We’ve just been in Cyprus, island of my birth, with a team, to listen, to learn, to meet people and to pray for the island. This blog-sermon-article is a collection of thoughts about Cyprus, Jesus, the Church, and donkeys.
Throughout history, Cyprus has been conquered and governed by foreign empires. The Phoenicians, the Romans, the Crusaders, the Venetians, the Ottomans, the British (and others too). The sovereign is always distant – seated in Rome or Istanbul or London – and Cyprus is always a chess piece, a distant place, used for its greatest natural resource (strategic location) but rarely valued for itself, for its people, for its own sake.
Jesus, we believe, is not a distant sovereign. He is a king who comes near.
The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem.
So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!”
And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written,
“Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!”
Where most conquerors enter a city on a horse, Jesus choses to enter Jerusalem for the final time on a donkey. Simon the Maccabee, a century earlier, had ridden into Jerusalem amid waving palm branches at the head of his army on a horse. He was come as a warrior/conqueror to destroy the enemies of Israel. Indeed, palm branches became a symbol of nationalism, with coins depicting palm branches circulating as a subversive alternative to imperial coins. The large crowds welcoming Jesus were hoping to rehash this experience. The wanted him to throw out the oppressive Romans.
But Jesus chose a donkey instead.
In the history of conquests, Fatih Sultan Mehmet riding into Constantinople in 1453 on a white charger at the head of the Ottoman army is a classic example – and one with deep resonances on both sides of the Greek-Turkish divide. This king on a white horse meant, for the Muslim Turkish conquerors, victory, and, for the Christian Greek defenders, defeat. The history of Cyprus has always borne this out. Conquered either by Christian or Muslim armies, one community has celebrated, the other has mourned. When the Christian Venetians conquered Cyprus in 1489, the Turkish Cypriot minority were terrified. And when the Muslim Ottomans took the island in 1571, the Greek Cypriots were scared. Cyprus has never been conquered by a king who treated both communities with parity.
John’s account tells us that this happened to fulfil the prophecy of Zechariah. Here are Zechariah’s words;
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.
Zechariah’s prophesy is anti-war horse and pro-donkey. Because in times of war, kings ride horses, but in times of peace, kings ride donkeys. And Jesus is not coming to start a war, he is coming to inaugurate a peace. Jesus is not coming to shed the blood of his enemies, he is coming to shed his own blood on behalf of his enemies. The Jewish nationalists were hoping that Jesus would overthrow the Gentile Roman oppressors, but Zechariah says that “he shall speak peace to the Gentiles” (including the Romans). Jesus’ triumphal entry does not divide communities, as with all other conquerors. Jesus has come to create peace, to unite, to bring together. Jesus is not a horse-king, he is a donkey-king!
Jesus refuses to reinforce their political and nationalist aspirations by riding on a war horse or by stirring up insurrection against the Romans. Rather, he takes steps to enter Jerusalem on a donkey, fulfilling rather different Old Testament promises. D.A. Carson.
Here are some humbly submitted observations from this passage for Cyprus and for Cypriots. I have shared some of these thoughts with both Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, and have found warm acceptance, resonance, even tears.
- Jesus is a Near king not a Distant king
“Behold, your king is coming to you.” Where Cyprus has, throughout her history, had distant, disinterested rulers, Jesus is an up-close-and-personal ruler, a ruler whose decisions take into account the local, the personal, a ruler who is among the people. “Behold” renders him visible. “Your king” renders him personal. “To you” renders him close.
Too many empires have taken advantage of Cyprus for its strategic location. The danger is sometimes I hear mission agencies or church planters talking in the same way – that Cyprus is valuable for its strategic proximity to the Middle East. They treat Cyprus as an aircraft carrier, not as a place with its own story, pain, aspirations and fears. What about loving Cyprus and Cypriots for their own sake?
- Jesus honours the Local, not the Foreign
In Judea, donkeys were indigenous, horses were foreign. The big empires around about; Egypt, Assyria, Rome, were equipped with horses and chariots, massed cavalry, and were powerful in great rumbling charges over flat ground. Sometimes, kings of Israel aspired to imitate them – Solomon had 40,000 stalls for horses and 12,000 horsemen. Solomon was trying to be like Pharoah in Egypt. He was trying to be something that he was not.
Judea, as a rocky, mountainous place, was the natural home of the donkey. Is there something in Jesus’ choice of the donkey as a statement pro-local, a criticism of those who were trying to emulate foreign armies, who were not satisfied with who God had made them to be.
The Cyprus Donkey is a well-loved local beast of burden. Tourists to Cyprus buy donkey postcards, visit donkey sanctuaries, try donkey-milk products. The Cyprus donkey is indigenous, steady, all-enduring, strong, sure-footed. It bears the heat of the sun and the blows of its masters with true grit. It is uniquely suited to the temperament of the island.
In many ways, the Cyprus Donkey is like the Cypriot people; slow, faithful, resilient, strong.
One Turkish Cypriot woman told me that the Lord Jesus had appeared to her in a vision. She said that he appeared olive-skinned, dark-eyed, curly-haired. In her own words, “Because he looked like a Cypriot, not like the blond Jesus of foreign pictures, I felt I could trust him!”
- Jesus champions the Faithful, not the Flashy
Contextual Christianity must honour local strengths. There is no point asking Cypriot Christians to be war-horses when they are designed to be donkeys. The Church in Cyprus is faithful, not flashy. It’s been 2000 years since Sergius Paulus came to faith (Acts 13), and the Cyprus church has endured empire-changes, conquests, persecutions, the ravages of time. She and her leaders need to continue to be humble, long-suffering, steady, patient.
A rider on a horse looks magnificent; tall, poised, straight-backed, noble. It is impossible to ride a donkey and look dignified. Impossible! Donkey-riders look awkward, uncomfortable, inelegant. The posture of Christians should be like that of their Lord – donkey-riding, unprepossessing, unimposing.
- Jesus is a Peace-king, not a War-king
In times of war, kings ride horses. In times of peace, kings ride donkeys. Zechariah promised a peace-king who would “cut off” weapons and military installations, who would “speak peace” to the nations (not just to Israel, but also to their enemies).
Cyprus remains divided since 1974, with the Green Line festering like an unhealed wound etched across her chest from East to West. Lefkosia-Lefkoşa-Nicosia is the only divided capital city in the world. The UN-patrolled buffer zone is lined with barbed wire, military hardware, pointed weapons. Zechariah promises a peace-king who will remove military presence, who will rule from sea to sea (Kyrenia-Girne to Lemesos, Ammochostos-Mağusa-Famagusta to Paphos).
To pray for the peace and reunification of the island is the prerogative of followers of the peace-king riding in on his donkey.
- Jesus loves Humility and hates Pride
Zechariah tells us that the donkey-king is humble. Rather than the proud war horse, he rides the lowly colt. And it’s not even his colt – our penniless Saviour had to borrow someone else’s! Cypriots, having seen many proud empires come and go throughout history, sit in their coffee shops with a long-durée circumspection – proud kings come and go and we are still here. But a humble king! One who comes not to be served but to serve, and to lay down his life as a ransom for many. That is an unheard-of idea!
“Donkey” is an insult in most languages and cultures, and Jesus rode into a Jerusalem full of insults, of scorn, of mockery and beatings, of betrayal and death. The crowds lining the streets would have had their worldviews upended and their perspectives on power overturned as they watched this peasant-teacher riding his donkey. You can see why Judas betrayed him. You can see why the crowd turned against him. No-one wanted a donkey king.
For the church in Cyprus – indeed, for the church anywhere, it is good to reflect on these truths. God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble. He does not perpetuate the us-and-them divisions, but forges a new world where “thems” become “us” as weapons and barriers are dismantled. Charismatic “horse” leadership is over-rated, whilst faithful “donkey” perseverance is under-rated. Local strengths must be acknowledged, and imported foreign ideas are not always best. Cyprus should be loved and served, the gospel preached and churches planted for her own sake, not because of her strategic value in the Eastern Mediterranean.
To my Greek Cypriot friends, Ο θεος ειναι κοντα σας, ειναι μαζι σας.
To my Turkish Cypriot friends, Tanrı yakınınızdadır, sizinledir.