Yep. I did just read the story of Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
Nope. I didn’t mix up the calendar. Yes I did just read the story about Palm Sunday. No, next week is not Easter.
Bear with me here for a little.
In our worship for a few years we have followed the Narrative Lectionary, a schedule of readings that brings us through the Bible chronologically even if that doesn’t always line up with the traditional celebrations of the church year.
One of the things that is interesting about Mark’s gospel, the one we’ve been learning
from since the start of the new year, is that while it is the shortest, proportionally it has one of the longest narratives of the last week of Jesus’s life – – what we usually call the Passion, from the time of Palm Sunday to Good Friday. If we tried to keep telling Mark’s gospel in order, but kept Palm Sunday on Palm Sunday, we would miss about one-third of his gospel. If we told the stories that took place during the passion week, but didn’t hear them in light of Jesus’s significant decision to enter Jerusalem, we’d miss a whole layer of their meaning. So, here we are, on the second Sunday of Lent, more than a month ahead of Easter, and we’re talking about Palm Sunday.
(If you miss the songs and the waving of branches, don’t worry. We’ll do those on the regular Palm Sunday. I’m not totally out of touch with tradition!)
In a wonderfully helpful book published about nine years called The Last Week, biblical scholars John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, opened my eyes to the knowledge that Jesus’s parade likely wasn’t the only parade that happened that day. Mark doesn’t describe what was happening on the other side of Jerusalem because his readers would have known it without him having to write about. We, however, need a history lesson to see the full picture. Jesus’s parade from Bethany into Jerusalem, taking place on the eastern side of the city, was a smaller parade that had to have been planned in deliberate contrast to Pilate’s parade happening on the western side.
Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor of the area, roughly, that we consider Israel and Palestine today. While he figures prominently in the Passion Week stories that take place in Jerusalem, and he had residences in Jerusalem, his primary home was in the city of Caesarea Maritima, a coastal city to the west of Jerusalem. We know from the biblical accounts of the trial of Jesus that he was in town during those last days, but we know from historical record that it was routine for Pilate and other governors to come to Jerusalem during major religious festivals to “keep the peace,” or more accurately, to make sure the non-Roman residents who had gathered in the city from the villages and smaller towns didn’t rise up against Rome in revolt. The times of religious pilgrimage were times ripe with language and liturgy that talked about release from captivity, freedom from oppressors, God’s holy people and holy nation. Rome was concerned that if there would ever be a time the people might band together to try to overturn the powerful empire, it could very likely be during a high holy season like the season of Passover that celebrates the escape of the Hebrew people from another powerful empire.
So it was part of Pilate’s routine to show up in Jerusalem and make Rome’s presence known – – blatantly, powerfully, militarily, and threateningly. Pilate didn’t sneak into town; he came in with an army to make sure everyone knew the empire was present. Crossan and Borg invite us to imagine “a visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.”
Pilate’s parade was a display of power meant to intimidate. It declared Rome’s power and Rome’s theology – – the Caesar, the emperor as the Son of God. Any other claim of divinity was considered a challenge to the kingdom, one that could legally be met with imprisonment or death. Pilate parading into Jerusalem was a strategy of a system of total domination, one in which the Roman empire allowed a few wealthy elites to rule over all the rest, lording economic power over them, and propping it all up with religious language. The parade was the ultimate example of political posturing and jockeying for position, if not by gaining loyal supporters than by scaring them into submission.
In an election year we know a bit about parades and posturing, don’t we? I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve already heard people proclaiming their exhaustion over the presidential race, and we’re still 8 ½ months away from the actual election. Something I hear people say pretty often during a presidential election year is this – – If there were just one candidate who didn’t go through all the motions – – who didn’t trash his or her opponent, who didn’t lie about the other candidates, who ran a clean and positive campaign — “I don’t care what party he or she is from; I’d vote for that one!”
The political ads are barely beginning and they are already tiring. The robo-calls from pollsters and campaigners are just getting started and those of us with caller ID have never been more thankful. There’s name calling and spinning. The nation barely had time to show respect to the family of a deceased Supreme Court justice before it became part of the political discourse. (Only calling it discourse makes it sound more civilized than it’s been.)
And the money. Can we talk a little about the money that is raised and spent? According to the New York Times, in the reports filed with the Federal Election Commission through the end of 2015, we find that the top 5 candidates who have participated in fundraising have raised in total $561.3 million. If that isn’t a display of opulence and wealth, I don’t know what is. The money, the debates on TV, the fights on Facebook, the disagreements in families, the promises that can’t possibly be kept, and the truths that candidates can’t speak lest they lose their “base’ – – they are all a parts of our own version of political posturing, of the race for and display of the power of a few over the many.
Campaigns, I’m going to have to say – – just about all of them – – those on the right and the left – – those of my party and the other party – – the campaigns in our national political scene with their verbal violence and even some promises of physical violence, their ostentation, their rhetoric of fear and intimidation look an awful lot like Rome’s campaign of fear and intimidation. Even when they claim the moral or Christian high ground, they look more like the empire’s campaign than they do like Jesus’s campaign on his way into Jerusalem.
Mark goes to great lengths to show us that Jesus made his entrance into Jerusalem in a completely different way. He comes from the opposite direction. He has planned his entrance just as purposefully as Rome, but the results of his plan stand in stark contrast to Pilate’s efforts. More than half the story of his entrance is spent telling us about how his ride was procured. It isn’t a well-cared for stallion. It isn’t draped in gold and armor. It hasn’t been reserved just for him in imperial stables. But it has been picked purposefully. It is a young animal (horse or donkey depending on the telling). It has never been ridden, as is the requirement of the animal to carry the Messiah.
It is also the only animal in the parade, and Jesus the only attraction. He doesn’t come with armies. He doesn’t come with guards. He doesn’t come with weapons or threats or warnings. He comes humbly. He comes welcomed by the people, not feared by them. He comes with shouts of acclamation and recognition that he is the fulfillment of divine promises. He comes peacefully. In fact, the prophecy from Zechariah that this parade
fulfills says that he comes to cut off the chariots and war horses; he comes to break the bows of battle. He comes to command peace to the nations.
These two parades, on opposite sides of the city, on opposite sides of everything, give us a pair of glasses through which we will see more clearly each of the stories we will encounter between now and Easter. Jesus entered Jerusalem in a display that says that the ways of Rome, the ways of our power-seeking politics, the ways that pit people against each other instead of building up the lowly, are not his ways. They are not the ways of God.
These two campaigns highlight the difference between the oppressive powers that try to dominate in the kingdoms and cultures of the world and the peaceful power of the kingdom of God. These two demonstrations set before us the question that is asked of us each and every day: Which kingdom will get our loyalty? Which way of life will we choose?
The disciples of Jesus follow one who, at just about every opportunity, offers a damning critique of the dominant culture, the culture of dominance –
- the culture that prioritizes the desires of the wealthy over the needs of the poor,
- the culture that prizes its obsession over the law that it alone enforces at the expense of those who are enslaved by its use against them,
- the culture that militarizes itself in order to protect the interests of those who are in positions of power against those who are struggling to be heard, to be included
- the culture that exploits privilege while squeezing life from those communities and individuals that dare to try to speak against it.
The disciples of Jesus, therefore, are called, at every opportunity, to think critically about the culture around us. We are called to consider with prayer and the example of Jesus how we participate in the world around us, be it the world of politics, local, national, and global, the world of economics, how we buy, sell, and share our goods, the world of education, the even the world of our friendships and personal relationships.
The disciples of Jesus are called to ask – –
- Is this the way that I should go?
- Is this the way that brings new life to places of death?
- Is this the way of grace?
- Is this the way of humility?
- Is this the way of peace?
- Is this the way of Jesus?