Scripture Texts: Isaiah 35:1-3 & Matthew 21:1-11
I can only imagine what that day must have been like. To see the crowds. To see the ecstasy and the excitement. To feel the energy and electricity of the crowd as he entered on that day. To see the very representation of the “son of god,” “the lord of all,” “the savior of the world” as he entered with his grand army. As biblical historians Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan describe the events of Palm Sunday, it would have been, “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 onlookers…some curious, some awed, some resentful.”
In case you haven’t already figured it out by now, I’m not referring to Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, I’m referring to Pontius Pilate’s entrance into Jerusalem for the Passover festival. A time when the Jewish people celebrate their liberation from slavery – and anticipated their future liberation from an occupying military force. A time in which the population of Jerusalem would swell from 50,000 to over 200,000. A time where Pilate – the Roman Governor of Judea would leave his luxurious abode in Caesarea on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in order to personally oversee Roman security during this festival. In order to personally remind the Jews with his royal procession that while they may commemorate a victory against Egypt long ago, such resistance against the Roman Empire is futile. And to also remember, that while they may be allowed to worship their God in the temple, the true son of god, the lord of all, and the savior of the world was actually Caesar Tiberius. Pilate’s pompous parade represents a political and theological threat to any who would suggest otherwise.
It is against this backdrop that Jesus’ Palm Sunday processional occurs. It is against this backdrop of a rival culture in which church and state are one in the same, where the Emperor is also god, and where true power comes from having the biggest weapons, the most soldiers, and the ability to keep people in their place. And Jesus, in response to this grand and gratuitous showing of power, prestige, and oppression, does just the opposite.
I imagine that Jesus had seen this parade many times before. That Jesus throughout his childhood and young adult life had seen the way in which the Romans waltzed into Jerusalem during the Passover feast, year after year. The way in which the bombastic and over-bearing Romans always made sure that the Jewish people knew that their place was under the foot of Caesar. And years of seeing such rival political and religious power had to of had an effect on Jesus. Therefore, I’m not so sure that the Palm Sunday processional was just some happy accident. Just some completely spontaneous moment of celebration. I can’t help but think that Jesus has been planning this political parody protest parade for some time. That Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. That the availability of the colt wasn’t some moment of prophetic fortune, but a purposeful plan made by Jesus to intentionally mock the Romans and all that they hold sacred.
Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem is the complete inverse of Pilate’s procession. Pilate arrives with his totally prepared, highly disciplined, and fully armored army. Meanwhile Jesus shows up with his rag-tag group of confused, hopeful, and vulnerable Disciples. Pilate shows up amidst the wealth and power of the Roman Empire. Meanwhile Jesus shows up amidst the poverty and the humility of the Kingdom of God. Pilate arrives upon the back of a great stead ready to ride into the face of opposing armies at any time. Meanwhile Jesus arrives on the back of new colt, which shuddered when confronted by the crowd’s cries of “Hosanna!” Pilate arrives as an act of violent aggression from Rome. Meanwhile Jesus arrives as act of non-violent resistance from God. Pilate’s entrance is truly triumphant by all human measures, even our own. Meanwhile Jesus’ entrance is the embodiment of total submission and servanthood. Jesus’ entrance is a threat to the political order. And something must be done about it.
Jesus planned protest, his parody of Roman rule is confusing even to his own people. Those of the elite religious class – the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the priests, and the scribes – they simply don’t get the joke. They don’t understand the irony of this moment. This is not the way the prophesized Messiah was supposed to arrive according to tradition. For them, Jesus’ entrance does not signal the return of the king to the throne of David. Despite the fact that his growing band of followers cry out to him, “Hosanna! Save Us!” Despite the fact that the crowd calls to him, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” Despite all these statements to the contrary, Jesus appears to be anything but royal to the religious powers that be. Jesus surely could not be the successor to the Great King David, for even David’s kingdom was built upon bloodshed and military might, and this man comes only in peace and will shed no blood but his own. None of the religious insiders really understand what is going on. Not even his own Disciples. And for those in power – especially the religious authorities – Jesus entrance is a threat to the way things have always been. A threat to the “good ol’ days.” A threat to the status quo. A threat to the established religious order. And something must be done about it.
This entry is only triumphal for those who truly follow Jesus. His protest is only supported by the peasants from the surrounding countryside, by those on the social and religious fringes of society. By those who truly know who he is. And the Gospel shows us over and over again that the only people who truly recognize Jesus for who he truly is – the Son of God – are those on the fringes of social and religious life – the sick, the sinful, the outcast, the demon-possessed. And yet, the irony of this moment for them is that even they don’t quite understand how anti-triumphal this moment is. His followers were correct in their hope that he is the Messiah – the anointed one of God. His followers were correct in calling him king, as their words suggest. But this king is different. His kingdom is different. His kingdom is so much more than Jerusalem. And is throne is upon a cross.
Because Jesus’ entry fulfills the expectations of the prophet Zechariah and his paradoxical image of kingship. For in chapter nine, Zechariah says, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!/Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!/Lo, your king comes to you;/triumphant and victorious is he,/humble and riding on a donkey,/on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Jesus’ entry is a shift in the identity of the Messiah. A shift in Israel’s expectation of the salvation of the world. Jesus’ identity as the Messiah includes persecution, suffering, and solidarity with the oppressed. Jesus’ identity as the Messiah is more than just a political revolution, more than a social revolution, it is a revolution of all that we are and all that we understand about our lives. All that we understand about the world. It is a revolution of love. A revolution of sacrificial love on behalf of those who do not deserve it. And yet Jesus brings the revolution anyway. It’s a revolution to lift up those who have done nothing to help themselves, and yet Jesus brings the revolution anyway. It’s a revolution to forgive those who oppose all that Jesus stands for, and yet Jesus brings the revolution anyway. And this revolution comes not in the form of a great conquering power like Pilate and the Roman Empire, but in the form of a lowly servant upon the back of a young colt, followed by all those whom society and religion have rejected.
And it is this lowliness that we need to remember as Christians. The authoritative lowliness of God displayed in Jesus Christ. The lowliness we see throughout Jesus ministry in the Gospels. A lowliness that allows Jesus to enter into the deepest and darkest levels of our humanity and bring us the light of his salvation. The grand, divine lowliness of Christ that we must acknowledge and worship. Because what we worship is what we will become. And to ignore this lowliness is to ignore the presence of God among the lowly, the outcast, and the oppressed. To praise wealth and success is to worship the god Mammon of the American Dream and not the Lord God of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Everybody loves a parade.
But as Christians we have to decide whose parade we are actually following?
Who is it we are truly worshiping?
Are we following the parade of Caesar’s status quo?
Caesar’s systems of injustice and inequality?
Caesar’s proliferation of poverty to keep people in their place?
Caesar’s self-centered accumulation of wealth and material possessions?
Caesar’s promotion of war and violence and all the death and destruction of God’s Creation that comes with it?
OR are we following Jesus’ non-violent protest for peace? Jesus’s revolution of sacrificial love?
Jesus’ movement for justice and equality for all of God’s children?
Jesus’ parade of welcome to the outcasts?
Jesus’ Kingdom that seeks to turn our whole world upside down!
Are we crying “Hosanna!” or are we shouting “Crucify!”?
The day is coming, my friends, when you must decide to make Christ’s parade of political protest a priority. And that day will only come when we work as one for the sake of God’s Kingdom over the sake of our own individual wants and desires.
So, turn to someone near you, and say to them:
“With your help, the day is coming.”
Let us stand and do that now.