A few years ago, I found myself celebrating Palm Sunday in Tifton, Georgia—the quintessentially charming Southern town if there ever were one. Think Steel Magnolias or Fried Green Tomatoes. I had attended my college roommate’s wedding the evening before and found the local Catholic parish the next morning. Although a native Alabamian myself, I’d never heard a Catholic priest speak with such a deep Southern accent as the one in that church. He was clearly a homegrown Southern boy—a rarity, it seems, in the priesthood. Thus, with a thick, drawling delivery, in a town that prides itself on its agricultural heritage, he preached, not about the warm reception of waving palm branches, the institution of the Eucharist, or Our Lord’s passion, but about the donkey. The DON-KEY. And his words have stuck with me ever since.
“Jesus said, ‘Go into the village opposite you, and as you enter it you will find a colt tethered on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it here. And if anyone should ask you,‘Why are you untying it?’ you will answer, ‘The Master has need of it.’ So those who had been sent went off and found everything just as he had told them. And as they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, ‘Why are you untying this colt?’ They answered, ‘The Master has need of it.’” (Luke 19:30-34)
While there is plenty of Biblical scholarship on the young donkey, detailing its significance as a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, the priest that day simply asked us, “What do you have that the Master has need of? What are you keeping tied up that he can use? What humble gift can you offer to proclaim his kingdom? What is your donkey? Is it still tethered to a post or have you brought it to the Master?” He then exhorted us—with that mildly comic yet altogether rhetorically powerful accent—“UN-TIE YOUR DON-KEY. UN-TIE YOUR DON-KEY.”
That Palm Sunday was to be my last without children. The next year, I was expecting my first child, and as I experienced the physical discomforts of early pregnancy and made the small but necessary sacrifices for the baby growing within me, I recalled the words of the Tifton priest. The life of the faithful Christian—and vocation of Christian motherhood in particular, I was realizing—is not one of grand gestures offered to God, but regular, humble sacrifices given willingly when the Master has need. To an audience of fellow mothers, I hardly need enumerate the daily opportunities we have to offer humble obedience to Our Lord. It is these small acts of self-emptying love by which his kingdom is brought to earth. Jesus did not need a gleaming white stallion or indomitable warhorse. When he came in triumph, he needed a donkey.
As a mother of three young children, I now encounter donkeys with surprising frequency. In books, visits to farms, and trips to petting zoos, I am regularly reminded by those big-eared asses to consider, what is it that the Master has need of? Today. From me. Am I willing to untether it without reservation? For the owners of that colt long ago, Jesus’s need proved sufficient. When told of the Master’s need, they seem to offer it readily. Indeed, the following verse says, “So they [the disciples] brought it to Jesus.” But how often do I find myself protesting, not wishing to offer what I have or who I am to God?
As we begin Holy Week, the readings for today – Psalm 22, which laments God’s abandonment, Paul’s letter to the Philippians, which likens Christ to a slave, and Luke’s passion narrative – all ask us to contemplate the deepest mysteries of the Christian faith: that through trusting obedience, an obedience unto death, Christ received the greatest exaltation. We are to follow his example as our way to holiness. But as we prepare to enter into his passion, we can first follow the example of the donkey’s owners and loosen our own tethers on a simple gift that we may be holding onto too tightly. This week, “UNTIE YOUR DON-KEY!”