The Least, First

Monte Asbury's blog

Palm Sunday Rebellion

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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.

Sagrada Familia #6
Image by Alex Millà via Flickr

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.

Hosanna filio David
Image by Lawrence OP
via Flickr

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.

Listen to Daniel Clendennin’s summary at Journey with Jesus:

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.

El Greco's Jesus Carrying the Cross, 1580.

Image via Wikipedia

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.

A 6th century mosaic of :en:Jesus at Church Sa...
Image via Wikipedia

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.

Clendennin concludes:

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.”

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9 Responses

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  1. Perfect love casts out fear.


    May 23, 2009 at 12:04 am

  2. Thank you for everything.

    Love for everything that is divine and pure as all is being reflected back on the earth plane.

    Love and Light,

    Rigved Korgaonkar

    May 21, 2009 at 7:40 am

    • Thank you, Rigved – Love and Light to you, as well!


      May 25, 2009 at 1:57 pm

  3. Monte (and Rick),

    Fascinating. As kind of a follow-up thought, Easter offers a similar dilema. In John 20, Mary goes to the tomb, and returns to the disciples saying, “they’ve taken him…” Full of panic! Later, after John and Peter run to the tomb, Mary encounters Jesus, then goes to the disciples seeing, “I’ve seen the Lord.” Full of Hope! I can’t help wonder which the church and conservative Christianity is known for…Panic–“They’ve taken him from…schools, gov’t, etc.” or Hope–“We’ve seen and experienced and talked to Jesus.” Convicting to me, and I want to be a follower of Jesus who expresses hope. What a privilege!

    Ben M.

    April 15, 2009 at 2:55 pm

    • How very true, Ben – that’s exactly the line I took for my Easter sermon! Eyes so downcast by the world’s bad news that anything that happens only seems like further defeat – when, in fact, could we only see it, it’s actually an emblem of the triumph of love.


      April 15, 2009 at 7:22 pm

  4. I have had this conversation with several conservative Christian family members and friends over the last decade, about how incompatible their theology appears to be with what Christ calls us to do and be. Having the conversation was often tough, but it does seem that now many are more willing to engage it. I find that hopeful!

    Cheryl Toliver

    April 12, 2009 at 8:35 pm

    • Way to go, Cheryl – you must have done it well! How strange it is to me that we have to campaign among Christians for the priorities of Jesus! But I believe you are correct, and there is reason for hope.


      April 13, 2009 at 2:21 pm

  5. Monte- I do wonder about the meaning of ‘faith’ and following Christ. My ultra conservative relatives (very dear to me) live in fear of Mexicans, Obama, liberals, gays, creeping socialism and think in terms of Armageddon while waving the flag and touting the Bible at every turn. They are active in their churches, assisting the elderly, visiting those in prison…….

    And yet I wonder….Christ said give all you have to the poor and follow me…….turn the other cheek… good to those who persecute you…….how does fearing everything at every moment of the day square with faith in Christ?

    Below are the lyrics to a song I wrote a year or so ago. (If I repeat myslef please forgive me……)
    It’s about the dangers of finding oneself in the majority. As many did at this time 2000 years ago.The tune is on my Myspace website if you’d care to hear it.

    Thanks again for all you do.

    ‘Going to Golgotha’
    copyright 2007 by Rick Reiley

    Goin’ to Golgotha
    The law is on our side
    We’re going to Golgotha
    To see him crucified

    He spends time with worthless people
    Yet claims he’s God inside
    We’re going to Golgotha
    To see him crucified

    (refrain 1)
    He must be crazy
    ‘Turn the other cheek’, he’s said,
    We’re going to Golgotha
    We’ll be safer when he’s dead

    (refrain 2)
    Strange people, with strange ideas
    We don’t need their kind around here
    Our faith is not yet strong enough
    To counteract our fear

    Some say that he will come back to life
    But that’s a dangerous view
    We’re going to Golgotha
    We may have to crucify them too

    (refrain 3)
    He must be crazy
    ‘love your enemy’, he’s said
    We’re going to Golgotha
    We’ll be safer when he’s dead

    (Repeat first verse)

    Rick Reiley

    April 8, 2009 at 7:55 am

    • Wow, man, this is brilliant! I’m going to go listen to it, too!

      Have you heard the songs at Songs for a Revolution of Hope?

      Many thanks – good comment, good song! Somehow this religion called Christian has begun to look a lot more like Jesus’ enemies than Jesus himself. I wonder if fear – as you suggest in your song – is the essence of that departure. Sure is in my life.

      (Reminds me of John’s words: “… for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world … There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear … We love because he first loved us.” When I am worried, I love poorly!)


      April 8, 2009 at 3:47 pm

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