Zechariah 9.9-12 (NRSVA)
What does a true leader look like? Someone who - like Pontius Pilate - is defined by their obstinacy? Someone who wraps themselves in Churchillian posturing and jingoistic slogans? Someone who’s one of the people? Someone who’s the epitome of calm and rational argument?
Zechariah’s prophecy breaks the mould of leadership. A true leader doesn’t sweep to power with war horses and chariots or in a hail of arrows. They do still command peace to break out - and their dominion will indeed have no boundaries - but they proclaim its arrival from the back of a donkey. The prisoners of hope will be set free, not by fighting in the streets but by a silent revolution unfolding in people’s hearts and minds. In that sense the true leader is indeed a ‘popular’ leader. They’re not a typical political leader, they’re an inspirational, charismatic, prophetic leader with a similar approach - despite their many faults and failings - to people like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.
It’s no secret that Jesus modelled his own leadership style on this passage. Matthew saw clearly that this is why he chose to enter Jerusalem on a donkey on Palm Sunday. But Matthew wasn’t very poetic. He failed to recognise that the image of the leader ‘riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey’ is repetition - for emphasis - of a single idea. Taking the verse literally he solemnly described how the disciples brought both a donkey and her colt to Jesus, who then gamely tried to ride them both in order to make this prophecy ‘come true’. The mistake is understandable because, in the Greek version of the Old Testament which Matthew was using, verse 9 does actually say that the true leader comes ‘mounted on a donkey AND on a young foal’. Somehow, I doubt that’s what Jesus attempted to do, although it’s possible the donkey did have a young colt that was brought along with her by Jesus’ animal loving friends.
More important is how we respond to Zechariah’s vision. Do we embrace it wholeheartedly as Jesus did? What kind of leaders are we prepared to be when we get the chance - at work, in the organisations we belong to, in our community, and among our family and friends? And what kind of national leaders are we willing to vote for and follow?