Unsanitizing Palm Sunday

Two processions entered Jerusalem on the day which opens Jesus’ final week before his crucifixion. From the west, from the balmy seaside city of Caesarea Maritima, a relatively peaceful city on the Mediterranean, came Pontius Pilate, Roman governor of Judea, Idumea, and Samaria, who like all governors before him preferred the coast to the dust and heat and frequent political unrest of Jerusalem. The traditional capitol of the Jewish people was considered by the Roman occupiers as provincial, partisan and hostile.

But at Jewish festival times, there was always a strong need to establish a ‘presence’ in Jerusalem. Picture it. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan in their book, The Last Week, chronicling that last week which we commemorate now describe the triumphal procession of Roman power brokers quite well:

“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.” (page 3)

The other procession comes from the east and consists of noisy peasants. Jesus is riding a donkey down from the Mount of Olives, cheered by followers. An outsider to Jerusalem, Jesus is from the peasant village of Nazareth. He carries with him a message about the dream of God for all people. Today we want to put this second procession in the context of the first.

Both are occasioned by the feast of Passover. Both are the product of careful timing. More than a religious observance for the Jewish people, Passover or Pesach was the time of year to celebrate liberation from Egyptian slavery, a reminder of how the dream of God had led an enslaved people to freedom centuries before. It was a time for Jewish Zealots to express their longing to be free from the kind of thing the other procession, in all its power and might, represented. Thus it was often a time of rioting and men claiming to be the Messiah used the opportunity to try and whip up a revolt.

So one procession represents the might of Roman political, economic and social dominance, the other bears the signs of something quite different. Coming from the east, this parade reflects prophecy that proclaimed the east to be the direction from which salvation would come. People spread their cloaks in front of Jesus as he rode on. Echoes from centuries before when Jehu was anointed king by Elisha and people engaged in a similar act. Cries of Hosanna filled the air; “Hosanna”, the cry of the Zealot, of the freedom fighters – “Please save us! Give us freedom!” Specifically in this case, “Rid us of the oppression of these Romans”. The peasants waved palm branches, a symbol that had once been placed on Jewish coins when the nation was free; palm branches: not a symbol of peace and love, but of nationalism, an expression of the people’s desire for political freedom. “Blessed is the One who comes in the Name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest.” It’s not an idle blessing we proclaim during our Eucharistic liturgy, but a cry against injustice and our challenge to live in and to proclaim the Reign of God, the dream of God.

So we have here, at that Passover time two thousand years ago, two rival social orders, and two rival theologies. In Jesus, there is a new kind of King, a king whose wealth is measured in love, his crown one of thorns, one not riding on the royal racehorse, but on a borrowed donkey. Not a king who would disappoint like Jehu or oppress like the Roman caesars, or spread oppression and exploitation setting people against people in political and economic power systems, but a king who is the King of Love.

The Romans had indeed brought change to Judea, but like those before them, that change resulted in a domination system which pitted rich agtainst poor and produced feudal-like obligation and oppression on the majority of people and made legitmate by a religious system that taught them that the king ruled by divine right, and was the Son of God and their lot in life reflected the will of God. Shades of, for example, Henry VIII’s brutal oppression of people in the name of God, and if you’re a TV series fan, the new series centring on the Borgia Pope, Alexander VI. In terms of Jesus coming to Jerusalem, as Jeremiah once proclamed, the result is a foregone conclusion: “Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, look around and take note! Search its squares and see if you can find one person who acts justly and seeks truth…Has this houlse (the temple), which is called by God’s name, become a den of robbers?….This is the city that must be punished; there is nothing but oppression within her.” (Jeremiah 5:1;7:11;6:6)  Zion; The City of God, The City of David, yet the city that kills the prophets.

Two alternatives represented  by two different processions of people. That’s what the day we call Palm Sunday is all about. Jesus, as he enters Jerusalem presents the alternative we’ve been contemplating during our Lenten meditations: we can choose to believe that some ideas are worth dying for. That is the salvation Jesus brings to Jerusalem as he faces certain death in confronting the powers that be, and that we affirm in the Resurrection we celebrate at the end of this week’s sober journey with its anticipated joy at the dream of God becoming more real for us.

Palm Sunday shows us what genuine discipleship means: following Jesus into Jerusalem, the place of confrontation with that which belittles and exploits essential humanness and with those who wield such power; the place not only death but of resurrection. Jesus’ journey into the Jerusalem arena is a stand against a world of exploitation and imposed social and religious bondage legitimated in the name of God, radically different than the Reign of God Jesus proclaimed.

A world of conflicting world views that Jesus entering Jerusalem makes starkly real for us; a system of exploitation and manipulation that stands against the Dream of God for us; a way of discipleship that embodies the dream of God in the twin realities that love does conquer and that there are some things worth dying for. This is what Palm Sunday suggests to us – far more than just an annual liturgical commemoration that starts a very moving week of events.

Let us walk the way with Jesus this week.

Deacon Steve Bailey is part of the pastoral team at St. Laurence, Coquitlam, and a moderator of nwanglicanblog. Comments and responses are most welcome.

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