maidservants, and the best of your cattle and your donkeys…the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves” (1 Samuel 8:11-17). Still, the Israelites demand a king, and the kings of Judah and Israel prove to be the burden Samuel warned about, with only a few exceptions.
Is Jesus this kind of king? Is He a burden to his subjects? It seems almost irreverent to say so, but yes. He tells us this himself:
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” —Matthew 11:28-30
The paradox of this statement is profound if we have ears to hear. Far from the burdens of the previous kings, what Jesus offers us is rest and true freedom. He doesn’t say it will be effortless. Far from it. Rather He proclaims:
“If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” —Luke 9:23
Jesus demands everything from us. Not just a tenth of our produce, or the best of our fields, or our cattle and donkeys. He demands our hearts, our wills. He teaches us to pray, “Thy will be done” right after we pray “Thy kingdom come.” He is our king, and we have to submit everything to him.
The beauty of this is that His will is always good, for He is not the kind of king who will exploit His authority for His own self-gain at our expense. Rather He demonstrates the kind of king He is by washing the feet of His disciples (John 13:1-20) and by freely accepting His passion and death. Again, this doesn’t mean that because Jesus died on the cross, we won’t have to ever suffer, but rather the more we accept our own crosses according to His will, the easier it will become. The burden of the yoke of the cross will become light, and we will find rest in it.
When the rest of the world looks at the cross, it recoils in horror. When the saints look at the cross, they find the rest Jesus offers. Consider St. Therese of Lisieux’s words as she neared her death from tuberculosis: “I have reached the point of not being able to suffer any more, because all suffering is sweet to me.” We begin to find His rest even now as we take up His yoke, and we hope in the triumph of His cross for our eternal rest:
“The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we shall also live with him; if we endure, we shall also reign with him.” —2 Timothy 2:11-12a