Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
Luke 19: 28-48
On the day we call Palm Sunday, there were actually two parades into the city of Jerusalem. It was a spring day, at the start of the week of Passover, the most holy week for Jews in what was probably the year 30. Parades at Passover were not unusual in Jerusalem, the city of David. Jerusalem, a city of around 100,000 inhabitants would double during Passover – with 100,000 people coming as pilgrims to the city. Some stayed in rented lodgings or with relatives, but thee were also tent cities all around the area of Bethphage and Bethany, which were on the route from Jericho to Jerusalem, the route the pilgrims would take singing their psalms on the way. Passover, the celebration of the deliverance of the Jews from slavery under Egypt, was also the time that Jews looked for the Messiah, “a new David” to come and deliver them again. They expected the Messiah to throw out the Romans and rule over the nation in a new era of Justice and Peace. Of the five attempted revolts against Rome in Jerusalem, the four that can be precisely dated were during the time of Passover. The time of the fifth is uncertain, but it was likely during Passover. Something about celebrating deliverance from the hand of the oppressor by God seemed to remind the Jews that God’s purpose was freedom. Passover was the ideal time to lead a protest against Rome. On the day we call Palm Sunday, there were two parades.[i]
From the west, coming up from Caesarea Maritima, the new coastal city, sixty miles west of Jerusalem, where they lived in more pleasant circumstances, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of the area of Judah, entered Jerusalem leading an imperial force of cavalry and foot soldiers. Here is how John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg describe it in their book, The Last Week.
Imagine the imperial procession’s arrival in the city. 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.[ii]
If you’ve seen any of the old movies about the Roman Empire it’s easy to picture this: Ben Hur, The Robe, Sparticus,The Fall of the Roman Empire…. Big production scenes with light flashing off the shiny armor of a whole legion, 5000 soldiers dressed in red, gold and shiny armor, in full Technicolor.
It was a show of power. Yes. A military parade to show the inhabitants and visitors to Jerusalem that Pilate and the Romans were a force to be reckoned with and not get ideas about trying to overthrow him. They came to hold the fort in Jerusalem during the Holy Days when things got twitchy. Pilate and Company came to reinforce the Roman garrison that stayed year-round in the Fotress Antonia, which overlooked the Temple and its Courts. Any rebellion, however small, would be met with a show of force. That’s the purpose of military parades.
But it was also a clashing theological system. The official rhetoric of the Roman Empire was that the Emperor was the Son of God. It started with Augustus Caesar, who claimed to be the son of the god Apollo to his mother, Atia. He ruled 31 BCE to 14 CE. After he died, there were claims that he was seen ascending into heaven to take his place with the gods. Tiberius Caesar, who ruled 14-37 CE during the time of Jesus public ministry, claimed these titles of “son of God,” “lord,” “savior,” and the one who brought “peace on earth.”[iii]
From the west came the Imperial Parade, with swords and armor shining in the sun, red and gold banners waving, and Pilate on a war horse in full regalia as Roman governor. Designed to impress the residents and guests of Jerusalem with the power of Rome. It was quite a sight.
From the East, coming down from Bethany and Bethphage, was a pre-arranged counterprocession, a political demonstration full of symbols and prophetic connections. The Jews were aware of the prophecies of Zechariah that the Messiah would enter Jerusalem as a humble king, riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zech 9.9)
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jersualem, and the battle bow shall be cut off and he shall command peace to the nations. Zech 9.10
An alternative vision, this king. And all the stories of his ministry preceded him. This was not a Messiah of power, not like the Maccabees and Zealots anticipated who would come at the head of an army. This was a Messiah who gave life. The Romans were almost as afraid of Lazarus as of Jesus – for this Jesus brought a man back to life who had been dead, or so the stories said. [iv] Think about it – a power that they don’t have. If you let that information get out, it’s liable to get you killed.
Palms: symbols of Jewish nationalism. (1 Macc 13:51, 2 Macc 10:7) – symbol used on coins for Jews because they wouldn’t use a coin with the image of Caesar on it. Palms were protest signs of the day. The people wanted to drive out Pilate and regain their independence as a nation. The Psalms they were singing were about restoring the throne of David. And chanting: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” Jesus was lauded in the previous chapter as the “Son of David.” (18:38-39) [v] Son of David versus the claims that Caesar was the Son of God. That kind of thing is liable to get you killed.
Parade Pattern: a Type scene.
Parades followed a certain pattern.
- Escort of the leader by army or citizens
- Hymns and acclamation – either paid cheers or Hallel psalms/ Psalms of ascent
- Symbols of authority (Donkey, cloaks, palm branches)
- Ritual of appropriation of power or a sacrifice – at the site of the Temple (Key to the city kind of thing)[vi]
According to the pattern, once Jesus had entered the city he headed for the Temple. Remember that part of Jesus’ message was forgiveness. He told people their sins were forgiven. That sounds okay to us – but in his day, the Temple system of sacrifice held the monopoly on the forgiveness of sins. John the Baptist was a threat for the same reason. He baptized people for the forgiveness of sins – a denial of forgiveness as a function of the Temple. And yes, he was killed.
Accusations: Forgiveness. One of the accusations against Jesus was that he forgave sins – an exclusive function of the Temple. He challenged the authority of the religious establishment. And that kind of thing is liable to get you killed.
Coded language. Jesus’ message was about the KINGDOM OF GOD and THE WAY to find it. Hodos=way. “The messenger will prepare the way… Prepare the way of the lord… the Kingdom of God has come near.” Political and religious metaphors that challenge the status quo. That kind of thing is liable to get you killed.
When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the pattern of the ceremony was the one used to welcome a king – but all of the scriptural prophecies and symbols were for peace. This parade was a prophetic sign and fulfillment, a kind of parable of God’s subversive activity and declaration that this man, Jesus, was a different kind of king. Not a warrior like David, who travelled with at least a small army, but a teacher and healer who came humbly on a donkey.
COLLABORATION. Which parade draws you? We all WANT to be drawn to Jesus. We know that’s the right answer. But the truth for most of us is not that simple. We are caught up in various degrees of bondage and collaboration with the powers that be. We are all wrapped up in the expectations of the systems that we live within. “Life-style conformers,” David Buttrick calls us, “held captive by cultural norms.”[vii]
CAROL’S TRIP TO GUATEMALA. Living out of a backpack. Freedom. Didn’t want to come home.
Right? There is very little room in our overfull an ordered lives for the power-challenging, values-upsetting subversive message of Jesus. We are caught up in some many systems that the evil is unclear. We feel trapped by a cultural value on the freedom to own guns even while we watch more children killed in our own country than soldiers in the military since 9-11. The more we talk about racism, the more we realize that we have to tackle the SYTEMS that hold it in place – because no white man was ever killed in his back yard because his talking on a cell phone was perceived as a threat. And we watch Congress pass budgets with billions of dollars for arms that seem to require another war to justify – so we have this sneaky suspicion that there will probably be one – while tax cuts for the wealthy become the reason to cut Social Security and Medicare. Trapped by the powers in systems of evil. Caught up in the bondage of systems we can’t control.
Let’s be clear: Jesus, then and now, is leading a resistance movement. Resistance to religious authorities, to social expectations and to the government.
RELIGION.Jesus was challenging the Domination system that put the religious authorities in collaboration with the ruling government.[viii] He talked about obedience to God not arbitrated by the religious leadership.
PEOPLE. Nor does Jesus seem particularly concerned with the expectations of the people. He appears to have been extremely intentional in which religious symbols and prophecies he was connected to in his entrance into Jerusalem. He never pretended to be the military leader the zealots wanted. He was the king who came in the way of peace. Nor did he choose his companions to gain approval – he was rather indiscriminate in who hung around him. He is the king of a rather ragtag bunch of fishermen, tax collectors, lepers, Samaritans, blind men, harlots, demoniacs, cripples, women. The clothing hastily flung on the road before him was tattered shawls, torn over-garments, and sweat-stained shirts. This is a king of peasants.
GOVERNMENT. Let’s also notice that he did not bow to the power of the government. Imperial power did not impress him. He claimed his own identity in contrast to the claims of Rome.
His actos of appropriation of the city were to weep over it for not seeing the ways of peace, and to enter the Temple to drive out the merchants who exploited the poor for the profit of the Temple and themselves. He speaks to the city in the words of a prophetic warning. Not the kind of behavior likely to win him a key to the city. Actually, that kind of thing is liable to get you killed. He ended his life executed by the government because they saw him as a threat.
Just as Jesus is a different kind of king – so this is a different kind of kingdom.
He stood up against the power of religion and the power of the government and told then that their domination system was illegitimate in the eyes of God and that God’s coming kingdom was one where the hungry were fed, the disabled were made whole, the children and women were welcomed, and the criminals were given a new life. He criticized their whole system of what it meant to be loyal to God.
Jesus said that God wanted peace for Jerusalem. What would bring peace?
…an end of military oppression
…good news for the poor
…a place at the table for outcasts
…sight for the blind
…end of subjugation of women and people of other races
…responsible handling of wealth and property so that all had enough
…reevaluation of what is holy to God
It was a vision of community that offered justice on earth. It offered new beginnings and times of repentance when anyone and everyone could turn their lives around. And a world of peace rather than military power. [ix]
Before we decide to follow, you need to know. The powers of the world still do not take kindly to this image of a world of peace and justice. On April 4, 1968 another man with a dream of God’s kingdom was killed. And in Chicago, beginning April 5, the “Holy Week Uprising” swept the west side of the city. The cross here at the center is made of bricks from burned out buildings from those fires.
The world doesn’t take kindly to people of peace – and speaking against injustice can still get you killed.
Two parades entered Jerusalem on that Sunday. From the west: the power and glory of Rome. From the East: “a fool king riding on a donkey”[x]. Be careful here – it matters what parade we follow. This Jesus is going to confront the powers of religion and Rome. Following him means walking “THE WAY,” complete with conflict with authority and the serious risks inherent with doing that. Following Jesus just could get you killed. But it could also show you the way to die to an old life and begin a new one.
[i] John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, The Last Week. P. 5. Hereafter, TLW.
[ii] TLW, 3.
[iii] TLW, 3.
[iv] TLW 3-4.
[v] Jim Fleming.
[vi] Jim Fleming
[vii] David Buttrick, Preaching Jesus Christ, 32.
[viii] TLW, 18-20.
[ix] New Interpreters Bible, Luke, 370-4.
[x] David Buttrick, PJC,.