Palm Sunday Rebellion
Here’s the last half of my Palm Sunday sermon. In the opening, I talked about how obvious it must have seemed to Jesus’ Palm Sunday followers that he was beginning a military coup. Find out why at Disclosing New Worlds.
There’s no question in their minds that Jesus is there to conquer. And Jesus has intentionally played the part. He knows the local puppet governor will hear. He knows the Roman military machine will hear. And he knows he’s throwing rebellion in their faces.
How will tyrants respond? Think of shouts of “Free Tibet!” in Lhasa. Or the student uprising in Tienanmen Square. Or singing the Chechen national anthem in public in Chechnya. Peasants pitching rebellion are crushed without mercy.
Extra troops were in Jerusalem during the Passover, in preparation for this very kind of thing. Passover, after all, was about the liberation of the Jews from a foreign government. The Romans would be putting on a show of force.
He’s come to wage war, all right – but no one is understanding what kind of war he’ll fight. The Romans are small potatoes to him – he’s waging war on death and darkness and power, and he’ll defeat them all.
But the crowd’s expecting literal war. And that’s not what Jesus does.
How strange it is that everybody there makes that mistake, and we study it, and wonder how they can have missed it. And then our generation reads Revelation’s war-talk and assumes without question that Jesus’ will return in the future to fight a violent war. As McLaren observes, when Jesus comes back to fight, his mighty sword comes out of his mouth! I want to smack my head. How could I have overlooked the obviously metaphorical language used there?
Could we still be like the 1st century crowd, expecting Jesus to bring war? Could we be making the same mistake? Doesn’t it matter that warfare is completely inconsistent with everything Jesus demonstrated?
But here’s another strange thing: It’s all outside the city.
See the last verse? He goes to the temple, looks around, heads for Bethany. Once inside the city, the acclaim is gone.
Outside of it, the crowds adore him. Inside of it – in the seat of religious power and government power – nobody shows up. As Lawrence Moore writes at Disclosing New Worlds:
Those on the periphery hear his message of the kingdom and receive his ministry as Good News; those in the centre perceive it as threatening and maybe even demonic in origin. The crowds who shout “Hosanna!” (which comes from Psalm 118: 25 and is a cry to God meaning “Save now!”) are the rural peasants, rather than the urban elite of Jerusalem. These are not the city’s inhabitants. They are those who have cut palms (or is it straw?) “from the fields”. They acclaim Jesus as a Davidic king and messiah. By contrast, Jesus’ first interaction with the city’s inhabitants is to drive the moneychangers from the temple…
Those on the periphery recognise God’s presence in Jesus (“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”); those at the centre can only see Jesus as godless.
When he entered that city for the last time, knowing full well that betrayal, persecution and death awaited him, it’s easy to imagine that he was greeted by his largest and most boisterous crowd. His so-called “triumphal entry” on what we call Palm Sunday triggered the beginning of the end for Jesus.
What began on Sunday with a religious procession ended Friday morning with a public display of state terror. Excited children waving palm branches were quickly forgotten when violent mobs shouted death chants. The adulation of the crowds evaporated into abandonment by his closest friends.
By Good Friday, Jesus’s disciples argued among themselves about who was the greatest, Judas betrayed him, Peter denied knowing him, all his disciples fled (except for the women), and Rome employed all the brutal means at its disposal to crush an insurgent movement - rendition, interrogation, torture, mockery, humiliation, and then a sadistic execution designed as a “calculated social deterrent” (Borg) to any other trouble makers who might challenge imperial authority. [...]
Jesus was executed for three reasons, says Luke: “We found this fellow subverting the nation, opposing payment of taxes to Caesar, and saying that He Himself is Christ, a King” (Luke 23:1-2). In John’s gospel the angry mob warned Pilate, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar” (John 19:12).
People today argue about who’s “subverting our nation.” [Some blame] Muslims [...] … “Christian fascists.” … “secular humanists” … liberal Democrats. … pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays, lesbians, the ACLU, … [More recently,] Rush Limbaugh, [or] the greed of corporate executives .
But I’ve never heard anyone say what the Gospels say - blaming Jesus, that Jesus is the one who’s “subverting our nation.” But that was the allegation that sent Jesus to Golgotha.
…. The question deserves a lifetime of reflection, but a simple summary by Borg and Crossan (The Last Week; A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus’s Final Week in Jerusalem) also makes a good beginning.
Jesus’s alternate reign and rule, they argue, subverted major aspects of the way most societies in history have been organized. Whether ancient or modern, most societies have normalized a status quo of political oppression that marginalizes ordinary people, economic exploitation whereby the rich take advantage of the poor, and religious legitimation that insists that “God wants things this way.” [...]
We in the US experience less of these than people of some countries do, but we certainly experience them.
Jesus, the very opposite of acquiescence to marginalization of ordinary people, became one. He spent his life standing up for the poor, and he infuriated the religious by facing down their legitimization of exclusive self-righteousness.
We want so much for the issues of Palm Sunday to be “spiritual” ones – perhaps that the Jews had created a heresy and Jesus was opposing it and “they” killed him for that. Nothing of the sort. These are issues of government power and religious power, and these are the ones that took Jesus to the cross.
And where is the Body of Christ, today? Out in the streets acting like Jesus acted? Hardly! Do the governments and religions of this world find the Church threatening enough to try to kill it? Perhaps, in China. But in the USA, the Church is anesthetized, rejoicing happily about sins forgiven while actively discouraging the questioning of political and religious power. Playing games with silly issues, while real people suffer from insufficient food and healthcare. We’ve legitimized a religious format that defends the status quo: it keeps the poor, poor, the sick, sick, and the church harmlessly chasing hobby horses.
Perhaps that’s why it’s so easy to find denominations troubling, too: they are structures of power, and power seems to move rather automatically into marginalization of ordinary people, the rich taking advantage of the poor, and the insistence that it’s surely God’s will to do it that way.
On Palm Sunday, Jesus invites us to join his subversive counter-procession into all the world. But he calls us not to just any subversion, subversion for its own sake, or to some new and improved political agenda. Rather, Christian subversion takes as its model Jesus himself, “who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death - even death on a cross.”