I find it odd, since it is one of the few stories that all four of my brothers in Christ Jesus went on to relay, that none of them give you the details as to which of us two disciples our Lord sent to go and fetch that donkey. It is odd to me because the instructions are seared into my memory—and when he gave them to me, Simon, known as “the Zealot,” and Judas Iscariot, I knew that his intentions upon entering Jerusalem would not fulfill what I had been expecting. And this naked fact would lead my closest friend and me on diverging paths from that point on. Me to my salvation, and Judas to his despair and ruin.
We had both been known zealots when Jesus called us to follow him. We certainly weren’t the only ones, but we certainly were the most “advanced” in our careers as insurrectionists against the Romans and their collaborators. Judas got his name “Iscariot” from the Romans centurions, who called many of our party “sicarious,” or “knife-men” because of the daggers that we would at times brandish in direct defiance of them. Judas had been given the proper name “Iscariot” because not only was he a known “knife-man;” he was also tremendously skilled with a knife.
Once, a Roman challenged him to spar, bombastically promising on his honor (something the Romans seemed to glorify in the place of any kind of god that we could recognize) that none would harm him on account of any injury that Judas might inflict on him. I still remember the look on that clean shaven man’s eyes when Judas sliced him right across the throat within about 4 seconds of that promise. He was blindingly fast. Some of the legion wanted to run us all through on account of that, despite the young man’s promise, but the ranking officers seemed to calm them down, saying that perhaps we Zealots might learn something from the example that Romans upheld their pledge.
Though my skill with the knife wasn’t quite as pronounced as Judas, I was known more for my ability to organize and mobilize raids and attacks on the occupiers. Perhaps that skill was simply conferred on me on account of my age, though. I had been around long enough to see what worked where, and in this period of our party, when it seemed every hot blooded pronouncement produced some kind of violent action, there weren’t many my age associated with the Zealot cause anymore. Most of my generation had either died in one uprising or another, or crucified for taking part.
I certainly was the oldest to be following the young man named Jesus. Judas and I and several others had hoped that he would eventually see his mission embedded in his namesake, and take on the same gloriously God inspired conquest as Joshua had undertaken when Moses gave the command to go and lay waste to the ungodly inhabitants of our Promised Land.
And so it was a bittersweet task to be given to go and find a donkey for him to use in his entry into Jerusalem. It was a definite signal that he was coming as a king. We all knew the prophecy of Zecharaiah, “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Judas muttered about the plan on our way to fetch the colt. “Gentle and riding on a donkey,” he said, “he has an army of angels at his command. He could ride into Jerusalem on a fiery chariot, entering like Elijah left, and instead he comes to make peace with the invaders. This is not what we had been planning on, Simon. He’s no Messiah, he’s a lamb.”
I mulled over this as we walked the steep path from the Mount of Olives to Bethpage, and I must say I despaired to the point of considering walking right through Bethpage and into Jerusalem. I could there organize a rebellion in conjunction with Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem—even against his will, as I had before when he had instructed us disciples to distribute the five loaves and two fish among a great crowd. But when we arrived in town and I saw the donkey just as Jesus had mentioned, I once again heard his original invitation to me that was permanently seared on my soul like the dagger brand that was seared onto my forearm. “Simon, follow me,” he said. And when I took hold of the donkey’s reigns, a wave of peace came over me.
Though I wanted him to fulfill the prophecies of the Messiah and save Israel from her occupiers, it suddenly occurred to me that there was an enemy occupied kingdom of God inside me, and Jesus was coming to first cleanse that territory of the invaders. He was a victorious king, but his kingdom was not of this earth. The revelation washed over me like a rainstorm in the desert, and I turned to Judas with the reigns in my hand. “Come, Judas, this is God’s will. The King will come in peace.” Judas’ eyes seethed and burned. I could see the knife man before me barely containing his rage. But, something washed over him as well. It didn’t seem to bring the same peace, but instead resolve, like a rope being cinched into a knot. He talked with the owners of the donkey. “The Lord needs this,” he said, just as Jesus had instructed us. And we went on our way.
The next day, as Jesus was preparing to leave, I looked down at my cloak with its blood red markings indicating that I was a man of rank within the Zealot party. I took it off and slung it over the back of the donkey. “The king comes in peace,” I said. Jesus fixed on me with his eyes which were mirrors (we disciples always said they revealed more about yourself than about him, as he had once hinted at in a strange teaching), and said, “Your errand was fruitful. This is the son of the donkey that carried my mother into Bethlehem to give birth to me. That donkey carried me to my birth, and this one carries me in the opposite direction.” I looked back at him with the fear and trembling I imagine Moses regarded the Burning Bush, but said nothing. He only smiled. It was a private moment between us.
Peter took off his fisherman’s cloak and threw it over the donkey as well, shouting the words of the prophet Zechariah: “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey!” The others joined us, but I saw Judas sink to the back of the crowd gathering now around Jesus. He kept on his cloak, and ran his hands over the stitched dagger, looking torn and perplexed. Peter and James and I took Jesus and lifted him over our shoulders and then placed him on the donkey as the crowd gathering began shouting, “Hosanna!” Then we set our faces toward Jerusalem: The opposite direction from Bethlehem.