Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, “Why are you doing this?” just say this, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.” (Mark 11.2-3)
There is, in the Palm Sunday story, a wondrously mundane detail—a bit of logistics, if you will—that captivates my attention every time I revisit it. If we were making a feature film of the Triumphal Entry, chances are the second unit, the crew that collects the nature shots and transitional scenes with minimal dialogue, would be charged with shooting it. Two disciples, played by unknown actors, enter a non-descript village, find a young donkey, and begin to unknot its tether to a hitching post. The owner rushes out, yelling, “What do you think you’re doing? That’s my colt!” One of the disciples answers, “Jesus needs it.” “For what?” the owner asks. The disciples look at each other for a moment. “We don’t know,” they admit. “Jesus told us to come get it and to tell you we’ll bring it right back when He’s finished.”
The owner wants more information. “When He’s finished doing what?” he asks. The second disciple replies, “With whatever He plans to use it for.” His matter-of-fact tone irks the owner, yet also intrigues him. The year-old colt, whose master has not yet broken it, is remarkably—miraculously—docile. No braying, no bucking; it’s just standing there, as if it’s waiting to be ridden. The owner doesn’t know what to say. After a pause, he tells the disciples to take the colt. They thank him. “But bring it back!” he shouts as they saunter off. They nod and disappear over the ridge of the first low-slung hill outside of town.
Cut to the establishing shot of the climactic sequence. Jesus sits atop the colt as it ambles toward Jerusalem without a hint of resistance or skittishness. Missing are two brief scenes deleted from the original script. There’s the tense, slightly comic moment when Jesus first approaches the donkey. Everyone stands back, expecting the colt to rebel violently. When it allows the Lord to mount it, there’s amazement all around. Jesus doesn’t make a big deal of it. He rolls His eyes at everyone’s consternation and says, “Let’s go!”
The second deleted scene catches the two disciples en route to retrieve the colt.
Should we be doing this?
What do you mean? Jesus told us to do it.
But we're stealing the colt. How is this not stealing?
We're borrowing, not stealing. Jesus specifically said, "If anyone says, 'Why are you doing this?' to tell them, 'The Lord needs it and will send it back immediately.'"
What if nobody asks? What if nobody's around? What if nobody says anything, but they see us do it? Besides, how does Jesus even know about this alleged colt? What makes Him think the owner will let us have it? I don't get a good feeling about this.
I hear you. But what else can we do? Jesus told us to get the colt. Obviously, He needs it for something. He said it would be there waiting, and He told us what to say if somebody questions us. Are you ready to go back to Jesus and say, "You know, Lord, we thought this out and it's not such a good idea. Why can't You do like always and walk into town today?" Are you ready to do that?
They pause momentarily while DISCIPLE ONE thinks things over.
We should take the colt. Whatever happens, Jesus can handle it.
Vital Roles in the Redemptive Narrative
In the midst of the Palm Sunday hoopla—the fronds and Hosannas and excitement of high praise—we might consider stepping into the two disciples’ shoes for a moment, to ponder what Jesus asks of us, to contemplate the logistics of living by faith, and to question our reluctance to do as Jesus asks. None of the Gospels bothers with detailing how Jesus knows about the colt or why He’s confident the owner will lend it to two strangers. Is it just another of those clairvoyant things Jesus is apt to do—something akin to Him telling Peter he’ll find money to pay taxes in a fish’s mouth or instructing the disciples how to net an entire school of fish by throwing their nets off the opposite side of their boat? Has Jesus noticed the colt during His travels to and from Jerusalem, perhaps even met its owner, and suspects he’ll release it to the disciples’ care? Is the colt so necessary to Jesus’s entry to Jerusalem that He’s comfortable sending the disciples to take it, knowing it will be returned before the day’s out? We don’t know. And that’s the point. Had Jesus asked two disciples to take a big risk for His sake and they reneged, the Triumphal Entry very well might have been something far less triumphant.
We know why Jesus needs the colt. He’s provoking the religious authorities who seek to destroy Him by staging a Messianic moment foretold in Zechariah 9.9-10: “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.” Jesus’s arrival atop an untried beast is a political challenge to the powers that be, the first in a one-two blow that will knock their socks off when He dismounts the colt and turns the Temple courtyard upside down. Whatever minor drama may result from procuring the colt is secondary to a greater drama taking shape—one that Jesus instigates to honor God’s purpose for His life.
To the disciples’ credit, they set aside their doubts to play vital roles in the redemption narrative. They sacrifice logical and personal concerns in deference to Christ’s instruction. And we can trace Easter’s triumphal exit from the tomb—and hence our own resurrections—back to their faithfulness. No trust in Jesus, no obedience; no obedience, no colt; no colt, no challenge to the establishment; no challenge, no reprisal, no execution, and no victory over death. Though it sounds exaggerated to say so, it’s true: without the two unnamed disciples, it’s possible the events we’ll rehearse during Holy Week would not have transpired. Without them, the rejoicing of Palm Sunday and Easter might not exist.
The Little Things
The disciples’ compliance echoes a much earlier episode in which ordinary people ignore logic and attend to a logistical detail that sets Jesus’s career in motion. At Cana, we hear Mary tell the host’s servants, “Do whatever He tells you to do.” (John 2.5) Filling six huge jars with water, as Jesus tells them, puts the servants at risk of making a fool of their employer. They have no idea what Jesus is up to; no one’s ever turned water into wine. It’s ludicrous to imagine they’ll pour out a magnificent vintage from water jugs. Yet they do as Jesus asks and their faith sets the standard for everyone who comes to know Christ’s miraculous power by obeying His illogical directions: the blind man whose sight is restored by washing mud from his eyes; the child who offers his meager lunch to feed a multitude; Peter, who becomes the only human other than Jesus to walk on water by following Christ’s instruction to leave the boat.
The little things that Jesus asks of us matter the most. And that’s because they inevitably tap into our biggest fears. The littlest things place us at greatest risk. Loving neighbors risks loss of power and pride. Welcoming strangers risks inviting trouble into our lives. Forgiving those who’ve injured us risks getting hurt again. Giving without hesitation risks hardship. Untying colts that Jesus needs risks being misunderstood and mislabeled as dishonest or presumptuous. Yet nothing Jesus ever asks of us is without reason. In doing the little things—in facing our fears and proceeding despite them—we assume pivotal roles in greater dramas than those we imagine will result if our obedience goes awry.
“If you love Me, you will keep My commandments,” Jesus tells the disciples during the Last Supper. (John 14.15) He could have pointed to the two disciples who procured the colt as a perfect example of what He’s talking about—a love that dares to believe without fear of consequences. This is the very same kind of love and faith that Jesus describes in His parable of the talents, when the master of trusting servants rewards them, saying, “You have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” (Matthew 25.21)
Untying colts results in triumph. Amid this weekend's palm waving and outcries of “Hosanna!” may we breathe a prayer of gratitude for two disciples who dared to do what Jesus asked. Had they resisted, we might have nothing to celebrate. And in blessing them, may we also pray for similar courage, faith, and love to do as Christ asks.
Procuring the colt for Jesus’s Triumphal Entry seems like a little thing. But it constitutes a tremendous act of faithfulness on the part of the two disciples charged with the task. (James Tissot: The Foal of Bethpage; ca. 1886.)