Sunday, March 16, 2008


Today, according to the Christian calendar, is Palm Sunday, the day when Christians recall Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem two thousand years ago. It begins Holy Week and is often observed with a parade in the church of people waving palm branches.

This is not a sermon; it is a diary about the questions I have on this Palm Sunday. I am grateful for the faith I inherited from my parents and for the nurture I have received in the churches and denomination of which I have been a part. That gratitude does not keep me from agreeing with the words of Thomas Cahill in the conclusion of what for me has been the most refreshing study of Jesus I have read,
Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus:
For Christians, it may be a time to acknowledge that we have misunderstood Jesus in virtually every way that matters.
One of the points at which we may have most misunderstood him was how he related to the political reality of his time. I am going to skip over why we might have misunderstood him, for that requires a discourse on the entire history of Christianity. Instead I ask your indulgence to look at texts that are often read on Palm Sunday and use your imagination. If I do my task well enough I may supply you with some background that will stimulate your imagination and raise for you the questions that this occasion raises for me.

The texts: Zechariah 9:9-17; Matthew 21:1-11; Luke 19:28-40

With Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the stage is set for the final act in Jesus' life on earth. The road that began with his baptism in the Jordan and temptation in the desert has now led to Jerusalem. It is the seat of power and where the enemies of Jesus are concentrated. The high priests in the temple are safe from the Zealots here. The Zealots were patriotic Jewish “freedom fighters” or “insurrectionists,” depending on your perspective, who had been waging a guerrilla war against Rome since the time of the census at Jesus’ birth. They were fanatical in their loyalty to giving their allegiance to none but God. Even though the high priest and his family were Jewish, the Zealots' considered their cooperation with the Romans as political treason and religious apostasy. The Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, and his guards in the city insured the security of the chief priests and the Sadducees. And if there was trouble, there were Roman soldiers garrisoned almost within shouting distance of the city.

Already the religious authorities had sought to find and arrest Jesus. Why? Was it because his compassion for human suffering repeatedly put him at odds with the accepted religious practices of the day? He healed on the Sabbath and he associated with people no self-respecting religious person would have anything to do with. Or, was it because he looked and sounded like the long-awaited Messiah? They had waited a long time for the Messiah and the Messiah hadn't shown up. Now they had a pretty good thing going with the Romans, and this Jesus -- just like the Zealots -- was about to bring down the wrath of Rome on top of all of them.

Jesus, like John the Baptist before him, had offended just about everyone, everyone that is except the poor and social outcasts. He must have also offended the Zealots. While Jesus never attacked them directly as he did the Pharisees, Sadducees and Herodians, Jesus' inclusiveness -- his openness to the Samaritans, his healing of a Roman officer's daughter, and especially the inclusion of a tax collector among the twelve disciples -- would have been especially repugnant to the Zealots.

And now it is the week of Passover. People from all over the country are filling the city. And here comes Jesus. He doesn't slip into the city under the cover of darkness. He doesn't come walking, as he had gone about the countryside for the past three years. He comes riding a donkey, acting out the Old Testament prophet Zechariah's vision of the coming Messiah.

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of 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.(9:9)

In interpreting of this event, Christian preaching has often talked about a "meek and mild" Jesus coming to Jerusalem, not with an army and riding chariots, but riding on a donkey. So surely, the way Jesus entered Jerusalem should not have been viewed as offensive, even to his enemies. That’s how I grew up reading this text.

In time, however, I learned some things that call into question that interpretation of his entry into Jerusalem. First, riding on the back of a donkey was the way the Messiah -- the descendent of King David, the one who would come in power to restore the Kingdom to Israel -- was prophesied to come. It was a symbol of royal power not weakness. This scene calls to mind a scene two hundred years earlier when the triumphant Jewish rebel leader, Simon Maccabaeus, entered Jerusalem "with praise and palm branches," and then proceeded to expel the Greek overlords. (I Maccabees 13:49-52)

The second problem I have with that interpretation is that if you read the whole oracle of this vision in Zechariah 9 as we did, "meek and mild" are not the images that come to my mind:

The Lord will appear above the people;
God will shoot arrows like lightning.
The Sovereign Lord will sound the trumpet;
God will march in the storms from the South.
The Lord Almighty will protect the people
and they will destroy their enemies.
They will shout in battle like drunk men
and will shed the blood of their enemies;
it will flow like the blood of a sacrifice
poured on the altar from a bowl.(9:14-15)

And yet, Jesus chose to act out Zechariah's prophecy of riding the donkey into Jerusalem. The Gospel writers all agree that Jesus is fulfilling this prophecy. The Gospel writers were not the only ones who knew the Zechariah prophecy: the Pharisees, high priests, and almost certainly Pilate's advisors, and probably the masses as well. And they also knew what it had meant two hundred years before when Simon Maccabaeus entered Jerusalem accompanied by palm branch waving crowds. The only difference seemed to be that then the overlords about to be overthrown were Greek, whereas now they were Roman.

Hold, for a minute, the question about what Jesus himself intended by this act. First ask about the people: what did they have a right to assume by his act? "God bless the king who comes in the name of the Lord!" cry the large crowd of followers. Some have said, "Well, Jesus certainly didn't intend to threaten the political authorities, because his kingdom is not of this world. The people and the authorities just misunderstood his action." According to Luke's account of this same event, some Pharisees who were watching, and perhaps who were friends, pled with Jesus, "Command your disciples to be quiet." (Luke 19:39) They understood the meaning of the symbolic act. Jesus’ response to them was sharp: “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” (19:40)

Given the inflamed political situation in Palestine at that time, acting out the prophesy and then saying that he didn't really mean what everyone would assume that it would mean, is a little like someone shouting "Fire" in a crowded theater. Then, after the panic with people trampled to death, you explain that you really didn't mean "Fire". Are we to imagine that Jesus was so politically naive that he didn't understand what a reaction his identification with the Zechariah prophesy might provoke and the suffering that might come down on them? I don't think so.

Now I ask: what was in Jesus' mind as he deliberately fulfilled this prophesy? What have you imagined was in his mind? I can tell you what I think, but you have to make up your own minds. These are my questions:

1. Did Jesus come to Jerusalem to confront the Jewish and Roman authorities with his kingdom, which was of, and yet beyond, this world? I don’t have any doubt about that. Do you?

2. Did he come to confront those authorities with a kingdom that was truly inclusive of all kinds of people? After what we have seen of his ministry, I don’t have any doubt about that either. What about you?

3. Did Jesus imagine that, in the midst of this confrontation, God might send legions of angels to overthrow the Romans, cast out the false priests, establish this new kingdom, and prevent his death on the cross? Maybe! In the account of Jesus’ arrest, Matthew remembers Jesus’ words to the disciple who had drawn a sword and cut off the ear of one coming to arrest Jesus: “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and [God] will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53) When Jesus spoke of “twelve legions” he was speaking of a heavenly army 72,000 strong. But he didn’t summon them to come to his aid. What Jesus had taught about non-violence, he chose to live out in this confrontation.

4. Did Jesus know that this confrontation in Jerusalem would cost him his life? Probably. He did not have to be able to foretell the future to know what awaited him in Jerusalem if God’s "twelve legions” did not intervene.

5. Did he think that he would be raised to life again on the third day? Since the Gospel accounts of Jesus were all written after the resurrection and all of his life and ministry interpreted from that knowledge, it is hard to say what Jesus really felt as he approached Jerusalem. If the promise of the incarnation is true, that God in Christ really did become human, then we may have some assurance that Jesus experienced all of the fears and anxieties that the rest of us would in that situation, fears and anxieties manifest in his prayer in Gethsemane and his prayer from the cross. What do you think?

There is much that I do not know about the meaning of this story. It really is a puzzle and I don't have neat answers for you. What most troubles me is not what I don't know about it, but what I do know. What we know is that Jesus was doing what he thought God wanted him to do, even if it was going to cost him his life. Jesus chose to be faithful and come to Jerusalem when it would have been safer to stay away. He chose to be faithful even though he probably did not know what God would do -- or not do -- when he confronted the authorities. He chose to be faithful, even on Thursday night, when he really knew what lay ahead, and even on Friday when he thought God had abandoned him on the cross.

That's what faithfulness is all about, isn't it. Faith is not believing that you have all the answers to life's most difficult problems. Faith is the willingness to trust that God will guide you when you don't have the answers. And faithfulness is acting out that trust in specific situations. Faithfulness is being obedient even when we don't know the particulars of the outcome. Faithfulness is being obedient even when we would rather do something else. Faithfulness is being obedient even when we know the cost will be great, and we don't know if we have a parachute.

Now the hard question: does this incident in the life of Jesus say anything to you about your faithfulness in relation to political reality in our time (war, a presidential election, economic recession, terrorism). That, dear friend, is where I hope reflecting on this incident will lead you, as it does me, on this Palm Sunday and in Holy Week ahead of us.

- Milo

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