Palm Sunday, Year C
X In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Welcome to the beginning of Holy Week, to Palm Sunday. It’s a complex day: both celebrating Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem and also turning to the darkness and agony of the week to come. It’s been all lightness and light, but after communion, we’ll sing the Passion, the account of Jesus’ last eighteen hours or so. “Passion” comes from the Latin ‘passio,’ meaning suffering. That’s one way to understand the meaning of passion.
Last week, I spoke about God’s desire for us. God wants us to act and live out of passion, not out of duty and obligation. So passion refers to what moves us, what ignites our energy, what deepens our commitment, what stirs our enthusiasm. Jesus’ great passion was for us to enter the Kingdom of God, to be part of God’s rule of love, to be full of trust and hope, to live in mercy and justice. Jesus’ passion, his love for us, brought him to the Passion, the horror and pain of arrest, abandonment, trial, humiliation, torture, and crucifixion.
Jesus began this day almost two thousand years ago with a small, unimpressive peasant procession, a procession capping a long journey.[i] He and his disciples, his followers, had been traveling to Jerusalem from Galilee, a hundred miles to the north. They gathered that morning on the Mount of Olives, just to the east of Jerusalem, and put Jesus on an ass, a work animal, a humble mount not befitting true royalty. It invoked the prophet Zechariah’s promise that Israel’s king would come humble and riding on an ass. (Zech 9:9) They set off on the short, couple mile walk down the steep hill, across the narrow Kidron Valley, to Jerusalem.
Jesus’ enthusiastic followers cried, “Hosanna,” and “Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord.” But their procession probably did not attract much public attention. Jesus did it primarily as a symbolic act to show the disciples that he is the king, a special kind of king inaugurating a new kingdom, a new world order.
Among the onlookers, a few Pharisees, as we heard in today’s gospel, told Jesus to stifle it. “Tell your followers to control themselves.” It looked like a political demonstration, an act designed to rile up the Romans and the ruling Jewish elite. The Pharisees didn’t want Jesus and his disciples troubling the Romans, who had a habit of drawing blood and not asking questions later. The Romans often acted brutally at the slightest provocation, and there’d be lots of collateral damage. The Pharisees likely were frightened for themselves.
Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judaea, was a savage, cruel, boorish thug. The evangelists don’t paint that picture of him, but other contemporary accounts do. Ironically, the evangelists are comparatively kind to him. But Pilate appalled even his Roman bosses who appear to have eventually fired him for excessive ferocity.
Remember: Jesus lived and ministered during a highly tense time. Tensions would boil over about thirty years after his death, and there would be a bloody, disastrous revolution. In Jesus’ time there were underground rebel groups, illegal militias, regular terrorist acts, vicious and violent repression by a powerful foreign army. The region then has some similarities with the tensions between Israel and Palestine in our day.
As the Passover approached, hundreds of thousands of Jews made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The city itself was quite small, much less than a square mile. The city probably filled up with as many as three or four hundred thousand pilgrims, an enormous gathering even by today’s standards. People would’ve stayed in Jerusalem and in neighboring villages and would’ve pitched tents outside the city walls.
Lots of people, living densely, on top of each other, but few of them would have noticed Jesus and his procession because on that same day, on the west side of town, there was another procession, one far grander and, most would have thought, far more important. Attention focused on the west side of town where Pilate as he entered with his imperial infantry and cavalry, thousands of warriors, marching or riding, but not on meek donkeys. Horses – an animal of war and power.
A couple scholars ask us to imagine the imperial procession’s arrival:
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 feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.[ii]
Jewish religious festivals were prime time for trouble, and especially Passover which celebrated liberation from slavery in Egypt. Every festival Pilate made a show of force to discourage Jews from getting ideas. He had marched in from his palace in Caesarea, a new and relatively large, cosmopolitan, sophisticated city about sixty miles to the west and north. Overlooking the Mediterranean Caesarea was comfortable and pleasant. I imagine Pilate being annoyed, having to trudge up to Jerusalem, that dusty, rocky, backward, provincial tinderbox of unwashed religious fanatics.
The Roman army came to support their puppets, the ruling Herodian family. If the Roman and Herodian elites had known about Jesus and his disciples’ alternative procession, they would have regarded it as highly inflammatory, as a political provocation requiring a response.
Jesus, of course, did not seek to be a king like Caesar, or Pilate, or Herod, but he did offer a vision in stark conflict with them: the power of God versus the power of humanity; love and trust versus control and coercion; the peasant procession versus the imperial procession; the overlooked and oppressed versus the elite and privileged; peace from meekness versus peace from force; the kingdom of God versus the kingdom of Caesar. Two processions, two powers, two paths, two ways – the conflict of Holy Week, the conflict of Christianity and our world, the age old conflict that runs through each of our hearts.
The Golden Rule in the gospels, and as expressed by numerous religious traditions, is essentially do to others as you’d like them to do to you. (Mt 7:12, Lk 6:31) But there’s another Golden Rule: the ones with the gold make the rules. The people in power – those controlling the state, the economy, the religious and learning institutions, entertainment and publications – ally with the status quo, and Jesus and his disciples challenge the status quo. Christians offer a different vision of what’s important. Our work is to turn the world upside down. (Acts 17:6)
In Israel, like in most places, the wealthy elites ruled and allowed no other voices. The vast majority were exploited economically: a half to two-thirds of the wealth went to the elite, the top percent or two, meaning that many suffered great deprivation. Roman religion, the divine Caesar, of course, justified this arrangement.
But so did the establishment officials of Judaism. Jesus repeatedly criticized and opposed the religious authorities for their corruption, for not being true to the teachings of God as found in Judaism. Like so many prophets before him – Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Jesus attacked those in charge for abusing their position and their religion to promote injustice. Jesus opposed the status quo, and that meant challenging the elites, those running society and oppressing people. His message was that they were using God and religion for themselves; they had betrayed God.
Two processions, two ways, two kingdoms, two types of power. The Golden Rule versus the rule of gold. A conflict. Who are we going to follow? Jesus or the powers that be? It’s a conflict in the heart of each of us, and so a conflict always troubling our world, preventing peace. This is the conflict that leads to Jesus’ crucifixion. It’s not Jesus against Judaism. It’s not Jesus against us. It’s Jesus against a corrupt, unjust kingdom, humanity’s use of God and religion to legitimate a system of cruelty and abuse of ordinary people for the benefit of a few. He wants us to turn from that way to his way.
Jesus calls us to live not in this present age, not according to the values of empire and control, but live as belonging to the age to come, to the Kingdom of God, the rule of love and justice. That’s what Paul means when he says, “Do not conform yourselves to this world, but be transformed, be changed from the inside out… God brings out the best in you.” (Romans 12:2)
Jesus’ vision of the kingdom, of his followers, is not the gathering of the strong, the wealthy, the celebrated, the comfortable, the accomplished, the elite. No. It’s the home of the broken, the weak, the flawed, the addicted, the troubled, the lost, the overlooked, the hurting, the home where we come for healing, nurturing, encouraging, understanding. It’s the home of grace and acceptance and transformation. It’s the home of God’s children. This was his passion. May we enter it and share it. That’s what this week is for.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Rev. Lane Davenport
[i] E.P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, Fortress Press (1985), pp. 306-308; E.P. Saunders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, Allen Lane The Penguin Press (1993), pp. 249-254; and Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week, HarperSanFrancisco (2006), pp. 1-30. Information in this sermon derives from these sources, especially Borg & Crossan’s discussion of the two processions.
[ii] Borg & Crossan, p. 3.